Dealing with depression : the role of bouldering therapy

mental health bouldering therapy depression

What’s the Deal With Therapy for Depression? More and more research is showing that bouldering isn’t just fun. This trendy sport is also good therapy for dealing with depression. Good news ! The sense of achievement one feels after climbing may be a reason why bouldering therapy helps alleviate depression.

What the Science Shows

Existing research suggests that bouldering therapy can be very effective. For example, a small study published in November 2021 in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology showed that bouldering therapy was “equally effective” for people with depression when compared with cognitive behavioral therapy.

The benefits of bouldering therapy also appear to be long-lasting. Another small study, this one published in the December 2019 issue of the journal Heliyon, found that patients who took part in once-weekly bouldering therapy sessions for eight weeks felt less depressed immediately after the sessions ended. And when researchers followed up 12 months later the participants reported that they still felt less depressed.

bouldering therapy

Pros of Bouldering Therapy for Depression

Why might bouldering therapy be so helpful for people with depression? “Bouldering or rock climbing can be a more successful activity than a walk or hike when treating depression, as the tactile experience of a person achieving or conquering this type of activity instills hope,” says Michael J. McGrath, MD, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Ohana Addiction Treatment Center in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, where some patients participate in bouldering therapy as part of their treatment.

“The thing that struck me about it is that it’s integrating a lot of other therapeutic interventions,” says Carly Claney, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of Relational Psych, a psychodynamic therapy and psychological assessment practice in Seattle. For example, bouldering helps strengthen problem-solving skills. It also increases confidence. Plus it provides the immediate reward of accomplishing a challenging task. Three things that can help break the negative thought patterns linked to depression.

happiness therapy climbing

It should come as no surprise that connecting this form of physical activity with therapy makes for good medicine, adds Cassandra Fallon. It logically evolves from a variety of nontraditional or “complementary” treatments that have been used for decades as supplements to traditional treatments, she explains.

“We have begun with trauma-informed yoga, animal-assisted interventions, equine therapy, and more. Bouldering is a more recent and fantastic addition to our growing toolbox to help humans grow and become the best version of themselves,” Fallon says.

Are There Any Significant Drawbacks?

Although bouldering therapy for depression has shown promise, Dr. Claney emphasizes that there hasn’t been enough research to claim that bouldering therapy is sufficient on its own for treating depression. This is especially true since many of the studies that do exist involved small numbers of participants. Additionally, more research is needed. Especially to find out if bouldering therapy can help people who live with a combination of depression and other mental health conditions.

It could also be important to compare therapeutic bouldering with other forms of exercise combined with manualized therapy to better understand if and what specific aspects of bouldering positively impact mental health. “Is there anything else that is going on ? Is there anxiety and depression ? Or trauma ? In fact, I would want to see what the research shows about the interaction of those kinds of conditions,” Claney says.

bouldering outdoor happy smiling

Initial research investigating rock climbing’s impact on anxiety suggests it may not be as significant as its impact on depression. For instance, a study published in March 2021 in Current Psychology found no link between rock climbing and increased well-being. Or decreased anxiety when compared with regular physical activity.

As always, it’s wise to check with your doctor before trying any new exercise. Especially if you have any coexisting health conditions or limited mobility.

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