Rock Climbing Helps Control Emotions

rock climbing

Catherine O’Brien

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for individuals between the ages of 15-44.

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) IV, MDD is characterize by depressed mood or loss of interest and /or pleasure in daily activities for more than two weeks. In this way, the mood of someone with MDD represents a significant change from his or her personal baseline. They demonstrate impaired function in social, occupational and / or educational contexts and they demonstrate at least 5 of the 9 below symptoms nearly every day.

  1. Depressed mood or irritability

  2. Decreased interest or pleasure

  3. Significant weight change or appetite change

  4. Change in sleep

  5. Change in activity

  6. Fatigue or loss of energy

  7. Guilt/worthlessness

  8. Diminished concentration

  9. Suicidal thoughts

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Emotional Regulation

In addition to the above diagnostic criteria, major depressive disorder has also been associated with diminished emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is defined as “processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions” (Kleinstäuber, Reuter, Doll& Fallgatter, 2017, p.277). As such, individuals with major depressive disorder who demonstrate emotional dysregulation, have trouble monitoring, controlling and expressing his or her emotions.

Wu and colleagues investigated the role of emotion regulation and depression by examining the underlying neural circuitry in the brains of depressed individuals. Previous research and neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that emotion dysregulation is “one of the central features and underlying mechanisms of Major Depressive Disorder” (Wu et al., 2017, p. 237). In their research, they examined the structural connectivity associated with emotion regulation and utilized covariance based on gray matter volume in patients with MDD and healthy controls to identify an important structural difference. Compared to healthy controls, patients with MDD demonstrated “abnormal structural covariance patterns in the emotion regulation network” (p.239)

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The Research

Given that individuals with MDD demonstrate dysregulation of emotion, it is important research therapeutic treatments that tackle this specific deficit. As such, although major depressive disorder is marked by various symptoms and emotional problems, the present study focuses primarily on treatment of one specific element: emotional regulation. Numerous exercise studies utilize traditional methods of exercise such as running or cycling so I was particularly excited to come across research that used a less common form of exercise: rock climbing.

Rock Climbing

The goal of the study was to measure emotional regulation and affective state before and after an exercise intervention. They were interested in whether a 2.5-hour rock climbing exercise could effectively increase positive emotional states and coping exercises (CE) and decrease negative emotional states.

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The Study

Participants for the study were 40 adults who were currently inpatients receiving treatment for major depressive disorder. Patients either participated in rock climbing sessions or relaxation sessions. In the climbing session, participants attended weekly 2.5 hour sessions which included a warmup, a series of games on the climbing wall, basic fundamentals of climbing and finally, a discussion with the climbing therapists during which they shared their thoughts on the experience. The climbing instructors were specialized nurses who were trained in climbing therapy. In the relaxation condition, participants engaged in a 25-35- minute relaxation exercise which was followed by the opportunity to share their thoughts about the experience with the therapist.

Positive and Negative Affect Scale

Prior to the interventions, each participant completed the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) to asses Positive and Negative Affective states. In addition to the PANAS, the researchers added on a few additional items to the question battery in order to identify coping exercises and depressiveness. Depressiveness was measured by words like ‘worthless’, ‘depressed’, and ‘hopeless’ while CE was measured with items like ‘confident’, ‘optimistic’, ‘brave’, ‘strong’, ‘determined’, ‘valuable’ etc.

The participants in the rock climbing group and the control group demonstrated comparable levels of depression as indicated by the Patient Health Questionnaire measure of severity of depression. Average Body Mass Index (BMI), age, and comorbid disorders were also comparable across the two groups indicating no significant differences prior to the intervention.

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The Results

rock climbing gymThe researchers compared the responses of those in the rock climbing group with those in the relaxation group and, indeed, found a significant effect in favor of rock climbing. Participants with MDD who engaged in the rock climbing intervention was “more related to a positive emotion regulatory effect regarding depressiveness, negative affect, positive affect and coping exercises” (p.280) compared to the relaxation condition.

So what about rock climbing could account for these improvements? Kleinstäuber et al. posit that the high levels of concentration and coordination may distract from negative biases associated with MDD. Additionally, they hypothesize that the interpersonal and social nature of the activity may have played a role in increasing feelings of support. Finally, they suggest that feelings of accomplishment, self-efficacy and achievement could play a significant role in boosting positive affect.


I am always excited to find research that taps into different and unique methods of exercise. Rock climbing is a dynamic full-body workout that requires focus, strategy, strength and courage. Because of the nature of the workout, rock climbing also fosters interpersonal communication which helps build trust and connection. While the research focused on clinically depressed populations, the findings can also be applied to healthy populations. Whether you are in need of a mood boost or just feel like changing up your workout routine, the physically and mentally demanding workout that rock climbing offers may be the perfect solution!

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American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America, (2017). Facts and Statistics: Major Depressive Disorder. Retrieved from on October 9, 2017.
Kleinstauber, M., Reuter, M., Doll, N., and Fallgatter, A.J. (2017). Rock climbing and acute emotional regulation in patients with major depressive disorder in the context of a psychological inpatient treatment: a controlled pilot trial. Psychology Research and Behavior Management. 10, 277-281.
Wu, H., Sun, H., Wang, C., Yu, L., Li, Y., Peng, H, … and Wang, J. (2016). Abnormalities in the structural covariance of emotion regulation networks in major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 84,237-242.

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