What exactly is bouldering psychotherapy (also called “therapeutic bouldering”)? “In bouldering psychotherapy, we combine a sporting activity, bouldering, directly with psychotherapeutic interventions,” says Katharina Luttenberger, a doctor and professor of psychology and a licensed psychologist with the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Erlangen, Germany, who has performed research on bouldering psychotherapy.
“Bouldering is not an add-on to a parallel psychotherapy, but the experiences on the bouldering wall are directly included in and used for the psychotherapeutic work,” she explains.
In an initial session before the client heads to the climbing wall, a therapist will talk about the connection between bouldering and mindfulness and how the intervention could help them. After trying bouldering, therapists — who are also trained in bouldering — talk to participants in a group setting again about how they felt the exercises went that day, as a debrief before the next session, she says.
Specific exercises that happen during bouldering psychotherapy, such as bouldering while blindfolded (which is done under a therapist’s supervision), are intended to help people stay focused on the moment — a key part of mindfulness — and trust those around them to help them complete the task, she adds. Research shows that interventions that incorporate mindfulness — a practice that encourages focusing on the present moment rather than worrying about the past or future — can help lessen depressive symptoms.
It’s well-known that exercise is one of the best antidepressants out there, prior research has confirmed. But what makes therapeutic bouldering potentially more powerful than exercise alone is that a mental health professional encourages groups to work together on bouldering exercises, which also helps with mindfulness.
“Physical activity and positive social contacts are key elements of helpful activity for depression,” Luttenberger explains. This can be helpful because isolation and social withdrawal are common symptoms of depression.
Another reason bouldering psychotherapy may be helpful for people with depression is that it encourages people to stick with an activity that they find enjoyable. “Developing positive activities is one of the most important building blocks in the treatment of depression,” adds Luttenberger. Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed is a key symptom of depression.