Mind tricks, a.k.a. cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), EMDR distancing techniques, chunking, and meditation practices saved me at Huayna Picchu.
Little did I know, I would be frozen with fear upon arrival at Machu Picchu. With each step along the Inca trail, I held onto the mountainside to prevent being sucked into the valley 8000 feet below. My legs felt shaky, my breath was shallow, and my head was dizzy. Welcome to acrophobia, the fear of heights.
When my guide suggested I would be hiking the big black pointy mountain, Huayna Picchu the next day, I was stunned. Huayna Picchu is a 9000 foot mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu. The part we would hike is a 1000 foot vertical climb in less than one mile. It’s named #1 on outsideonline.com‘s list of 20 deadliest hikes.
So, I pulled out all the stops.
(1)First, I meditated at a quiet spot at Machu Picchu. Then, I questioned my “why” and explored what the hike would mean to me if I did it successfully. Then, I backpedaled and plotted the place where I would sit and wait while the others completed the trip without me. And then I returned to my ”why”.
(2)I took a breath & made up my mind to take it one step at a time. The idea of hiking the whole mountain was overwhelming. But, I knew I could handle what was right in front of me. In coaching, we call this chunking.
(3)The next day, on the switchback bus ride up the mountain to Machu Picchu, I practiced EMDR flash to reduce my fear of the fear. I tapped my legs on alternating sides while engaging in a favorite memory of my cat, Ralph. Gradually, I noticed my felt sense of anxiety calming.
(4)When we arrived to the entrance of the hike, I noticed my legs carrying me along the trail as if to ascend the mountain. How curious! When I felt like I would be sucked into the valley below, I questioned the rationality of it. “Heather, you walk along the edge of a sidewalk all the time and don’t worry about being sucked into the street so, why would you get sucked off this mountain into the river below?” This is known as testing the evidence in CBT.
(5, 6, 7, 8)As our elevation increased, and so did the potential danger, I used EMDR distancing techniques. I imagined a plexiglass wall between me and the edge of the trail. This provided a source of comfort knowing there was a barrier (albeit imaginary) between me and the potential fall. Then, I told myself the view was a beautiful mural. At one point, it was just a movie. And then, I tried to convince myself we were at Disney World and it was just an extreme adventure ride.
According to Dr. Dan Siegel, where attention goes, neural firing flows, and pathways grow.
(9)So, I kept telling myself, “This is fun! It’s an adventure!”, instead of focusing my mind on the fear of dying.
When we finally reached the summit, I couldn’t wait to start heading down. I knew I needed to descend the same way, focusing on each step right in front of me, instead of the whole mountain.
As I began the descent and realized there was a cave I had to crawl through first, I decided to overcome my minor claustrophobia. So, I focused on the shard of light at the other end and just kept putting one foot in front of the other. With enough steps, and faith in the process, I arrived safely in the light and eventually at the base.
Climbing a mountain is a wonderful metaphor for the challenges we face in life. Sometimes they seem unsurmountable but, when you adjust your approach and trust the process, you’ll find you are capable of achieving things you never imagined.