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Higher and higher: A brief look at rock climbing as an addiction

In previous blogs I have looked at the alleged addictiveness of extreme sports including BASE jumping and bungee jumping as well as briefly overviewing so called ‘adrenaline junkies’. Over the last year, a couple of papers by Robert Heirene, David Shearer, and Gareth Roderique-Davies have looked at the addictive properties of rock climbing specifically concentrating on withdrawal symptoms and craving.

In the first paper on withdrawal symptoms published last year in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, the authors highlighted some previous research suggesting that there are similarities in the phenomenology of substance-related addictions and extreme sports. For instance, they noted:

Extreme sports athletes commonly describe a “rush” or “high” when participating in their sport (Buckley, 2012; Price & Bundesen, 2005) and liken these experiences to those of drug users (Willig, 2008). For example, a participant in Willig’ s study described: “It’s like for a drug user, they will take cocaine to get high. For me it’s my addiction, I have to go to the mountains to get high.”  Similarly, skydivers have described their sport as “like an addiction,” stating that they “can’t get enough,” and their “relationships suffer” as a result (Celsi, Rose, & Leigh, 1993).”

They also noted prior research suggesting that athletes may experience withdrawal states during periods of abstinence that are also characteristic of those with an addiction. Heirene and his colleagues claimed that this their study was the first to explore withdrawal experiences of individuals engaged in extreme sports. They carried out a study very similar to one of my own where Michael Smeaton and I published a study where gamblers were specifically interviewed about their experiences of withdrawal (in a 2002 issue of Social Psychological Review).


Young woman lead climbing in cave, male climber belaying

Heirene’s team used semi-structured interviews to explore withdrawal experiences of what they defined as ‘high ability’ and ‘average-ability’ male rock climbers during periods of abstinence (four climbers in each of the two groups). They then investigated the behavioural and psychological and aspects of withdrawal (including craving, anhedonia [i.e., the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities], and negative affect) and examined the differences in the frequency and intensity of these states between the two rock climbing groups. Based on an analysis of the interview transcripts, they found support for the existence of anhedonia, craving, and negative affect among rock climbers. They also reported that the effects were more pronounced and intense among the high ability rock climbers (apart from anhedonic symptoms). The authors also noted:

“All participants reported negative affective experiences during abstinence, including states of “restlessness” and being “miserable,” “agitated,” or “frustrated.” Similar dysphoric states have been identified in drug users, exercise addicts, and extreme sports athletes during abstinence…In the present study, both groups reported using climbing to alleviate negative affective states, particularly stress. This finding supports previous research that has reported skydivers use their sport in a self-medicating manner (Price & Bundesen, 2005). Similarly, psychopharmacology literature has found individuals engage in substance abuse as a means of coping with stress…suggesting similar participation motives in both drug use and extreme sports”.

The study concluded that based on self-report, rock climbers experienced genuine withdrawal symptoms during abstinence from climbing and that these were comparable to individuals with substance and other behavioral addictions. In a second investigation just published in Frontiers in Psychology, the same team (this time led by Gareth Roderique-Davies) reported the development of the Rock Climbing Craving Questionnaire (RCCQ). The development of this new psychometric instrument directly followed on from the previous study which had found evidence of craving amongst the rock climbers that had been interviewed.

In the second paper, the research team attempted to “quantitatively measure the craving experienced by participants of any extreme sports”. They claimed that the RCCQ could allow “a greater understanding of the craving experienced by extreme sports athletes and a comparison of these across sports (e.g., surfing) and activities (e.g., drug-use)”. To develop the RCCQ, they utilized previously validated craving measures as a template for the new instrument to assess craving in the sports of rock-climbing and mountaineering.

The second paper comprised two studies. The first study investigated the factor structure of the craving measure among 407 climbers who completed the RCCQ. (One of the limitations of the study was that the participant sample was heterogeneous and included climbers and mountaineers from multiple primary climbing disciplines, including indoor climbing, outdoor traditional climbing, alpine climbing, and ice climbing). Despite the heterogeneity of the sample, the results demonstrated that a three-factor model explained just over half the total variance in item scores. The three factors (‘positive reinforcement’, ‘negative reinforcement’ and ‘urge to climb’) each comprised five items. The second study validated the 15-item RCCQ on 254 climbers using confirmatory factor analysis across two conditions (a ‘climbing-related cue’ condition or a ‘cue-neutral’ condition). The authors concluded that:

“[The first study supported] the multi-dimensional nature of rock climbing craving and shows parallels with substance-related craving in reflecting intention and positive (desire) and negative (withdrawal) reinforcement. [The second study confirmed] this factor structure and gives initial validation to the measure with evidence that these factors are sensitive to cue exposure…if as shown here, craving for climbing (and potentially other extreme sports) is similar to that experienced by drug-users and addicts, there is the potential that climbing and other extreme sports could be used as a replacement therapy for drug users”.

This latter suggestion has been made in the literature dating back to the 1970s and the work of Dr. Bill Glasser on ‘positive addictions’ as well as by psychologists such as Iain Brown who suggested in the early 1990s that gambling addicts should replace their addictions with sensation-seeking activities such as sky-diving and parachuting. Critics will claim that these papers are another example of ‘over-pathologizing’ everyday behaviours, but as I have always argued, if any behaviour fulfils all the core criteria for addiction, they should be operationalised as such.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brymer, E., & Schweitzer, R. (2013). Extreme sports are good for your health: a phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of health psychology, 18(4), 477-487.

Buckley, R. (2012). Rush as a key motivation in skilled adventure tourism: Resolving the risk recreation paradox. Tourism Management, 33, 961–970.

Castanier, C., Le Scanff, C., & Woodman, T. (2010). Who takes risks in high-risk sports? A typological personality approach. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 81, 478–484.

Celsi, R. L., Rose, R. L., & Leigh, T. W. (1993). An exploration of high risk leisure consumption through skydiving. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(1), 1–23.

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. New York: Harper & Row.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. & Smeaton, M. (2002). Withdrawal in pathological gamblers: A small qualitative study. Social Psychology Review, 4, 4-13.

Heirene, R. M., Shearer, D., Roderique-Davies, G., & Mellalieu, S. D. (2016). Addiction in extreme sports: An exploration of withdrawal states in rock climbers. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(2), 332-341.

Larkin, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Dangerous sports and recreational drug-use: Rationalising and contextualising risk. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 215-232.

Monasterio, E., & Mei-Dan, O. (2008). Risk and severity of injury in a population of BASE jumpers. New Zealand Medical Journal, 121, 70–75.

Monasterio, E., Mulder, R., Frampton, C., & Mei-Dan, O. (2012). Personality characteristics of BASE jumpers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24, 391-400.

Price, I. R., & Bundesen, C. (2005). Emotional changes in skydivers in relation to experience. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1203–1211.

Roderique-Davies, G. R. D., Heirene, R. M., Mellalieu, S., & Shearer, D. A. (2018). Development and initial validation of a rock climbing craving questionnaire (RCCQ). Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 204. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00204

Willig, C. (2008). A phenomenological investigation of the experience of taking part in extreme sports. Journal of Health Psychology, 13(5), 690-702.