A friend of mine calls any situation where the space between your ears stops working a "helmet fire." I love that expression; it's so descriptive of the times when we just stop thinking about the exterior world or "reality" and burn up in a mental paroxysm of self-fueled mental combustion. Every sport has it's "helmet fire" situations; pro athletes choke, skiers crash getting off the chairlift, novice climbers turn into jello and cling to the rock like terrified children, good leaders suddenly can't do a 5.8 move on a jug. Helmet fires, each and every one.
So how do you put out a helmet fire? The short path is to stick your head in a creek, but this is unfortunately hard to do in most situations. Here are a few suggestions:
-Look in the mirror after a helmet fire. Nobody wants to admit that they had a mental seizure, it takes real guts to admit that and then try to figure out what happened. Without self-analysis nothing will change. Change is uncomfortable; admitting a malfunction to yourself may mess with your perception of how good you are at something, and the mind is incredible at protecting the ego. Watch any kid throw a temper tantrum when they can't figure something out. Damn mirrors.
-Break down the components of the malfunction. What was really at stake? Death? Injury? Pride? Self-belief? Personal perception? Often there's not as much at stake as the person believes, or less on the outside and more on the inside. "I can't do X because..." Bullshit. If you're soloing really high then maybe you can use that excuse, but most of the time there's just not much there in terms of heavy consequences. And if there is then you shouldn't be there with a helmet fire, back it down.
-Search for the same helmet fire situation, and enter it willingly with full awareness (if it's not likely to be fatal). I used to be afraid of large holes while kayaking; my friend Jim G. decided he loved them. I'm still not a fan of getting pounded, but I try to stuff myself into as many nasty holes as I can like Jimmy does.. It has helped. Same with every sport I do; thin ice used to give me instant helmet fires, so I climbed a lot of it on TR. Now it just annoys me as it's slow but reasonably secure.
-Create operating room in your head. Hang on gear, pull into an eddy, glide into still air, do something to stop the mental load increasing, if only for a moment. This is a sort of "reset" button.
-Focus on the fact that right then, right there, you're "OK." Most of the time you are; I've watched fully grown men cower on scree slopes. I stop, sit down with them, and eventually they get bored of cowering and stand up to move. Often they have to sit down again, but each time they stand they get stronger mentally, and the helmet fire goes down. Small steps forward from a position of, "OK now."
-Enjoy your head. As I get older and see my friends age I can see the best athletes among us getting more comfortable with who they are and how their heads works, and often their performance gets better even as their bodies age. The head is always the most important thing in any meaningful environment, always. Might as well train it and enjoy it.
“There are no limits. There are plateaus, and you must not stay there; you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.”