Last weekend I attended (and passed with ‘flying colors’ as I was told by my instructors!) the Red Cross Lifeguard Training course at our local aquatic center. I needed to renew my First Aid-CPR-AED certification and had been wanting to expand my practical skill set with something complementary to swim coaching. Lifeguarding skill is an obvious asset for anyone who works around the water.
In our class of nine students, we all took many turns being both the rescuer and the victim. Of course, the purpose of the course was to become a certified rescuer, but it was in the role of a victim that I made an interesting discovery.
I am completely comfortable in pools and many open water conditions, confident in the reliability of its properties, and secure in my ability to work with it, and my responsibility to stay within my safety limits. But when I started to imitate an active drowning victim (the one who is silently, thrashing and struggling to push his head above the surface) I started to actually feel sensations of distress in my own body!
I could not see with water splashing in my eyes, the chlorine burned if my eyes were open. Blindly and essentially deaf, I kicked my feet and pushed down against the water but it gave way rather than support my body. The waves I created with my own struggle made it difficult to get a satisfying breath at the surface. My subconscious brain understood I was no longer working with the water, but against it, and registered the sinking alarm. It triggered survival chemicals to start flowing through my body, raising the heart rate and attempting to obscure my rational thinking.
It wasn’t really that bad – quite mild, which I had no problem transcending to maintain a rational and emotional calm. But I was aware that small, unpleasant changes were happening inside my body, things I normally don’t feel in the water. In a small way I started to realize perhaps a bit of what fearful swimmers feel, when water is regarded as an enemy.
Yet, when playing the role of a passive victim (one laying unconscious at the surface or at the bottom of the pool) I did not feel those sensations – just calm and curiosity, while I held breath and waited for my rescuer. I was not fighting anything. I actually like to hold my breath underwater anyway.
I’ve been in big water, cold water, rough water, big waves, chaotic water, flowing water, deep water, dark water, alone, far away from shore – but every time I have been engaged in the act of skillful swimming – sensing the water and working with it to the best of my abilities. My body and mind have something positive and productive and cooperative (with water) to stay focused upon. My mind remains fairly calm and the net results is enjoyment of the experience. The physical and mental stress I might feel are part of the experience I asked for.
Yet, here, in the most mild and controlled of conditions – an indoor 27 C (81 F) degree chlorinated pool 2m (7 ft) deep, literally surrounded by lifeguards a few feet away, I could start to play as if I were drowning and actually induce slight panicky feelings in my own body and brain. Amazing.
We understand that a person who already carries around a fear of water could swim into a condition that trigger sensations of it. But it is harder to understand how we might create fear in ourselves where none needed to exist at all.
The body and mind feed on each other. They are interdependent. A negative reaction in one can induce a negative reaction in the other. Back and forth, sending the spiral downward.
And, if you will allow me to be a bit more metaphysical (though I believe there is a direct physics and biological connection) I suggest that the body/mind unit and the environment it swims in feed on each other – signals go out from the body into the water, and signals come from the water back into the body. They too are interdependent. I am not just a mind separate from a body that is separate from the rest of the environment and the other organisms in it. I suspect we individual organisms are far more inter-connected that we consciously realize.
An innocent action (like pretending to drown) causes effects on the environment which send feedback to the brain through the nervous system, which induces physical, mental and emotional reactions, which send signals out to the environment. And the cycle repeats, and repeats, spiraling in either a negative or positive direction, depending on the initial conditions and trajectory. Where this takes the person depends on what training or instinct he has to pilot his body/mind somewhere he would like to go, or to just end up where the default subconscious processes deliver him.
When I play-acted in a panicked way, I quit having a cooperative relationship with the water. The water knew it, and my lymbic system knew it immediately. The water quit supporting me, and my brain immediately wanted to shift me into land-mammal survival mode, which is exactly what will reduce the support of water further and kill me quicker.
What are the lessons from this?
If one acts in a tense, panicky manner in the water, one will begin to feel that way, physically and mentally.
So, why not attempt to induce the opposite?
If one has acquired a few skills that create a calm, water-supported position and some smooth cooperative movements, even if he has certain fears in certain water conditions, it may serve to keep calm some part of the brain and body that is vulnerable to getting triggered.
Or, in other words, fake a good relationship with water until you can start to feel it a bit.
If I can intentionally induce panic by imitation, why not intentionally induce peace, or induce confidence?
I acknowledge that the human brain is a wonderful protector. It has these built-in negativity biases meant to keep me far away from things (especially things I don’t understand) that might harm me. So, while the brain can be fooled into feeling fear, it is not as easily fooled into feeling peace. There is a great deal of genetic motivation to avoid a lion that might be hiding in the bush (or shark in the deep) than motivation to seek out new edible berries (or mermaids) possibly hidden in the same spot.
Yet, I think a great body of mindfulness and meditation research urges us to believe that we can do some positive rewiring – not by changing our circumstances, but by changing our perspective on those circumstances. Or in other words, we can improve our peace by changing our relationship to the environment rather than by changing the environment to suit our troubled mind. Comparing effort to results, the former approach is a much better deal than the latter.
Though I could trigger a little anxiety in 15 seconds of play-acting a drowning, it may take a bit more time and training to induce peacefulness in a circumstance I cannot turn off as I please. Peacefulness is a mental skill. Skills, by nature (as opposed to genetic instincts, or trauma-induced reflexes) take time and effort to integrate to similar depth and replace those instincts or reflexes. We have to work specifically to acquire peacefulness in those areas we are vulnerable to fear.
But, all this made me wonder how a bit of play-acting a calm position with confident movements might trigger a little bit more peace in one who swims into a zone of anxiety during his swim.
I have only two anxiety triggers that I am aware of – collisions with big things underwater (like rock ledges and nuclear submarines) and swimming at night. These are not situations I encounter often. But there are many people, perhaps far more than we realize, who feel at least some small anxiety when they get in the pool, when they submerge the face, or swim away from the wall, or feet leave contact with the bottom, or when they swim past a certain distance.
Finding The Threshold Of That Fear
I am thinking of the several swimmers I’ve worked with in camps, workshops, lessons and in my Online Coaching Program who have expressed their desire to overcome some fearful limitation, some situation which induces anxiety or negative stress during a swim. It is often to do with breathing or swimming past a certain point where the sensations of the body cross over an unpleasant threshold which triggers a negative emotional reaction and a loss of confidence. Something inside urges them to stop and rest well before they know they should have to.
Now, it is a good idea to heed the brain’s warnings, at least on the first few times. One absolutely should stop and consider carefully what is going on factually. Then, based on one’s own health history and his best understanding of what healthy swimming should feel like, and getting some experienced advice, he may determine whether this warning is appropriate or inappropriate. Then develop a plan to expand his capabilities, or develop a plan to call the bluff of that fear.
There are real limits we should heed and there are false limits we should challenge.
This is not to suggest that if one has a great deal of fear he should just plunge into this terrible gang of fears and assume he can whip the whole bunch at once. No, that is not a good way of going about it. Rather, I recommend that one picks off those fears, one at a time in possible, and do it gradually to reduce the risk of re-traumatizing the mind.
In a controlled environment, with a coach or friend beside, where one can keep within reach of safety, he can set up an experiment to swim up to that fear-threshold and explore it. Then he may, on his own terms, practice ways to intentionally respond differently than his misguided land-mammal fight-or-flight instincts urge him to.
I am thinking of too many situations now to pick just one. But, my friends out there, swimmers-with-some-fear, consider how you might approach that point in your swim which often triggers the unpleasant sensations, then experiment and practice a new way of positioning your body, of focusing your mind in that moment to override the normal program that plays out. Perhaps you can reclaim some peace in that moment, peace which was somehow stolen from you, and realize that any time it is taken away, you have in your power a way to take it back again.
You have several options for changing action that may change the way your mind and your emotions experience the moment:
- Slow the tempo (if it is not already quite slow).
- Roll into interrupted breathing position for 3 deep breaths.
- Shift into a drill for 10 seconds.
- Shift to a more relaxing focal point (use energy better).
- Shift to a more demanding focal point (fill up the channels of attention).
- Concentrate on your steady exhale through the nose, noting the sound, the sensation.
- In your imagination turn on an inspiring image of an animal, swimmer or vessel that moves through the water the way you desire to move through the water.
- Stop, roll, and lay on your back with arms spread, lightly flutter the feet, and enjoy the sensation of total support of the water.
Resume your swimming when you feel ready to. Return to this peace-recapture mode whenever you need to. Know that it is always available to you, it is always within your power to induce it.
Some time ago I wrote a series of essays on Overcoming Fear In Open Water. I still like what I wrote there, and am glad to point you back to those if you want to think about this topic further.
Otherwise, I renew the invitation to email me with your story of what fear you’ve been facing and let me know how you are working on overcoming it. My heart goes out to you, and I send you my spirit of peace. Not only do I want you to experience peaceful cooperation with the water, I believe the water ‘wants’ you to experience it also. It is not your enemy, it is a friendly element just waiting for you to learn how to have relationship with it. Because water is just inanimate molecules, it cannot adapt to you, it must wait for you to adapt to it. And, that is what we peaceful, mindful coaches are here to help you with.
** I dedicate this to Lidia, who, a few years ago, was brave enough to let us teach her how to play in the water, to discover it as a friend, rather than her enemy.
~ ~ ~
As an after-thought, while writing this essay, I realized an audio book (read by the author) I recently listened to fits in nicely. For more inspiration on this topic of inducing peace and confidence I recommend the book Presence by Amy Cuddy.
Brilliantly researched, impassioned, and accessible, Presence is filled with stories of individuals who learned how to flourish during the stressful moments that once terrified them. Every reader will learn how to approach their biggest challenges with confidence instead of dread, and to leave them with satisfaction instead of regret.
So, check out a copy and then get to work on your Super Swimmer Power Pose!