I looked toward the ocean, gray and foamy on this cooler-than-average Florida day. Despite my nervousness, I followed the lead of the others in the group and started wading out into the water. The coolness of the winter ocean shocked me as I entered it. On my own, I probably would have given up or taken at least an hour to get submerged. With others present, though, who were clearly not deterred from the coolness of the water, I forged ahead like I did this every day. My body was buzzing with adrenaline responding to the cold water.
Once I got to waist height, I ducked into the next wave. The water was cold but more jarring was the fact that the inflatable buoy looped around my waist was pulling me backward as the wave tugged it toward the shore. As the wave passed, I gained momentum, but then another wave came dragging me further back. I could see the other swimmers ahead of me who seemed to not have the same issue as myself.
One of the swimmers, Kathy, looked back with a questioning look. “You okay? “she yelled over the waves.
“Yes!” I yelled optimistically. “This is just kicking my butt!” I laughed like it was no big deal, but I was getting tired, and we hadn’t even started the swim yet.
I was determined to not embarrass myself, so I really started kicking to get me past the breakers. Once there, we all congregated in a group, about six of us, and waited for everyone to catch up. One by one, they started swimming off. Immediately, I realized there was a problem. I was exhausted. My heart rate was high, and I felt like I couldn’t get a full breath. I didn’t think I could put my face in the water and start swimming,
Kathy noticed I hadn’t started yet and asked again if I was ok. I nodded that I was but after a look at my face, she blurts, “Are you having a panic attack?”
I immediately said no, but then I wondered: Am I? I ignored the rising panic in my chest and decided I would just do the breaststroke until I felt I could breathe normally. Inside my head, my thoughts circled. Will I be able to finish this? What if I can’t get my breath back? Why did I decide to do this?
Trying Something New
A few weeks previously at a work conference, a speaker mentioned that they did open water swimming with a group of others. It made me wonder if there were groups near me that did this. I found one on Facebook and decided to go on a Thursday morning before Christmas (and a cold front) were coming. The plan was to walk one mile along the beach and then swim back with the current. I am a good swimmer (swim team and lifeguarding when I was younger), but it had been a long time since I did any open water swimming and in cooler water than I was used to as well. I had gotten used to the routine and controlled nature of swimming in the pool in the summers. I had forgotten what it felt like to swim while waves lifted and dipped my body disorienting my sense of place. I had forgotten how the salt water tasted in my mouth, burning my throat, reminding me that I wasn’t in a safe pool.
A Choice to Make
I had a choice to make as my heart raced and my mind panicked. I could just get out. It was a simple thing, and I’m sure they wouldn’t have judged me. I could try again another time. The other choice though was that I could keep swimming and make it to the end.
I knew that if I decided to keep swimming that the battle had to be won in my mind first. My thoughts controlled how my body was reacting to the situation. Thoughts that focused on whether or not I could get my next breath or whether I was swimming in the wrong direction out to sea got my heart rate pumping and my chest gasping. There was no way I could make it like that.
Dealing with Stress
Chris Hemsworth, most famously known as Thor, knows a bit about this process. The DisneyPlus documentary called Limitless focuses on Hemsworth doing crazy, challenging tasks with the goal of helping his body learn to deal with stress better and therefore prolong and improve his quality of life. Since stress is endemic to all people, regardless of their “superhero” status, he realizes that he too needs strategies to help him cope better.
The first episode called “Stress-Proof” gives him the task of walking out on a crane at the top of a building. Though he would be fully harnessed, it would take great willpower to make him take steps out at such a height. To prepare him, Dr. Module Akinola creates scenarios to recreate those feelings of stress using tools like virtual reality and even being put in a pool with hands and feet tied. The strategies that the psychologist gives Hemsworth are two-fold: box breathing and positive self-talk.
Box breathing is simply breathing in for a count of four, holding it for four beats, and then exhaling for four beats. Controlling your breathing controls your body’s response to stress, slowing your heart rate and bringing your breathing under control. Positive self-talk is as straightforward as it sounds. Instead of repeating what you can’t do, focus instead on calming yourself and speaking hope. In the episode, Hemsworth is able to utilize these skills in order to accomplish the task at hand, even managing to get his heart rate down while walking on the crane.
Strategies We Can Use
While most of us will not be attempting any high-rise walks in the future, we too can learn from these strategies. We all feel stress and fear. We all have an inner monologue that can disrupt our lives and keep us trapped in fear. Positive self-talk is about being a friend to yourself. We are incessantly unkind to ourselves, talking in a way to ourselves that we would never dare to talk to another. We tell ourselves we are dumb or unlovable or incompetent.
Instead, we should learn the power of speaking hope into ourselves. Jesus said, “Love others as you love yourself.” Notice that we have to start with loving ourselves in order to have a standard by which we love others. Perhaps all the vitriol out in the Christian sphere is reflecting an inner monologue of self-hatred? And maybe we start the change that needs to occur by speaking kindly and with hope to ourselves.
Controlling Our Thoughts
Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” Paul’s words here come on the tail of his encouragement to be cheerful givers knowing God will provide and then reminding them that the battle we all face is not a physical battle, but a spiritual and even mental battle. This dovetails perfectly with the concept of positive self-talk. Why not instead remind ourselves of God’s goodness? His love? His grace? Why not remind ourselves that we are loved and safe with Him and free to take risks?
Why not remind ourselves that we are loved and safe with Him and free to take risks?
I know some would argue that this approach will just stoke the embers of pride and make us arrogant. I disagree. Speaking God’s truth and being kind to ourselves won’t make us arrogant, but it will make us effective. I have rarely encountered an arrogant person who really loved themselves. Instead, those who seem arrogant have usually created an illusion of themselves to hide how they really feel about themselves.
Your Words, Your Reality
Hemsworth summarizes the power of self-talk when he says “the story you tell yourself becomes your reality.” This is true, especially in the moments when we are scared. That day in the ocean, I decided to keep going. In the end, what got me through it was repeating, “You’ve got this. You can do this. You are a good swimmer.” I was able to even take a moment as I swam to admire the beauty around me.
I lifted my eyes from the water. The waves were high so I could see nothing around me–no land, no hotels dotting the skyline. Instead, I was surrounded by a silvery, undulating landscape. As I looked forward, two pelicans swooped down over the sea, looking silvery like they had been dipped in metal, gliding over the ocean so gracefully and calmly. Watching them, my heart was filled with gratitude and peace.
I was the last to get out of the water, and they kindly waited on me to make sure I made it safely to shore. They celebrated with me reminding me that the first time is always the most challenging. I felt good because I had tried something different. I had challenged myself. And I also learned that I can be a good friend to myself too. I’m hoping that I will continue to grow in this area and that I might learn to be a better and more loving friend to others too.
Originally published on Mudroom Blog.