5 Lessons About Managing Anxiety That I Have Learned From Swimming

by Pool Builders on 03-29-2010 in Articles

I learned how to swim as an adult. A few years ago, while planning a trip to Hawaii, my husband told me that he planned to spend a lot of time in the warm waters of the ocean. He likes to swim and I don't like to be left alone. So I decided to learn how to swim and become comfortable in ocean waters.

Learning to swim with Susan, my coach, was a journey in its own right. She broke down for me every aspect of swimming, from floating to distance swimming. I had many experiences in which I discovered how different and often counterintuitive swimming in the water is in contrast to walking on land. These differences taught me important lessons about dealing with life and life's anxieties, both often being puzzling and counterintuitive in their own ways.

Swimming has opened my eyes in many ways regarding my fears. I had to confront them in order to learn how to swim. When I was unsure whether I would ever be able to swim and breathe at the same time, I believe I came close to what anxious people experience during a panic attack. Fortunately, I've learned how to manage it. All I have to do is exhale when I am under the water and inhale when I am above it. Sometimes, the solution is just that simple.

Here are 5 basic lessons about how to manage anxiety that I have learned from swimming:

1. The more relaxed I am in the water, the faster and longer I can swim.

True in life as well. Many times people believe that going through life with gritted teeth is the only way to do it. Just like in swimming, when being tense can slow you down and can even lead to injuries, being tense in life--constantly afraid of the consequences of your actions, looking in the future with a lot of apprehension or even unaware fear of change--will eventually paralyze your every move. When it is time for action, you will avoid taking it. When it is time to make a decision, you will postpone it until it is out of your hands.

As counterintuitive as this may seem, the solution when you feel this way isn't to do more, as anxiety would have you believe, but less. Time to remember to relax and allow your mind, sheltered away from the clouds of fear, to calmly decide your next move. You know what you need to do and you know there is a degree of risk. Just do it. You will see how well all the pieces fall into place once you take action.

2. The harder I kick my feet, the slower I go and very soon I'm exhausted.

You move forward when you kick fast, but you can actually move forward faster when you kick less because swimming is more dependent on upper body strength, and coordination and pacing. When you kick as fast and hard as you can, you become tense and uncoordinated. You burn up all your energy in the first few minutes and have nothing left.

I see many of my coaching clients and patients handle anxiety in the same way. They are kicking and screaming about various life situations they find themselves in, completely forgetting to take a deep breath, slow down a bit, and calmly decide what to do. When you feel that you are spinning your wheels, don't think that spinning them faster will get you out of your tight spot. That is the time to slow down and reevaluate the situation. Shift into a lower gear, give yourself a break, recharge and when you go at it again, do it methodically and steadily. You will be amazed at your progress.

3. Trust that water it will work with you and not against you.

This was one of the hardest lessons for me to figure out. But it is true. The more relaxed I lie in the water, the more likely it is that the water will support my body weight.

Often anxious people have a hard time trusting anything and anybody. I have suggested to some of my patients and clients who swim to go to the pool and float just to experience again the support that water gives them every single time they do that. Each client who tried this exercise reported back the same thing: the water supported them every time without fail.

The lesson here is: if you trust the water, it will support you; if you trust yourself-not allow doubt and fear to pull you under-you will find the support you need within yourself. Who else knows you better and who else always has your best interest at heart? Give yourself a chance: trust that you will find a way out from the darkest corner of your life. If you can't figure it out by yourself, that doesn't mean there is no solution to your problem or no way out. It only means you need to trust yourself enough to know when it is time to ask for more help. There will always be people around you able and willing to guide you out of a difficult situation if you ask. Just keep your wits about you and trust that you will know what to do in any circumstance, including finding the right kind of help if needed. Try to imagine this for a moment. Doesn't that feel good?

4. In swimming, some muscles are working, like the arms and the legs; and some muscles are relaxed, like the neck and ankles.

When my coach said to me for the first time to "relax and swim" I laughed at her in disbelieve. How can I do any physical activity if I am relaxed? Or how can I relax when I have to do a physical exercise? Later I learned the importance of the "relax-and-swim" lesson. It is one of the paradoxes of how our body works. Keeping my body stiff and tense will burn a great deal of energy, and it will make me very rigid in my movements. I will feel and look awkward, and I will be exhausted without going very far. I soon realized that if I allow only the muscles that pull me forward to work and allow the others to relax, I become lean and flexible and I start moving much faster forward in the water.

Isn't that true in real life as well? Have you ever felt that when you directly oppose a certain situation at work or in a relationship, you are far less successful than when you go with it? There are, of course, situations when you do need to put up a fight and stand up for yourself, but for some things that are unlikely to change in the immediate future, it's better to relax and stop fighting straight against the current. Surprisingly, it will feel and be easier to go with the flow while slowly angling out of the current and toward safety. If you feel that your resistance is futile, perhaps you should try going with the flow.

5. Rhythm is everything.

When I finally learned to integrate the movements of my arms and legs with my breathing, I felt I became truly aquatic. It took me a long time to be able to do it. My coach took her time to take me to that level. Sometimes I thought I would never get there. "When will I be able to do it?" I kept asking her. She kept saying "soon" for weeks. Now I understand why she waited. She wanted to make sure that I knew well enough all the individual pieces before we put them all together. And she was right again. Had I tried it any sooner than I did, I would have felt completely overwhelmed.

I have seen many of my life coaching clients become very frustrated when they did not see results fast. No matter what they want to do, people want fast fixes. But, as is usually the case with very important matters in life, things happen mostly when we are ready. If they don't happen faster, that is not a reason to give up but to relax into our work and keep going. Focus on the process and not on the goal. Trust that your strategy is solid and that as long as you remain open minded and work hard toward a set target, it will inevitably happen when you are ready for it.

Many of my life coaching clients think that simply spending a lot of energy looking randomly for the right fit in career or relationships is going to give them what they need to be happy. But they only become more discouraged and burned out. By contrast, working smart rather than just working hard will help you stay on target; and using less energy, get further along on your designated path. Think of swimming when you feel like you are sinking. Take some lessons or a brief refresher course. Test for yourself the similarities between swimming in the water and swimming in the ocean of life. I am sure it will make you feel better.

I wish you the best on your journey. And many good swimming days.

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