What Do Anxiety and Swimming Have to Do with Each Other?

by Ryan Berkompas, a Doxa Counselor

If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance that you know something about the ways anxiety can paralyze and limit us, seeming to take control of our lives. After anxiety has risen in mind and body, many people take a common, reasonable step: they do something to escape or avoid the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and other experiences that we have come to call anxiety. This step makes a lot of sense because anxiety is painful! That energy in our body is begging us to act to reduce its intensity. But what if the ways we attempt to control or manage our anxiety are part of what’s getting in the way of truly living our lives? 

To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to lean on my experience as a lap swimmer. A lot of good swimming form has as much to do with the swimmer’s posture in the water as it has to do with the motions of the arms or legs. To reduce drag and be as efficient as possible, the ideal position for a swimmer is to lie “parallel” with the water’s surface — in a straight line resting in the water instead of at an angle with the water. In order to achieve this kind of streamlining, it’s necessary to lean your head and chest deeper into the water. 

But here’s the catch: leaning into the water often goes against what the body and mind want and expect when immersed in water! The body and mind often send all kinds of alarm signals when learning how to swim like this because they don’t want your mouth and nostrils held underwater, especially during vigorous activity. These alarm signals cause many swimmers to “lean out” of the water with their heads either not submerged at all or only partially submerged. When a swimmer leans out, their legs fall below their head and chest and they create a tremendous amount of inefficiency, working against their stroke. 

Feelings like anxiety and fear are also alarm signals that our minds send via sensations in our bodies, all telling us to “Do something!” related to our protection and safety. We can often find ourselves responding to these alarm signals by trying to manage or get rid of them in ways that are similar to “leaning out of the water.” When we attempt to reject or escape our experiences as we live our life (i.e. swim through the water) by “leaning out” we become like the swimmers leaning out of the water; creating drag and actually getting in our own way. 

So, what if an option for dealing with our anxious experiences looks something like what a new swimmer learns to do? A new swimmer might learn to open up to the discomfort that arises as they lean their chest and head further into the water. They would not seek to fight or control or get rid of that discomfort before they go about their goal of swimming, but instead choose to be willing to experience discomfort while they swim more freely through the water.

In the same way that effective swimmers learn to lean into the water, those who learn to “lean in” to their anxious experiences frequently find themselves freed to pursue life directions that are important to them. Ask yourself this: for which values are you willing to have anxious thoughts, feelings, and sensations if it meant you would be free to pursue those values more fully? Some examples may include being a loving parent or partner, contributing to the greater good in your vocation, cultivating a deeper spiritual life, or caring for yourself and others with courage and compassion. By accepting your experience of discomfort along the way, you may begin to feel freedom from the limits that your previous attempts to control anxiety brought you, and start to live life more fully.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the practice of willingness and acceptance of unwanted or uncomfortable experiences than a single blog post can capture. If you’re interested in exploring this more with me, please call at 601-207-4699 or fill out the contact form.

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Ryan Berkompas

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