Eight weeks ago I finally got around to taking swimming lessons. It's something that I had been planning to do ever since moving to live near the beach 18 months ago. There are a number of reasons for this: firstly, I don't feel safe in the ocean when I'm out of my depth. Deep down I know that I'm not a confident swimmer and whenever I'm in deep water my body responds with a lot of anxiety. I figured that if I knew I could swim confidently I wouldn't get so anxious about not being able to touch the bottom.I go body boarding a lot and I feel relatively safe with the board strapped to my arm. But I get caught in rips all the time and I know that if the strap was to break or I lost the board somehow, I'd be in real trouble.
Plus I think swimming is a great exercise for overcoming deep-seated anxiety. The full immersion in the water gives gentle stimulation to our nervous system, and it's also a relatively low impact exercise. So long as you don't drown, that is.
The arm movement involved in swimming could also be particularly beneficial. We generally use our arms to move things in our environment: to take action; and I believe that taking action is the antidote to the anxiety that we feel when we think was are powerless.
I also suspect that the migraine headaches I sometimes get are related to muscle tension in the back of my neck and shoulders. Getting some motion on my shoulders and neck should help release that tension and give me the feeling that I'm moving forward under my own power.
I felt somewhat embarrassed about the idea of turning up to adult swim classes, given that it's something many people learn to do as a child. I had a look on YouTube for videos teaching how to swim and came across this video where other adult learners talk about their experience of taking swimming classes:
One of the things that they mentioned was the feeling of shame at not being able to swim. I could relate. I live in Australia, an island nation with an epic coastline and us Aussies traditionally love going to the beach; but it's not so much fun when I feel frightened being in the deep water. One of my uncles died as a result of an accident diving into a sandbank at a beach near where I now live, and I suspect that this could unconsciously cause me even more anxiety about it.
Something interesting happened for me while watching the instructional videos: I found myself feeling sad, and started to cry. I remembered my experience of having swimming lessons during spring in primary school: a freezing unheated pool where I could never really relax because the water was just so cold. I never learned to breathe properly because I couldn't handle having my face under the cold water. As a result, I adopted a swimming style where my head is always out of the water, which causes my body to sink. Sinking is scary.
Watching the videos, I realised that the whole experience of learning to swim had been traumatic for me. The tears were my body's way of releasing some of that fear-based trauma which resurfaces every time I go in the water.
The instructional videos were all very well, but I realised what I really needed was feedback from a teacher who knew what he was doing. So I checked the local community college brochure and signed up for some lessons.
The approach taught by my swimming teacher is called total immersion swimming. It starts off with the very basics of just being in the water, learning to blow bubbles and to do "superman glides". Then you gradually move onto taking strokes, breathing out under water, rolling your body to each side, turning your head and eventually breathing mid-stroke.
The teacher said that the purpose of this technique is to "retrain the way that your brain responds to the water". That sounds familiar because it's exactly what I do with my coaching clients: retrain the way their brain responds to challenging situations.
Initially, I notice that when I get in water up to my shoulder level, my whole body feels anxious. I start to tense up. Part of the process involves the teacher gently holding my head and telling me to relax my neck while I'm in the water. I'm learning that it's safe to be floating face down. It's all about relaxing.
I had a go in a heated pool the other day, and felt so anxious with my face in the water that I couldn't turn my head and breathe effectively. I had to keep stopping every few strokes to calm my nerves and take a decent breath. One of the other guys at the pool that day was wearing a snorkel and mask, and maybe that would be a good starting point for me too.
I have had panic attacks snorkelling in the past, and if I can get my body to relax with the sensation of floating in the water face down, I think swimming will get a lot easier.
The course is over, and I can't say that I have fully got the hang of the whole breathing thing yet. Like any new skill, some time and persistence is required to master it. But I have noticed that when I'm in the ocean I don't tense up when the waves go over me any more. I used to take a big gulp of air through my mouth when I saw a wave coming, and my teacher taught me to breathe in calmly through my nose instead since that relaxes your nervous system.
Seems like everyone is an expert on the fight or flight response these days!