Put the Sledgehammer Down and Step Away from Your Fear

Lake ChelanSo my regular swim instructor and I approach fear the same way. Soldier up. Power through it.

Pick up the sledgehammer and smash through that wall, baby.

But this latest lesson was different. A woman walked down the pool deck and introduced herself as the substitute for my class. She reminded me of Olympic swimmers I’d seen on television, petite and slightly built but with firm shoulders. Her bathing suit was a sporty one-piece printed with blue and green, her swim cap navy, and her eyes the same brilliant aquamarine of the pool.

“Let’s get in the water,” she said. “You look cold.”

I didn’t want to tell her there were other reasons I was shivering.

And then she saw my first lap.

When she met me at the pool wall, I saw the same look from every other human being who’s tried to teach me to swim. A one-two of worry and blank panic. As an educator, I recognize that look. This one doesn’t have a shot in hell.

She let me flail one more round. Then she went and got me a purple kickboard.

“Okay,” she said and looked down at the kickboard riding the gentle swells. I could feel her shouldering my fear along with me. “You’re having trouble with the side-breathing. And then you start to panic, and that’s not productive.”

We exchanged a smile. “Right.”

“Rather than trying to power through it–and forcing yourself to keep swimming, even though you can’t focus on technique–I want you to try something else. Think of this–” and she floated the kickboard in front of me with her palm flat against the purple foam, “as a security blanket.”

Wait, what?

“What I want you to do is hold this out ahead of you and keep your head out of the water for three counts, then put your face in the water for three counts. Three and three, all the way across. Try that.”

It sounded so easy I felt insulted. I mean, what? Did she seriously think I was scared or something?

Turns out the woman is a genius.

I was asthmatic as a child. So I know what it’s like for my bronchial tubes to shrivel up and my breathing to stop. Terrifying.

I hadn’t made the connection until she gave me the space to just sit with my fear. Stop trying to kill it already and just live with it for five minutes, okay?

Her kickboard experiment taught my emotional brain that even in the water, I remain in complete control of my breathing. We spent the rest of the lesson experimenting with different rhythms and different frequencies of inhalation. As soon as I reached a threshold where I started to panic again, we backed off.

By the end of the lesson, I was swimming back and forth, taking leisurely strokes, turning my body fully to the side to breathe. When I left the pool, I felt calm and relaxed. Refreshed, even. This was a new experience.

After all my other swim sessions, I had scrambled out of the pool feeling cracked-the-fuck-out on five cups of java. That’s what fear and the survival response will do to a person.

After class, I stopped to thank my new teacher. She still had that quizzical look of confusion and worry. But I didn’t mind.

My fear had just undergone a sea-change. She’d taught me to put the sledgehammer down. Sometimes I’ve got it right. Busting open the skulls of your worst fears is exactly the right response. But sometimes, it’s better to lay down your weapons and negotiate a little.

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