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Handling the fear

imageOne way or another the last couple of weeks have been revolving around the same theme: fear!

At some point we all know this creeping feeling of dread conveyed by the open water. Currents, tides, wind, water temperature, flora, fauna, boat traffic, pollution, floating junk… once you enter the water, you enter a whole new world with innumerable seen and unseen denizens where YOU are the alien, and it doesn’t take long before you get the feeling that something lethal is waiting for you just around the next wave. But is it really so?

As I once read, fear is the memory of danger. It serves the purpose of keeping us out of danger like not touching burning fire or questioning your mother-in-law’s cooking skills publicly. That’s called healthy fear. Unhealthy F.E.A.R. is False Evidence Appearing Real that keeps you trapped in your own mind, preventing you from thinking and acting rationally. To overcome false fear you have to name and reframe the challenge behind it.

Firstly, some variables are very tangible. Anyone can check the temperature and the wind force. There are plenty of apps for that! With a bit of experience you can also have a fair judgment of the current. None of it is to be controlled, so why waste so much mental energy dreading it? Making yourself and everyone else around you nervous in the process? Acknowledge the facts and keep a positive approach. Does it really have to ruin your swim? Unless it’s part of your stealth strategy to freak out all other swimmers in order for you to win the race, try and put a bit of sense into your thoughts and your saying and you should be able to minimize your fear instead of levering it up and spreading it like a disease. You’ll be much better off this way. Last Friday I took part in a triathlon where some athletes almost went mental about the (nearly perfect) water temperature, the (very gentle) counter-current and the (all very common) mass start. I usually lock myself into a mental bubble of steel, but somehow those guys managed to make me so nervous that I ended up peeing in my wetsuit three times before we even got started! Jesus! Get a grip, or join a bridge club instead!

FearSecondly, there is the shock effect. That’s the real creepy part! All the stuff in the water you can’t see from the shore and that comes creeping on you, jolting you so suddenly it’s like being woken from a good night’s sleep at 5:00 am by Céline Dion screaming a song on your clock radio! Your heart skips a beat, the adrenaline starts pumping, it feels as close to death as you can get.

There is no logic whatsoever in your fear. I was very young when I first saw Jaws on telly and the masterly orchestrated creepy theme song has traumatized me forever. Thirty years later my subconscious keeps on playing the bloody theme (pun intended) anytime I approach… the pool! Yes, not the open water, but the pool! Everybody knows there are no sharks in sea water. They all live in chlorine water. I know for one! That’s why you will NEVER see me enter even the tiniest pool in the world with nobody else around me. That would petrify me! I’ve tried hundreds of times, but as soon as I find myself alone in the perfectly clear and still water, the music starts playing and my heart starts pounding. You have no idea how many Great Whites I’ve seen making their way through the pipes and lurking on me behind the unlocked drain grate at the bottom of the pool. I simply CANNOT be alone in pool water. Thanks for shit, Mr. Spielberg!

But it’s not what happens, it’s how you handle it. As with me and the pool, it always happens when you least expect it. The moment your mind has reached the zone or you turn your head to breathe, even the smallest slimy tissue can take on scary dimensions as it brushes your hand. Before you know it, the panic starts to bubble. You’ve been taken off guards. All your memories of those documentaries you’ve been watching on the Discovery Channel rush back to the surface. You are under attack! It feels as close to death as you can get.

False-evidence-appearing-realReally? Surely it IS disgusting to get stuck in floating seaweed or hit a viscous moon jelly right in the face, but I find it much worse wiping off the floor when my dog is hit by a stroke of diarrhoea. I’d take seaweed anytime!
Surely it IS painful to get stung by a jellyfish, but unless you are allergic or swim into huge pods of them in exotic waters, I’m pretty sure there are more excruciating pains in the world. I mean this is only Denmark after all. I’d rather hit a jellyfish in the Sound than give birth to a child.

Fear is generated out of a sense of your own mortality. You just have to get that into perspective. Not every encounter is lethal. You can’t get rid of the fear or the shock effect, but you can develop a few tricks to deal with what feels like a life-threatening situation. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve learnt to demystify all the things I’ve encountered so far in the open water. When I hit them, I simply know it’s not lethal. I concentrate on bringing my breath and heart rate back to normal. If the water is not very clear, I try to keep an eye on what’s around me, trying to clock how normal it is. I try to swim with my team as often as possible. But when I swim alone, I make sure to stay in shallow waters so I can stand up anytime to refocus or go out of the water if necessary. I stay in waters I know “by heart”, so I get as less surprises as possible during my swims. But most of all I try to relax and make my mind a friend and ally. I try to stay in my mental happy place, shifting my focus towards positive thoughts. So no matter what, I’m never alone. My mind is always working with me.

Except when I’m at the mercy of the wildest sharks in the pool. But I’ll leave that one to my shrink… 🙂

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