Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In the Face of Fear, or Finding Yoga

I hate swimming. There, I said it. Yes, I know hate is a strong word, and I am really trying to take it out of my vocabulary, but there are few things that prompt such a visceral reaction in me as swimming in a pool. Perhaps the only other one, especially since being in New Zealand, is constantly being cold. I don’t mind cold outside, but when cold is everywhere, when you can never warm up, cold gets to me. I am not the only American in New Zealand who has been brought to the verge of tears because it is just so cold inside!

So it might come as a surprise that I volunteered to participate in a swim study, especially one that tested the effects of cold-water immersion. That’s right. I willingly entered 10 degree (50 degrees Fahrenheit) water 4 times, and 15 degree (about 60 degree) water about 10 times. Two reasons: 1) I had just sent out a survey hoping for a great response and got a dismal response rate, so I am on a kick to help others who are doing research; and 2) I wanted to face my fears.

Yes, it is a cliché – the only way to overcome your fears is to face them. But most cliché’s get there because they are true. Want proof that I was nervous? My resting heart rate before getting in the cold water the first time was 87 beats per minute (as a comparison, it was later 65 bpm while just sitting in a room, at least according to my count). I do a lot of yoga. I meditate. I know the power of breath. I know the power of the mind. I ignored all of that and freaked out.

The study worked fairly simply. They hooked me into a harness, hung me over a pool treadmill and dropped me in the water. Luckily, my head never went under. I had to do various trials, including treading water, swimming, mental tasks, etc. They did these first tests over two days while measuring my brain oxygen levels and my heart rate. Then a group of us non-swimmers received some “mental skills training” and a video on good water treading techniques. Then we practiced. Once or twice a day, I got into a tank of 15-degree water and treaded water for 3 minutes. After all the training, they did the same tests again to see if there was a difference.

I learned, or remembered, a few things. First, 10 degrees is really, really cold. Second, the mind is a powerful tool. Third, yoga off the mat really works . . . when we remember to use it.

So what was this mental skills training? It started with a video. The video was a man who swims in 1-2 degree water for fun and sits in industrial fridges to prove that he can. Most of us would die in either setting, but he is not only alive, but perfectly fine. His body temperature is no different than others when he is in the cold (a friend sat with him in the fridge for an hour), but his mind is different. His story reminded me of a story of monks who meditate in little clothing while sitting atop snowy mountains, the snow melting below them. The mind is a powerful tool.

Just like any tool, we can learn to use it. That’s the yoga off the mat. The mental skills training also included discussion about how to “handle” the cold. We learned breathing techniques (the subject of the next post), imagery techniques, and positive thinking techniques. Thus, we learned to relax, imagine the situation to reduce fear, reframe the concept of cold to “invigorating” rather than “bloody hell!,” and practiced to train the body to get used to the cold.

So, what’s the verdict? Well, I do not know my resting heart rate before being dropped in that water after all the training. But I do know how I felt. Was I nervous? Yeah, I was still nervous. But I was less nervous. Do I want to join the Polar Swim Club? Nope. Do I want to join any swim club? Nope, not really.

But guess what? The visceral reaction is gone. The thought of water no longer sends shivers down my spine. 

The mind is powerful. It can convince us of anything if we let it have the power. But we can also learn to control it. And with control of the mind, we can begin to control our fears. It will not happen overnight, but for nearly 30 years, I have hated water, and in a few short weeks, I can look at a pool with no emotion.

It just requires taking a bit of my own medicine.

What fears do you have? What would it take to face them? The next post will be a discussion of the specific breathing technique we learned. Teaser: yoga from a sports psychologist – have I entered the Twilight Zone?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved 

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