I felt a tap on my shoulder and raised my head from the water.
“Turtles!” my guide yelled, pointing to a distant spot in the bay, his voice muffled by the snorkel in his mouth.
He motioned for me to follow as he quickly swam in the direction of the turtles. I began to swim after him but was easily left behind. The faster I tried to swim, the more out of breath I got and as panic started to arise, I remembered something important.
I’m afraid of water.
More accurately, I’m afraid of drowning.
It has taken me years to develop a wee bit of trust in a mask and snorkel and learn to put my face in the water. This seems so unnatural to me that a human can breathe underwater! Over the years I have developed an uneasy comfort level with snorkeling because I also want to see the wonders that live underwater. But trying to swim faster than I am used to and getting out of breath so quickly sent me into full panic and any comfort I had cultivated to that point was lost.
I pulled my head from the water, desperately looking for something to hang onto while I tried to calm myself. I was alone, way over my head in deep water, the boat too far away to signal and everyone in the group was busy snorkeling and not looking up out of the water. At this point, I was inhaling more than exhaling, the anxiety taking over every part of me and all I could think about was ‘this is it….I’m going to drown…’
I was treading water, frantically trying to keep my head above water, my body getting tired from the exertion and then I heard a very quiet voice from deep inside me say:
This made me panic even more. “I can’t relax,” I thought. “How can I relax when I am about to drown?”
And then I heard it again:
I tried to relax but the urge to keep my head above water was too strong and I continued to thrash around, feeling myself sinking.
I put my snorkel back in my mouth and tried to float on my stomach but the tension and lack of breath in my body seem to make it sink even faster.
“I can’t do it,” I gasped, wildly looking for help.
“You have to”
I realized I did have to relax – I had to get my breathing under control and the only way was to relax. Little by little, I started to breathe through the snorkel, I let my face be submerged and I started to float. I kept telling myself that I was okay and that I could trust the snorkel and I slowly began lengthening my exhales – a breath practice that I have shared with many clients and students in the past that is particularly good for calming anxiety. I don’t know how long I floated there, trying to slow my breath but eventually I noticed that I was floating, that my breath was much calmer and that I didn’t have to fight to stay afloat.
I didn’t move, continuing to relax and surrender my body to the buoyancy of the water. It was so quiet except for the sound of my breathing which was almost back to normal. I became aware of the sensation of support and the direct relation between tension and sinking and relaxing and floating. Gently, the fear of drowning began to leave my body and I was able to see the beauty beneath me. The brilliant colors, several varieties of fish, the coral, the sand, the jellyfish that looked like flowers. It was amazing and I would have missed it all if I hadn’t been able to relax.
It seems counter intuitive to relax when we are afraid. All our instincts tell us to fight or run away – to take some kind of big action with a lot of effort. Relaxing is not what we naturally do or what we have been taught and yet, our deeper wisdom knows it is the most effective way to receive support in challenging and even life-threatening situations. It also seems that the more quickly you can relax in a difficult situation, the more that situation seems to have a better outcome.
Case in point, as I lay in the water, completely relaxed and feeling fully supported, a huge sea turtle swam lazily underneath me, stopped to chew on some seaweed and then swam slowly enough that I could easily follow it for several minutes without losing my breath or panicking.
I hope the next time you encounter something (or someone) stressful that you might remember my story. That you might try relaxing instead of some of your usual responses. If you are already a relaxer when faced with a difficult situation, then way to go and keep relaxing!
My wish is that you can know the profound feeling of being supported because the more you can relax, the more supported you will feel. (And maybe you’ll see a few turtles, too!)