The easy days are easy. Wisdom and courage come from thriving on the tough days. BodyWHealth is the reward for a life of healthy habit, fuelled by persistence and resilience. The easy days are easy. How do you get through the tough days?I love the ocean. She heals and refreshes me. She gives me energy and ideas. I am in awe of her power, her breadth and depth, and her many faces. I admire and respect the brave men and women who study her and work to protect her. I am part of the extensive kindred that love to play in the ocean, and will use any excuse to swim, dive, surf or kayak. More than anything else, I am respectful of her immense strength, most evident in towering waves that crash relentlessly on the beaches and rocks of our continents.
My fascination with waves leads me to explore dangerous places. Huge waves attract a tiny group of adventurers, lured by the might of the ocean and the thrill of participating in her spectacular displays. Now, don’t get me wrong, I haven’t surfed or swum in 100-foot waves (yet). Maybe one day, but for now, I am drawn by the spectacle, and the brave athletes that test their skills and courage in these super-natural forces.
I recently met a veteran big wave surfer. For the most part, we thrill in watching online videos and photographs of these brave athletes surfing down a wall of water, escaping the thunderous crest that threatens to deluge them with tons of churning water. It is easy to understand the elation that drives them to stare danger in the face. My interest though, is how they survive the long, terrifying moments when things go wrong. When the world turns into a boiling mass of water, pounding them and sucking them in different directions while trying to crush them under its weight, and sometimes against a rocky shore.
I was fascinated by his response to my questions. He told me that big wave surfers train to practice holding a calming image in their mind. When things get really rough, and it seems like they may have to hold their breath for eternity, and they feel like they’re down to their last drop of oxygen, they bring this image into their mind. It’s an emotional parachute.
This made so much sense in the context of the underlying neuroscience of our brains. Our primitive brain stems are responsible for survival. Danger activates our primitive brains to flood our bodies with adrenaline and other chemicals that evoke powerful “fight or flight” responses. If left alone, our body responds dutifully in frantic activity to preserve life. This is a major problem if you’re going to be under water for a few minutes. Your heart races, your limbs thrash and your body craves precious oxygen that you burn excessively in your frenzy. Your lungs are desperate for air, but if you inhale you will drown. Signals from the primitive brain also jolt the emotional brain into action. Fear becomes panic, compounding your risk and exacerbating the red haze that threatens your mind.
Nature has gifted humans with a massive cerebral cortex – the thinking part of our brains. Powerfully, she has established dominance of this cognitive brain over our primitive brains. The cognitive brain is under our voluntary control. At will, we are able to override the urgent clamors of the primitive (and emotional) brain using powerful, positive thoughts. That is exactly what these big wave surfers train themselves to do. When panic threatens to condemn them to a watery death, they invoke the override of their cognitive brains. Holding onto the tranquil image of a peaceful landscape, or the reassuring face of a loved one, or their favorite pet, they breathe calm into their mind. In this more relaxed state, they are able to hold their breath, stop thrashing, regain their gravitational bearings, and eventually surface to gulp in delicious oxygen-rich air again.
Perhaps you’ve never dived under a big wave in the ocean, and never tasted this fear. But I’m sure that you will recognize the overwhelming feelings of panic and confusion. You have experienced these in many different ways through your life. Use your understanding of the neuroscience of the brain, and train yourself like a big wave surfer. Each of us should have a beautiful, peaceful image in the back of our minds that we can reach for in moments of rage or panic. Find one; practice bringing it into the front of your mind on good days. Do this when your boss criticizes you, your spouse yells at you, or your children fight with each other. Do it when you have to pay the hefty tax bill you hadn’t anticipated, or you get bad news. Increasingly, you will be able to use this new skill on the tough days, getting you through the terrifying turbulence until you can surface to gulp in fresh air again. This will be a huge step towards BodyWHealth.
Please enjoy the ocean and all her lessons.