Physical engagement - Helping reduce fear, anxiety and depression
You’ve heard it before. Exercise is a key element to physical well-being. The Health and Human Services Department recommends 20 minutes of walking a day. While we encourage you to follow these recommendations, we equally want to inspire you to think outside the box. To achieve balance for body and mind, getting outside in any capacity is already a healing start. How about jumping into cold water in a creek or lake? That is precisely what I have done. Keep reading.
The effects of spending time outdoors
Getting outside the four walls as frequently as possible to enjoy a walk in the park, to explore your neighborhood forest, to swim in a lake, to perfuse your body and to get fresh air are associated with well-being and balance. Numerous peer reviewed studies will attest to people’s report about healthier living when in nature.
Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
The Cold Creek Deep - What was going on at the time?
When Covid-19 became the reality in my life, as it did around the world, the phases of adjustment began with feelings of isolation and lack of motivation. Moments of fear were compounded with the reality of infection and death. Anxiety infused my body and mind. The first half of 2020 appeared to last forever. Today, 2020 seems to be running from itself.
It was during the first half I was compelled to find a healthy way of coping and getting my anxiety in check. 2020 presented next to the Pandemic the year of a Presidential election, Black Lives Matter movement, the passing of a Supreme Court Judge and social media inundated with alternative facts. These were forces I had little sway or control over.
Deciding how I structured my daily routine was something I could control. I spent more time with myself; an inwardly focused state in the times of grief. The more I paid attention to me, the more energy flowed right back to me and into my home. And with this realization, I became creative.
A trigger for an idea - The motivation to act
I live next to a creek fed by the waters from mountains, rain and snow melt. As beautiful as the water I overlook, it is just as cold. I measured 60 degrees in September and 40 degrees in December. How is it that I have never jumped in yet? And how did I come to do it? Fear of the cold.
During a social meeting on Zoom, a friend spoke about the breathing techniques described by Wim Hof (The Iceman; withstands freezing temperatures) to control breathing when immersed into very cold water. It was this trigger to looking for an outlet for my fear and anxiety, that I decided I would jump into the creek several times a week until the first snow covered the mountains and the trees were dressed in white. But I was afraid to take the first step.
Fear and anxiety - What happens in the body?
Emotions are not just feelings. They are part of the physiological processes of your body in response to your perception of real or imagined threats. Science describes fear as a signal to a threat about an object that is real or external or known. Anxiety is described to be a signal to an unknown threat or internal conflict. Fear and anxiety both trigger the body to gear up into action.
Responses to emotional events such as anxiety, panic attacks or fear increase heart and blood pressure.
From the National Institute of Human Health, other symptoms include:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having muscle tension
- Having sleep problems
- Heart palpitations, a pounding heartbeat, or an accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking
To gain control over your emotional reactions, name your tools
I set a goal, jumping into a creek. I would fully immerse myself in the cold waters of the creek until the first snow hit our mountains and the trees were covered in white. And so I started the routine. Routines offer a familiar space and comfort because they appear more predictable. We gain a sense of control.
Three times a week, I woke up at 7:00 AM and walked to the water. I brought a towel, dry clothes and carried my camera. I wanted to capture each dip and observe the mental progress throughout the daunting task. At first, the fear and utter discomfort of cold water made for a bald awakening. But I did it.
On December 1st, 2020, the town was covered in snow. I woke up to the reality that my goal was to be accomplished now.
Stage 1 — The First Dip
When you are challenged to do something that feels uncomfortable, the important first step is to name the action and have the process formulated in your mind. The brain acts like a hard-drive and the thoughts are the software you load. I ran that program to not let the default run me.
I imagined the execution of the cold dip first. I saw myself in the moment of acting and imagined the feeling of excitement, the rush of adrenaline. It started in my head, no physical action had taken place yet. Then, I formulated the reason for my action and conceived the outcome in my mind to my advantage.
How do I want this experience to feel like? What is the outcome I wish for? The mind infuses the body with a sizzle of an activation energy; to act towards the desired outcome. “The water is refreshing and invigorating. The submersion increases my circulation and the outcome produces the feeling of accomplishment.” My mantra.
The first dip was a challenge, no doubt. The moment my body touched the water, my breathing became erratic. I didn’t know when to hold my breath or when to exhale. When the water became too cold on my body (60 Fahrenheit), I simply dove under instead of getting out. I had already been wet and had come this far. When I resurfaced, I immediately got out and dried off. The after effects elated my senses and I felt awake and strong. This motivated me to do it again. Each time I stayed in the water longer.
Stage 2 — The Adjustment
After the initial experience, I learned two things. First, the water is indeed very cold and uncomfortable. Then I learned that overcoming the fear of the initial act, getting into water resulted in an empowerment and achievement. The challenge turned into fun, which overpowered the mental trepidation. I could work with my fear because I had now gained an additional perspective; the good feeling that resulted.
The routine, which included the short walk through the little forest to the creek, taking off my clothes, and the controlled breathing turned into a mentally and familiar routine. I knew these elements intimately now, a meditative state and calm right before the plunge. It only got easier because I knew what to expect. And what I anticipated as discomfort changed to a habit of comfort.
Stage 3 — The Snow Plunge
This was my goal; getting into the creek when the first snow of the year had fallen. The water was slightly below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow added a new mental barrier. I experienced this morning with dread, while equally feeling super excited. I was nervous and my heart was racing. Could I do it? I waited until the afternoon and called a friend to be present in case of an emergency.
I packed a towel and warm shoes and a little mat to step on after I got out of the water to change into dry clothes. I had lots of fear that occluded my mind and hampered my determination. But I was married to my goal and I had the advantage of regular exposure since September. Not doing it added a sense of failure that I had not prepared for. But the snow added a new fear that became the distraction.
I walked to the creek in the snow, the comfort of the familiar path and the positive effects of the outcome brought me right back into my comfort zone. I knew this routine well. My body reacted with joy and excitement, my head began to succumb to the acceptance of action. I was in my meditative state like I had been in so many times before. I did it.
Fear is a concept the mind creates
The act of execution in most all circumstances of our daily life is not as horrible as the fear itself. In moments of fear, our body experiences danger and therefore gears up to produce the adrenaline ready for a fight, or flight. In that state of a stress response, I felt my body become numb in the moment of action. Almost like a sedative, in which the body absorbs the pain or discomfort while the mind is put on hold. I just act.
Ultimately, the physical experience of cold on my body was never as bad as my imagination. I had been mentally ready after all, and I knew the effects of exposure. I learned that I would be okay and something better than fear resulted.
Our fear is not what reality has in store for us. Just as we are not what our thoughts make us out to be, fear is not as we make it out to be. It only takes that first dive into the situation to find out that we are capable of overcoming.
Happy diving into the discomfort, gaining the subsequent stamina from that achievement and being stronger for it today.
Information herein may not be used as a replacement for the medical recommendations and applications from your physician or other qualified clinician.