Swim or Sink

Swim or Sink
Claudette Pelletier-Hannah

It’s been about 20 years since I’ve had a video game controller in my hands. I was pretty useless at gaming.

Nonetheless, I recently found myself with a virtual reality headset on my head and a controller back in my hands. I viewed the fascinating, virtual landscape with intrigue, but within seconds I was under water. Gulp.

The idea of virtual reality is to trick your brain into thinking the images you see are your new reality. Well, I’m here to say that it works. I felt panic rise as I took a plunge. I can swim, but that wasn’t helping. And as I am unskilled with a controller I quickly plunged deeper.

Not that I needed more proof, but I was reminded how we don’t have to be in a stressful situation to induce the stress response. We just need to remember, or imagine the stressful situation. My logical brain knew the water wasn’t real, but my emotional brain felt rushed to come to the surface.

When you feel a wave of panic what do you do? What sort of coping strategies do you have?

Had I just allowed and accepted my anxious underwater state a little longer I probably could have enjoyed the experience like a fish in water. Some real deep breathing could have helped me get there too. But no. I did what most of us do. I just wanted to make the feeling go away. I had to get the heck out of the water.

The job of your reptilian brain is to keep you alive. If it comes down to a real life or death situation you better fight or flee. Unfortunately your brain hasn’t evolved in two hundred million years and still reacts to today’s bounty of stressors like your life is being threatened. It isn’t.

Because your brain doesn’t know the difference between an imagined threat and a real one it’s a good idea to be more aware and discerning to your mind and body’s signals, and be able to respond in a healthy way as soon as possible.

As you know, while comforting in the moment, overeating and other numbing behaviors will never solve a problem happening in real time, or as it is remembered. What to do?

Allowing difficult feelings to be felt sometimes helps them to dissolve, unlike trying to bury them. Practicing behaviors and techniques that invoke the relaxation response and regulate your nervous system will make a big difference in your ability to cope. While our universal pastime of watching TV is often viewed as a way to relax, it can easily be more of a numbing or avoidant behavior.

It’s important to address the source of your stress. In the meantime, you can try deep breathing, meditation, connecting with loved ones, being in nature, moving your body, or practicing energy balancing techniques like yoga, Qi Gong or Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT, often called tapping). Take frequent breaks in your day, and take vacations too.

Having strategies that support you can help you swim through adversity, real or imagined.