Many triathletes find the swimming event not just challenging and but also the most unsettling of the three events. Why is that?
Let me give you a hint: the answer may lie beneath the surface!
There are three categories of explanations as to why the swimming event is off-putting. If we first rule out the primary reason–that many people are simply better at and more familiar with running and biking than swimming, we can then focus on some of the deeper reasons for this discomfort. Of course, if you grew up swimming on a regular basis or swam competitively in high school or college, you may actually prefer this event. But for many others, swimming represents a challenge to be overcome. Here are some reasons for why this may be the case. Some of these reasons may even surprise you.
The first category is the most obvious: the nature of swimming involves being in water and in most cases, open water where you are subjected to more extreme elements than when competing on land. Cold, wind, waves, the reduction in visibility, the possibility of swallowing water, discomfort or equipment problems associated with your wet suit or goggles, the threat of getting kicked in the head by a competitor’s foot or hit in the ribs by a wind milling arm all contribute to a reduction in our feeling of safety. Drowning–the ultimate threat– is unlikely but it can exist as a background fear for some. The bottom line is that for most of us, being out of our comfort zone creates stress which causes our brain’s threat detection system to go on alert which in turn ramps up anxiety. If you happen to be high in “trait” (personality-based) anxiety, the situational or “state” anxiety tied to the event can may activate feelings of near panic for some people that makes it very difficult to compete effectively. Acknowledging these feelings is a critical first step before addressing how you can better manage your reactions to this water-borne activity.
The next two categories of explanation do lie beneath the surface–the surface of conscious awareness, that is. While less common than the first explanation, many people are uncomfortable with the swimming event because they either experienced real trauma associated with water at some point in their childhoods or because of some symbolic and unconscious fear they hold for what deep water means to them. Let me explain further.
Let’s take the first example. As a clinical psychologist over many years in practice, I cannot tell you how many clients came in for a problem associated with anxiety only to discover they had suffered from some traumatic experience involving water. They might have fallen in a pool as a child before learning how to swim, were pushed in the water as a joke, were held underwater by an older sibling, dunked head first in water, thrown in the deep end of the pool by a well-meaning parent in a misguided attempt to teach them how to swim, pulled underwater by an ocean riptide, frightened by a large fish or snake while swimming in a lake and on and on and on. Many times they had forgotten about these traumatic experiences and were surprised when the memories re-emerged years later in therapy. One way to know if past traumatic experiences may explain your discomfort with swimming in open water is to first identify the specific fear you have about being in water and then tracking back into your past to see if there is any match with any past water experience. If you find a match, there are new psychological techniques now available to rapidly treat these past water-borne traumas.
The third category is less likely than the others but may well surprise you (and now we are going very deep). Do try to be open to a purely psychological explanation that may be relevant to you, especially if neither of the previous two categories explain your discomfort with swimming. We know from psychological research that for many people, water symbolically represents the unconscious mind–that vast pool of thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, core conflicts and unprocessed experiences that swirl around inside us beneath our conscious awareness. This unconscious life (which reveals itself in our dreams) provides the emotional backdrop to our lived experiences. We can’t possibly be aware of all of this personal information at one time or we would have a brain-freeze. So, inevitably, much gets pushed downward out of consciousness to allow us to focus on the here and now demands of modern life. If too much gets pushed downward or if there are emotional conflicts that we are unprepared to deal with (or prefer not to deal with), the result can be anxiety. Now for most people, their psychological defenses (denial, repression, projection, intellectualization, rationalization etc.) keep this material safely under wraps. That is, until some life experience triggers an activation of the unconscious material that breaks through one’s psychological defenses and like a air bubble, rises to the surface. This is the moment when we experience emotional discomfort, usually in the form of anxiety. It was Sigmund Freud who first said that anxiety performs a “signaling” function; that is, it lets us know that something is going on deeper within us without necessarily indicating what the discomfort is about. However, what appears to trigger the anxiety–like open water swimming–can provide a clue that something deep within us–a conflict, a fear, even a wish–is becoming active. We may fear something coming up from beneath to threaten us, bite us or possibly drag us down under. One example is agoraphobia which is the fear of open spaces. Swimming in open water can certainly trigger this fear. Once anxiety gets activated, other deeper fears can also get triggered. Whatever it is, it is most likely not reality-based (you are not likely to get bitten by a shark, either in a lake or ocean), even though it feels that way. But, remember, just because you have a feeling doesn’t make it true. Again, we now have new techniques that can rapidly surface these fears and work them through which will allow you to do your best, unburdened by the weight of psychological fears. Running and biking may be easier, but if you can master the swimming, your results may dramatically improve.