I took a hesitant step down from the bank into the water. I have never been great with balance, so staying upright was my goal. Luckily the challenge took my attention as I stumbled tentatively out into the water. The brightly coloured swim hats of my course mates bobbing along ahead of me. I was already cold. I had spent an hour with my group in a freezing hut, followed by stripping down to a swimsuit in the cold air. It was around 3 degrees centigrade outside and less than 5 degrees in the water and here we were heading out for a dip. We had been told we would not stay in longer than 5 minutes. That sounded like a lifetime.
The water passed my knees. I was aware of a sensation on my skin. My feet were numb before the swim and remained that way. Above the knee was starting to feel kind of like burning. A strange hot and cold sensation. I was aware of the pre swim conversation saying thighs, bums and chest would be hard. I barely noticed these. I was focussed on getting in and swimming. I fairly quickly began a light breaststroke.
‘Breathe deeply’ a fellow simmer said as they came towards me. I realised at that moment that I was only breathing out and deliberately focussed my attention on breathing into my diaphragm. I had been practicing this for years through meditation and over the last few months with a few seconds of cold shower. It came easy once my mind remembered that breathing was essential.
It was then that I had my epiphany. It had been building for the last 5 days starting with a training run. I am preparing for my first marathon. I have never really believed my body was strong enough for a marathon, particularly my knees. Yet I had been lucky enough to get a place in the London marathon. After years of ballot rejection my place came at a bad time. I had been pregnant and postponed. I had no idea that the recovery from having a child was not just a return to fitness but also a massive physical recovery and so was not ready to return to running as quickly as hoped. Finally, I was on my last chance to do the London marathon and I desperately wanted to take part. So, 5 days before I was out for a 14-mile run. I hadn’t wanted to leave the house that day. I didn’t believe I could do it and a massive part of me wanted to give up. I have a lot of coping strategies, most importantly visualisation to help with these moments. The epiphany came when I realised I was actively avoiding using strategies to help me out the door. I wanted to fail (not consciously) it was more a case of wanting to give myself an excuse to quit and the thought that visualisation may remind me of how strong I am was scary. After all, if I remember that, I’m going to have to do the thing that scares me.
It was the same with the swimming. When I realised that I would be swimming in such cold conditions, without a wetsuit, a massive part of me decided to look for a reason to quit. I had postponed the course by a month already as I had booked for February but came down with flu. Ironically it was colder for the March course than the February one. The emails I had read from the instructor always finished with ‘come with a positive mental attitude’ I literally spent the car ride there arguing with myself. Not arguing in a positive way to try to keep my mind in a good place but arguing whether or not I wanted to be positive. Once again, I was drawn with a passion towards being negative. I wanted to be the one that said they couldn’t do it, then quit. After all that was far easier than facing something that scared me. It reminds me of the words of Marianne Williamson ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’
On Your Bike Fears (actually you can stay if you want, I'm going to cycle anyway).
By Dr Gemma Applegarth
Being a psychologist doesn’t protect you from having fear. It does however give you a toolkit to work on them.
As a kid I loved cycling. Starting off with a tiny blue and red bike with stabilisers. I can still remember the mix of joy and fear I felt when the stabilisers finally came off. A few minor falls later and I was cycling up and down the road (there were less cars in the 80s) and across the uneven grass of the park opposite our house. I soon graduated to a hand me down BMX from my brother and even went with him to the bike track to go over some humps.
Like many people I stopped cycling as I grew older. It lost its appeal and became just a mode of transport, soon to be replaced by my first car.
As I have become more engrossed in the world of running and fitness, I have found myself attracted to the idea of a duathlon. The idea of combining running and cycling seems exciting. Yet I also find myself returning to my childhood hobby with fears that never existed before.
Having an accident as a child probably didn’t help. I don’t remember much of it. Something along the lines of hitting a kerb, flying over handlebars, face hitting the road. I don’t think helmets had really caught on by then. When I stood up, the screw from my bell had embedded itself in my chin. A trip to hospital for my first set of stitches was needed. As far as falls go, it was a minor one, a few stitches and all repaired. At least I felt repaired, my mum couldn’t stand watching the stitches, collapsed and ended up being wheeled back to me in a chair. I did manage to get back on the bike and enjoyed life on two wheels for a few more years.
What is holding me back from enjoying cycling now? Mainly it’s my own head. Thoughts of ‘I will fall, will have an accident, don’t go too fast, it will hurt more when you face plant’ are always present. These combine with thoughts of ‘You will probably get hit by a car or squashed by a bus’ to set off my emergency fight flight system. Physical pain is only a part of the story. There is also the ever-present fear of making a fool of myself. Thoughts of ‘what are you doing? You’re not an athlete, you will come last, beyond last, you won’t even know where the person ahead of you is’ are always there to bring down any ambition. As I contemplated entering a duathlon, they increased their power, giving me images of coming in so late that everyone else had gone home.
There are also things I do which keep the fear going. These are often known as safety behaviours. Things we do to keep ourselves emotionally or physically safe. For me one of the things I do is only ride on a weekend before 9am as I feel the need to stick to empty roads. This keeps me safe in several ways. The first and most obvious is there are less cars to knock me off my bike. Emotionally I also remain safe by not having to deal cars over taking me, fear of holding others up or looking like an idiot when I can’t make it up the hill. With potential humiliation in mind I also never signed up for events and cycled only on my own.
So having decided I would like to work on this fear the first step is to set a goal. Goals work best if they are SMART. This stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and with a time frame. So that's exactly what I did. I started by booking myself into a duathlon (admittedly I did use a safety behaviour of looking the course up first, knowing exactly how many hills and where they would be). I also booked myself into the London to Brighton bike ride. My goals were set.
Guess what happened next? I managed a few cycles, really started to make some progress then the corona virus hit and changed my plans. Life tends to do that. If you want to succeed at anything you must adapt to changes.
I didn't adapt for a while. Like many people when the lockdown began, I moved my work as a therapist to my home. I began seeing people over digital formats and on the phone, which meant getting to grips with new technology, taking short courses and setting myself up with a home office. I also now had the restriction of only leaving the house once a day for exercise and was faced with the choice, go for a run, go for a cycle or take a walk with your wife who appreciates your company. The changes in our ability to shop also seemed to spark something in me. I never quite got wrapped up in the toilet roll dash, but I did find myself thinking that being at home meant I needed more chocolate. So, less exercise, choosing between a cycle and time with my wife and increased chocolate, all that good work on the bike began to unravel. The obvious was the fitness, but also the fear.
To overcome a fear, you can face it using a technique known as exposure therapy, it basically means you start facing your fear in small goals. So, I started just getting out for a ride and didn't worry about the safety behaviours like early mornings with the idea being that as you become less scared you start to challenge yourself with things which feel scarier i.e. busier roads. Although you start with small goals, they do need to create the feeling of fear. As you spend time doing the activity you are fearful of your body gradually reaches habituation. It’s the decrease in physical fear symptoms i.e. increased heart rate, shallow breathing. When you stay in a situation where the fear reduces by at least half then you retrain your mind and body to accept the activity does not need that level of fear. To succeed at this, you must have two conditions. First thing is you don't distract yourself. You do actually have to be aware that you are doing the thing you are scared of. The second is that you keep going with the exposure regularly. Fear doesn’t tend to go after one event, you have to keep putting yourself in that position. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and I noticed anxious thoughts kicking in again.
To work with the anxious thoughts, I am using mindfulness. The allows me to have the thoughts without the need to hold on to them. Mindful practice can be helpful at letting go of the need to stick with and believe every thought.
In traditional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) working with thoughts involves challenging them. For example, in my case the thought that I will fall is both unhelpful and far from being true. To work with it you spend time looking for the evidence for and against the thought and work on coming up with something more realistic.
CBT can be helpful. It has a strong evidence base for supporting people through fears and phobias and is the therapy of choice within the NHS. However, in my case, I am aware I don’t fall every time, in fact I don’t think I fell off again since the dreaded stitches day. It doesn’t stop me being unable to tolerate the uncertainty that I might fall off or that others wont drive safely and I will get knocked down. With mindfulness what your working on is not so much changing a thought but on letting go of its power. After all, the thought I could fall will probably be there whether I give it permission to be there or not. My task is to allow it to be there without fusing with it as though it is the truth.
As a mindfulness teacher I have been practicing this technique for several years. As I said earlier being a psychologist or a mindfulness teacher does not shield you from fear. Instead it has given me a tool. My job now is to apply it to my current situation.
I will let you know how it goes.
This morning was a good chance for me to put my mindful practice in action. Just to clarify I would usually practice mindfulness around 5 times a week with a mixture of formal meditation and a more active based meditation ie mindful walking or mindful activity. This is like weaving a parachute which helps me when emotions, thoughts, feelings are strong.Today I was able to use this to help me with running. I would like to share the experience with you and also introduce the metaphor of the two arrows.
The two arrows – I often use this when teaching meditation as it helps to distinguish what we are working on versus what we are not.
Imagine yourself being shot by two seperate arrows to the body. One of those arrows represents the things we can not change, this may be a suffering of some kind, a pain which could be physical or emotional. In running it may represent the tired legs, fatigue, that dodgy ankle, an initial experience of fear before it turns to worry or an initial negative thought that just comes uninvited into our minds. It may represent a reality for example the truth may be that the dodgy ankle needs rest, that it is best to let it heal, that a marathon is too long right now if we havent trained well enough or fed our body with good nutrition. These are things that in that moment we can not change. Always ask yourself the question ‘what do I need right now to best take care of myself?’
The second arrow represents how we respond to that. For example an initial fear, the feeling as it creeps through our body is not something we can change but the panic that comes with it, the thoughts that tag on ‘I cant do it, it means I wont finish, I will let myself and others down’ those are something we can do something about. It is the distress and our staying within the distress (which then can choke our ability to think clearly and respond) that is a part of this second arrow.
Mindfulness focuses on helping with the second arrow. Running may always result in tired legs, in a chest that is breathing heavy. We can not change that. If you think back to Sir Mo or any elite athletes best performances they rarely dont have a moment of falling to the floor and breathing so hard and fast. It is the way we respond to these that we can change.
As you may know I run with a club, which takes part in a winter cross country series with other clubs. I have been a club member 2 years and never taken part. The reason – my mind gets in the way. Let’s face it even just the name may bring on something, for me it was school days. Being the fat kid who always came last, the humiliation. Was also a mixed school which felt the need to make girls pe kits much more revealing than boys, double humiliation. If you run with me you may also notice my ability to fall over a leaf, treble humiliation. So the starting point was never good for me. My incredibly helpful mind told me it would be full of much stronger faster runners, it even encouraged me to see who else from the club had signed up, just to confirm I would be last. A quick check online and yep looks like I would the slowest of people I know. Can anyone see where the arrows fit in. First arrow initial fear. Second arrow worry, flashbacks, images, more fear and more worry.
As I said earlier it is important to ask yourself the question what do I need to take care of myself? Last year I asked myself that question and while I was doing well with getting back to running, getting routine in place, and going through a particularly difficult time in life the answer to that question was genuinely that it was enough right now to do what i was doing. That it was genuinely right for me not to approach the cross country season. This year is a different story. Things are different and when I asked myself what i needed it was time to tackle that second arrow. So last night (yes my mind talked me into putting it off that long) I finally signed up for today’s event. My mind than went into over drive and so I spent some time, through a body scan, just watching my mind as it wandered. Focus on the knee…mind wanders to coming last….focus on ankle…mind wanders to visions of falling over tree roots and being humiliated and also missing my first boxing lesson this week which I am so excited about. You get the idea, I focused, mind wandered, I noticed, I practiced guiding back. A thought is just a thought. The attention I place on it is what makes me suffer.
What’s really important here is that mindfulness did not take away my fear, I was always aware of it. I even found myself looking around at the start for anyone who looked like they might be more my pace (asthough you can tell by looking at someone).
My initial fear is the first arrow. What mindfulness allowed me to do was two things both of which sit in the second arrow. It allowed me to recognise that my thoughts were just that, THOUGHTS, they will come and they will go but I do not have to attach to them. The other thing it allowed was to practice coming back, both before and during running. In some moments that also allowed me to respond ie to change my posture, to hold my head up, to breathe from my diaphragm, to correct my foot fall, to be aware of all that I was taught during my couch to 5k course.
Now it’s over, I get to feel proud that I ran alongside my own mind today and was able to guide it rather than be dictated to.
If you read all this you deserve a wine / beer/ pringles. Enjoy.
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