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Cold Water Swimming is Hard. Therapeutic Principles Can Help

How can theories of resistance help us with swimming in cold waters, and life in more general?

*This blog was originally published with Wild Swimming Cornwall in October 2020 here.

Many a time I have stood at the shore, knee-deep in the icy cold waters. As the mental wrestling match between different parts of myself take over, I am overwhelmed by the desire to get out rather than get in. One part of me wants to swim, to shift my whole state of being, to get the buzz and feel the fullness, and be there with my friends who are already in and shrieking with exhilaration. The other part wants to retreat to safety, to stay warm, dry and nourished. As I stand on the shore, I’m genuinely unsure if I have the capacity to endure the full-blown sensory experience of the mighty cold. Will I survive? Of course I will. Get in, I won’t regret it...

Perhaps you’re reading this and at some point you’ve had a similar experience. Or, you like the idea of cold-water swimming, but actually doing it is too daunting right now. I’m going to take a look at the concept of resistance within psychotherapy and see how it applies to wild swimming. This may be helpful to the seasoned swimmers, and to those curious at the shorelines alike. In re-defining our understanding of resistance, we may find more self-compassion, self-safety and more courage to make positive actions for our wellbeing. This might look like moving through the resistance into the cold water, or listening to the part that wants the warmth and safety of the shore.

During my counselling training, I used to hear it trouped about how some people just aren’t ready to make change, no matter how much effort the counsellor makes. From what I gather, this sentiment sees resistance as a mechanism that hinders therapy. The idea goes that we have various savvy ways of resisting going to the deep and painful places that require attention, therefore deliberately slowing the process of healing.

How does this view of resistance apply to cold water swimming? It’s February, it’s raining, I’m looking across to the river from my warm car, and I’m big-time resisting. The psychoanalytic view of resistance would be that my resistance is bad, unhelpful, and a form of self-sabotage. This view seems to be what people mean when they talk about resistance in everyday life. To me, this theory is a very pessimistic view of our human nature. Resistance as self-sabotage implies that people deep down do not want positive change. I disagree.

Alternatively, Gestalt theory, an approach to therapy created by Laura and Fitz Perls in the 1940’s, explains the situation differently. In Gestalt therapy, we can think of resisting as an action against something external. The cold water is external to me, and I am resisting experiencing it. The resistance is not intrinsic to the person, it is a reaction to the environment. As humans, given the opportunity for positive healing and growth, we will inherently take it. But because of our current limitations, the choice of experiences that increase well-being may not be available to us right now. Gestalt therapy becomes about exploring creatively, and broadening our sense of awareness to other possibilities of choice in a given moment.

This uncovers a simpler, more optimistic view of our human nature. Our basic drives are to grow, heal, explore, and develop in our capacities. When we reach our limits when exploration feels dangerous and risky, a response kicks in. It says “that doesn’t feel safe. Retreat. Find an alternative. Stick to what we know works”. You can label it resistance, or you can label it as a very sensible, biology-based survival response that has kept us alive.

Fast forward 70 years and therapists are now synthesising research from neuro-psychology and evolutionary biology and in doing so Gestalt’s theory of resistance is making more sense. The focus is on how improving wellbeing helps clients to better understand their in-built mechanisms for fight/flight and flop. When we are not in these modes, our nervous system is in a place of safety, possibility, connection and curiosity. We are hard-wired to search out places, people and experiences that queue these feelings of safety.

So here we have settled on a much more workable explanation for the inner argument between getting in the cold water, or staying ashore. On one side is the base human drive to grow, explore and expand the limits of our capacity.

On the other side, we are working with our biological mechanisms that are hardwired to search for safety, connection and emotional regulation. We rationally understand that swimming will make us feel good and that it aligns with our base desire to thrive, but our threat detection systems aren’t quite convinced that the risk is worth the reward.

With that in mind, what can we do when facing resistance to the cold, whether it’s ours, or someone else’s? By understanding that our resistance is a natural response to something outside of our comfort zone, we can extend some compassion and understanding to it. Why not thank the resistance for doing a great job at trying to keep us safe? That may be enough to move through it. Perhaps the resistance wants to be listened to more carefully, rather than ignored. Maybe the resistance just needs some shifts in the environment in order for swimming to feel doable. External comforts can queue a sense of inner safety and make the adventure of wild swimming more manageable. For example, a hot flask of tea at the ready. Or swimming with goggles so you can still see, may feel safer. Equally, the more you swim, the more you build a bed of affirming memories that counteract the resistance. By continuing to show up at your edge, you learn about how to soothe and support yourself in capacity-expanding situations .You are building resilience to adversity, and that is translatable across life.

In re-defining our understanding of resistance, we may find more self-compassion, self-safety and more courage to make positive actions for our wellbeing. This might look like moving through the resistance into the cold water, or listening to the part that wants the warmth and safety of the shore....

Eco-therapy is about exploring how we relate to the landscapes around us, and using those experiences to reflect upon our lives at large. Perhaps it could be fruitful to ponder other situations in which resistance shows up in your life, so that you may now direct more understanding, self-compassion, and queues of safety towards those times.


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