Save Your Breath

Aug 28, 2021

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

When I was a child, I didn’t really know how to swim properly. I hadn’t learned how to do breaststroke, and so I would get exhausted after swimming a few laps. I had taken some swimming lessons, but they never stuck. (I had some pretty bad childhood swim coaches, some of whom would simply dunk me underwater to “resolve” my fear of swimming.)

As an adult, I decided I wanted to learn to swim. For real this time. I was lucky to find an excellent coach at a gym. He started by hearing out my complaints about running out of energy. He watched me swim a few laps, and that was enough for him to see the problem.

He told me I was trying too hard to breathe. I thought this was an absurd thing to say, since my problem was clearly that I was running out of breath. Surely I needed more breath, not less.

He gently guided me to understand the folly of my ways. My panic around having enough breath was, in fact, the very thing that used up most of my breath.

Anxiety takes up energy. Mine took it all. Effectively, I was suffocating myself out of oxygen.

Once he taught me to breathe, I could cross to the other end without taking a single breath. It took a lot of practice in staying calm and relaxed, but to my surprise, I did it within a few days. It taught me that I didn’t need to breathe constantly. I could relax.

When I relaxed, I had more breath. When I had more breath, I swam farther, faster, freer. Months later, I was swimming with speeds I could never have imagined.

Panic, fear, worry and overthinking sucks up your energy like a vacuum. If you spend all your energy thinking about doing, you’ll have none left to actually do anything.

A simple mantra I try to tell myself when I get stuck in overthinking loops:

Save your breath. You’ll need it.

In the end, the thing that stops us is rarely the task itself. It is our own self sabotage.

Wind, Sand & Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry