Lockdown Lessons I Learnt From Paddling

Written by Leisa Aitken

Ocean paddling has been taken up with great enthusiasm by Sydneysiders in lockdown—those lucky enough to live close to the water. The sport is particularly covid friendly: always more than 1.5 m apart, a paddle in these long, skinny kayaks on the ocean or harbour means your exercise and mental health goals are accomplished in one.

I took up the sport as part of my mid-life crisis a few years ago. As a clinical psychologist, I work with many people shackled by deep anxieties; avoiding those feelings often means meaningful goals are not pursued. But after constantly challenging clients to make room for feelings of fear, I knew I should practice what I preach. 

My fear? The ocean. Moving water. And waves. Paddling on inland waterways on a calm day is sublimely relaxing. But since when did we learn about life or ourselves in those conditions? 

Paddling on an ocean swell on a windy day has taught me to push through, my heart pounding, my mouth dry. It challenges the soul, but the lessons I’ve learnt have been lessons for life. And particularly for lockdown. 

1. It’s a shark! Worst case scenario thinking doesn’t help. 

That fin is far more likely to be a dolphin. And if it is a shark, it’s probably after a fish, not a chunk of fibreglass. 

When we are anxious, the primitive limbic system at the base of our brain goes into survival mode and we assume the worst, sending us into a tailspin. We need to counter it with big picture, rational, frontal-cortex thinking: our world has faced pandemics before. Lockdown will ease eventually and we will get to hug those we love, enjoy restaurants, and see our colleagues face to face.  Hope requires glimpsing the positive possibilities.

2. Work on your core to stay balanced. 

Paddling is not really about your arm muscles—its more about building strength in your core so you won’t fall out of a very tippy boat. 

In lockdown many of the ways we express our core values have changed. But what is deeply important to us will not have changed, and this helps keep us balanced. Focusing on ‘who I want to be’ is better than my arms flailing around with reactive emotions. The three values I’ve been focusing on are ones that have anchored humans for millenia: trusting in something bigger than myself, choosing to see positive, meaningful possibilities in the future and being as kind to others as I can. Otherwise known as faith, hope and love.

3. Ride the swell.

It took me a while not to be freaked out by the rise and fall of the swell around me. I had to learn not to focus on the ups and downs and stop the internal commentary about how I didn’t like it.  Instead, just keep paddling, keep moving forward. 

It’s the same with the emotions of lockdown. Some days we feel fine. Other days we feel intense emotions, for no apparent reason: irritation, sadness, feeling overwhelmed. Or there’s days where you’ll languish with no motivation. It helps to be realistic. Sometimes you won’t get as much done but there’s no point getting self-critical. Just ride the ups and downs, focusing on slowly moving in the direction of your values, who you want to be, in the comforting knowledge that most people are on the same rollercoaster.

4 . Accept the forecast. 

Some days I feel a deep need to paddle for my own mental health, but the wind or swell mean it’s beyond my ability to stay safe. Sports that are dependent on weather teach you to cultivate a certain mindset: humility to forces beyond our control; acceptance of disappointment and a decent amount of patience.

These three-character traits: humility before a virus; acceptance of our now limited way of life; a persevering patience as we await new guidelines, help us to cope in lockdown with a greater degree of peace. 

5. Appreciate the scenery when you can. 

It’s magical to paddle along the gleaming path lit by the sunrise or be greeted by sea turtles —but easy to miss if I’m too focused on working on technique or lost in thought. 

Having eyes to see the good around us matters. Psychological research shows gratitude to be a key factor in wellbeing, especially in challenging times. We need it as an orientation but also in our relationships; not just being grateful for what we do have, but expressing our gratitude to those important to us. I gave a spiel of thankfulness to my barista yesterday, explaining how the ritual of morning chats and coffee has helped me get through.

6. Don’t get too close or too far from others. 

Paddling with others is awesome. It can be a silent communing together in the majesty of nature or an animated catchup. But there is a balance to be struck in how physically close one gets to others on a ski. Too close and you can end up in turbulent waters with them if they fall in. But too far away is frightening, and even dangerous in wilder conditions. 

In our relationships we need a balance between togetherness and separateness. Lockdown has created some very intense togetherness for those we live with. We are likely to “fall into” their emotional chaos if we don’t prioritise managing our own emotional reactivity (deep breaths!) and connect with our best thinking.  

But lockdown has also meant being too far apart from others whom we love and with whom we normally ‘do life’. We’re all having to make room for a very understandable, and for some, incredibly difficult, grief. Like any intense negative emotion, grief requires putting into words to share, and support from others. 

Finally, if those paddling in the waters around us seem too distant, or too focused on staying afloat themselves to hear us, there are times we need to reach out for professional help—to be accountable for self-care; diet, exercise, structure, mindset.  Sometimes we just need someone to have a safe cry with. In Karen Blixen’s words: “Salt water cures everything; sweat, tears or the sea”.