The Surfboard Analogy I Use to Explain My Anxiety


Anxiety is so much more than fear. Anxiety is overwhelming fear that can still happen when it seems like there’s nothing to be scared of. Anxiety is unpredictable. Even if I have fought anxiety in a situation in the past, if I’m in the same situation again, it doesn’t mean I will be able to deal with it the same way.

The best way I can explain how my anxiety can manifest is to imagine a beach. Imagine you’re sitting on the beach, having a lovely time. There is warm sand between your toes and you are happy. You have a surfboard full of coping mechanisms and strategies. You’ve been to this beach dozens of times before; it’s a safe space. Sometimes you go, and the tide is out, and you can sit and appreciate the space and the laughter and the memories you create. Sometimes you paddle, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the seas are a little rough, but that’s OK, you can cope with that. On the occasions you venture out a little further, you may hit a wave. Sometimes you see it coming. Other times it’s sudden. Imagine this wave is anxiety. It might knock you off your feet. It might wash over you, if you keep yourself grounded. And if you’re feeling brave, you might try to ride that wave. If you hit it just at the right time, you can ride with it, even if it builds and you don’t know how high it may go. Other times you may catch it right at the top, and when that happens, no matter how strong a surfer you are, how much you fight to keep yourself upright on that surfboard, once you’ve lost the flow of the wave, you might struggle to balance yourself, to stop yourself falling in and letting the waves pull you out to sea. And then you’re going to have to swim back to the shore of safety.

Imagine if you don’t make it back to the water’s edge, if you slip and fall and the waves take you, everything goes dark. No matter what is going on around you, all you can focus on is the fact you’re falling and you’re drowning and you can’t breathe and you can’t see. There’s water in your ears and everything is overwhelming. Imagine all the sounds around you are building up and getting louder and more distorted. You can hear people calling you, trying to help. But until you reach the surface again, nothing is clear, you can’t quite make out what people are saying, you can’t answer anyone. Until you’re above the water and gasp those first few breaths of air, it feels like you’re stuck, you’re drowning, and you’re never going to float again.

Next time you go back to the beach, you may be a bit unsure. It may take you a while to go back, and you might not want to venture into the water again. You may never go back. You may have been surfing before and been fine, you may not. You can give in and never go back to the beach again, or you can keep going back and make the most of the sand and the shells and the safety. But no matter how many times you go, every time will be different. The tide will be different. It may be further in, further out. Stronger or not strong enough.

That’s how anxiety feels to me. Just because we’ve dealt with a situation once, doesn’t mean we’ll be OK to do it again and have it never be a problem. Every time we approach it, it’s going to be different, and that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling with something you’ve previously been OK with. You’ve fought it before, and you have the strength to do it again. And for those of you who can relate to this, I’m proud of you for every step toward the water you take.

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