Waves of Emotion


There has always been an undercurrent of anxiety running through my life.  Even though I am a pretty laid back guy, I find it hard to sit still or just be.  Over time, I’ve become used to my anxiety.  Like a refrigerator that runs quietly in the background, sometimes it’s not until it starts making noises that you notice it.

Surfing was one such noise that reminded me of my anxiety.  Here’s how it reared its ugly head and and how I kept it at bay…

Growing up

On annual family excursions to the Jersey shore, I usually rode waves on a raft or simply body surfed.  I always enjoyed checking out boardwalk surf shops with all their shiny boards on display.  But sadly, walking in and out of them was the extent of my surfing for most of my life.  Surfing was like a secret club you could only join if you surfed, the classic catch twenty two.

Fortunately, I was able to end this streak a few years ago.  Determined to surf, I summoned a few friends and planned a day trip to the ocean.  Long story short, I proudly stood up on a surfboard soon thereafter!  In fact, I swapped boards of varying size that day, standing up on each just to make sure that I could really surf.  My beach attendance dramatically increased following this milestone.  And I was just getting started…

Wipe out

All went well until a few hard wipe outs later.  It was then that I realized I was in over my head and often quite literally.  I had underestimated the force of the ocean and its ever changing nature.

The typical scenario went something like this: I would paddle hard to catch a wave, feel it lifting me, try to stand up before quickly falling off it’s face.  My surfboard’s nose caught the water, stopped, while the momentum then hurled me forward.  As this happened, the same wave crashed over me, sending my board flying in my direction.  I tumbled underwater as if inside a giant washing machine.

Impact zone

When I finally surfaced, it was just long enough to catch my breath.  Looking up, another wave was crashing over me before it happened again.  And again.  It didn’t help when the leash connecting my board and my ankle offered strong resistance, keeping me stuck in the infamous impact zone, where waves continually break.  Other times, my leash was loose which meant my board was bouncing around nearby, threatening to clock me in the head – which it once did.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the water was often too deep to stand up where all this was happening.  As crashing waves tired me out, fear and desperation would quickly set in.  I only had two options, head back to shore or make my way out past the break.  Neither seemed inviting.  I was at the mercy of the sea, a very powerful but impersonal, ever-shifting creature.

Constant vigilance

I have always heeded the advice given to me the first time I went surfing: never turn your back on the ocean.  It’s important to know where you are and what’s happening around you at any given moment to ensure safety.  There’s little time to think about things.

What I noticed now was that I went from awareness to hyper-vigilance whenever I went surfing.  I paid so much attention to the waves that I couldn’t relax, always being worried about the next one.  Surfing was no longer carefree and graceful, not at all like the movies.


Even in fairly calm conditions, I realized that I was tensing up physically.  When I noticed there was little reason to be tense, I took note.  I began reassuring myself that everything’s okay, that I could relax, and took a few slow, deliberate breaths to lessen my anxiety.  The impact zone in my mind was much bigger than the one in the ocean.

That allowed me to bask in how pleasant and inviting the whitewater looked, to feel the heat of the sun, and to revel in the fact that I was surfing!  When conditions got too rough and I felt anxiety coming on, I backed off and rode smaller waves.  I retaught myself that I had control even as friends confidently chased bigger waves.  This was often all I needed to loosen the anxiety’s grip and enjoy surfing again.

In short, I had interrupted waves of intense, unpleasant emotion by noticing them, calming myself down and reassuring myself that everything was okay.  This shifted me into a safer and more emotionally positive place.  While I still get scared and anxious surfing sometimes, it’s something that doesn’t rule me or ruin my day.  Surfing has become fun again as a result.

How do you handle overwhelming “waves of emotion” when you feel stuck in your “impact zone?”  Please share in the comments…

Photo by Aristocrats-hat

18 thoughts on “Waves of Emotion”

  1. Jack,
    Sorry I can’t relate to surfing challenges but I can understand the emotions you are trying to convey. (My father drowned and we were never allowed near the sea). I think i face the same sense of fear, challenge and frustration at blogging. Tried hard to get a “respectable” traffic. Met by waves of desperation when traffic stagnated. Tried harder. Then I asked , what am I doing this for? To add value to my 40 years of experience through sharing. Even if it is for one person. This calms me down, as long as I am not in the race to monetize anything… A well written post , Jack. thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Stu. The types of challenges I faced when learning to surf are pretty universal. I was just able to better see them given the extremes that I was facing. Sometimes, a good shaking up can be good for us.

      Glad you were able to ask yourself what you were doing this for. That seems to have been key to stay out of your “impact zone.”

  2. Part of what you’re describing is how your “self-talk” helped to calm your anxiety so that your mindset “…shifted” you ” … into a safer and more emotionally positive place.”

    That “shift” is where self-awareness begins – knowing how to tap that is where the hard work has to take place before any of us can recapture the joy that an activity gave us.

    My own understanding of how harmful a lack of self-talk can be has been watching my son struggle with a diagnosed anxiety disorder as part of a larger Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis (ASD). It’s taken me a long time to also understand that anxiety doesn’t have to be crippling – that it can be managed; that some of us are able to do this on our own, that some of us will need support and guidance.

    Thanks for your insights, Jack. They helped me to dig a little deeper re my own thoughts about this.

    1. That’s great, Kathy. If I can get people to dig deeper with this post, then mission accomplished :-) As you said, I did use self-talk as part of my strategy to manage my anxiety and fear, in combination with conscious, deep breathing.

      I’m not sure if we can have more or less self-talk though, but I believe that it’s sometimes louder than at other times. I suspect that we’re always ‘telling’ ourselves something, whether or not it’s in actual words, as images of bad things happening or emotions of dread are a form of self-talk too.

  3. Hi Peter,
    I can so relate to this post..in a lot of ways. I suffered panic disorder and agoraphobia in my twenties and thirties, and after making some dramatic changes in my life, found myself “free” at 40 years old. I then took up windsurfing, mountain biking, and weight lifting! There were many times when I felt “in over my head,” and like you, I mean that literally. I would also feel the old anxiety creeping back in and make me want to stay home or bury my head in the sand. It was then that I checked my thinking and disputed anxious thoughts. Feeling free had much more pull then avoiding, so I felt the fear and did it anyway.

    Unfortunately, after breaking my neck in 2000, I can no longer enjoy some of these adrenaline rush joyful athletic exercises, but I still come up against this stuff in many other ways. It’s then that I check my self talk and head out the door.

    BTW…I also became a therapist…people seem to be glad that I “know from whence I came.”

    Great post, Jack!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Linda. It’s great that you got out there and faced your fears. So many don’t. Sounds like you’re still pushing the envelop in many other ways, which is great. I’m sure your injury was challenging and brought a plethora of self-talk with it, so kudos to you for working through it :-)

  4. I have experienced anxiety over my forties and fifties.
    I was really enthusiastic with Anthony Robbins The Power is within you and overcomed fear thru walking on fire at Sydney in 2005
    Still worried ,as my daughter got into drugs and my life was really hectic.
    Having two other daughters protecting them and husband not well from traumatic situations , I went thru dramas of my life. Until 2005 when I meet Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism practise , which is value creating Society ,I learned that true happiness is our own decision and by chanting daily my life complitely changed. I have never been happier and my daughter is completely drug free!!!!
    Life is a joy living and fear is not my enemy anymore . I know how I can transform it into values

    1. I’ve never heard of that organization, Judith, but I agree that happiness is our own decision, as you put it. That’s great that things worked out well for you. I would add that it’s important to know that we can be happy and free even when we’re struggling and things don’t work out well. That’s when we need it most.

  5. Beautiful post! Although I have never tried surfing, I do have my own set of anxiety and fears. Most of the times when an overwhelming waves of emotions rise, I take a break from everything and go quiet. This allows me to take time and evaluate “why” I am feeling this. It’s almost s meditative state and I may go out for a walk or to the local cafe to get out of this state.

    Thanks for the share!


  6. Thanks Pooja, glad you could relate. It sounds like you got out of the water to assess what was going on within. Although I didn’t mention it, taking some time and space to reflect is a great way to step out of our fears and to see what’s what. So long as we don’t talk ourselves out of facing something important by taking a time out, then I think this is a great strategy!

  7. What a great post, Jack! I love how you allowed yourself to observe the panic reaction you had, and deal with it from a place of peace. I’m not a surfer, but there are lots of instances where I’ve done similar stuff…talking myself down from the proverbial ledge. Thanks!

  8. Hi Jack
    Thank you for your response.
    We all deserve to be happy in our life.
    Organisation is called SGI
    Sokka Gakkai Australia Value creating society
    192 countries 12 millions members around the wworld it is word to research it just for your knowledge .
    Judith Penak

  9. Hi Jack, Great post! Like many of the other comments, I have no experience with surfing but I do love swimming in the ocean and think the “impact zone” is a perfect analogy for dealing with anxiety. Just like being caught in that spot where waves crash, being stuck in a cycle of anxiety and fear forces you into survival mode. And survival mode strips the joy out of life. Observing and breathing through your emotions is a simple and profound way of dealing with just about anything – from surfing to panic attacks!

  10. You’re totally right, being in the impact zone forces you into survival mode. I didn’t conceptualize it like that, but that’s exactly what was happening, especially when I didn’t know whether to paddle in or out (classic fight, flight or freeze response). You can see the potential for trauma by getting caught in the impact zone. Thanks for your feedback, Stephanie, you’ve given me food for thought :-)

  11. Thanks for the article Jack. Great visual imagery. We really do get the emotions we focus on. My Abnormal Psychology professor had worked with a lot of people who had anxiety. He had a trick to calm down. Concentrate on breathing. Breath in thinking “calm”. Breath out thinking “control”. Repeat until calm and in control. Works for me. I sounds like you worked out the same thing with positivity thrown in to make it work even better. Thanks again for the article.

  12. Really great insight, man. I also grew up with that desire to surf and now, finally recently started at 40! I’ve realized that it’s crazy how much of a comfort zone you can make for yourself. When I’m out in the water, I am so hesitant to go for waves and it results in great resentment and regret. This post has given me some inspiration to face my fears and enjoy the “ride”! Cheers!

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