Matthew has not learned to swim. Over the last several years my 7 year-old son has participated in a number of swimming lessons – to no avail. He refuses to put his face into the water. When he is part of a group lesson, the teacher simply does not have the time to coax or calm his fears because children are waiting in line. One well-intentioned instructor actually increased his fear by dunking him under the water – to prove there is nothing to fear. Yeah, that’s going to work! His approach sounded good in theory but did not calm an already anxious brain that needed a specialized solution during a highly anxious moment.
I have been excited this summer to help my son learn the basic skill of swimming. It is my desire for him to know how to swim so he will not drown in case he ever falls or is pushed into a pool without his “swimmies” on. I decided to pursue private lessons in order for him to have an experienced teacher take the time to help him learn this new skill and overcome his fears.
Thankfully, I found a wonderful girl in town who agreed to give both of my sons swimming lessons. Last week we went to her pool for the first lesson. It started out well. Matthew enjoyed his time in the water – up to the point she asked him to “bob” under the water and submerge his head. He quickly resisted her request, and expressed his fear about getting water up his nose. At this point she gently taught him the trick of blowing air out his nose when he dips under the water. After some practice he lowered his face under the water and blew air out of his nose. With a big smile he was delighted to report no water seeped into his nose!
I thought this was the end of our water struggles. Once he practiced putting his face in the water and blowing bubbles, she then asked him to try “bobbing” under the water by keeping his face under for a moment. With some energy he said “NO!” then started crying saying he was going to sink if he went under the water. I felt my stomach drop and tried to calm him down – to no avail. He then climbed out of the pool, curled into a ball and cried. He then begged to stay out of the water. I knew he was having big feelings at this point and his brain’s relational circuits were offline.
I took a breath and tried helping him calm down some more. In desperation, I next tried to bribe him with ice cream if he followed the teacher’s instructions. I tried reasoning with him and pointed out that he was not going to sink. After all, the teacher was right next to him and could help him if he needed a hand! Nope. Nothing. No words helped as his brain’s survival circuit at this point was kicked into full gear so it was time to feel safe – outside of the pool. We finished the lesson with Andrew, my 5-year old, paddling around and going under the water like a fish, begging to jump in again and again.
On our drive home Matthew was still visibly upset. He looked at me and said, “I wish I was like Andrew, because he is not afraid of the water!” I felt my heart sink. He genuinely wanted to follow the teacher’s instructions. He really wanted to swim. There was only one problem. His will power was no match for his big fears. You see, he was feeling terror in the brain’s emotional control center, what we call Level 2. You can read this article for more on this part of the brain but the fear responses at this level are big, bad and scary. This is not a relational part of the brain so we simply react and try to survive a scary encounter.
I knew that words and information would not fix this problem – nor would bribes or pleas. This part of the brain is subcortical (below the brain’s cortex so it’s deep) and is not subject to will power or coercion. This is the area of the brain where phobias, fears and post traumatic stress strikes so the reactions are intense, unmanageable and overwhelming. I knew my son needed a better intervention if he was going to put his head under the water.
When we arrived home, I pulled him aside and talked about his fear. I said, “Matthew, I also feel really afraid of things, like being too high off the ground.” He was now curious to hear how I handle my fear. I knew this was the perfect time to tell some good stories demonstrating how I faced my fear of heights. I pointed out how his water fear is similar to the fear he used to have with bees, only now he has learned to calm himself instead of panicking when a bee approaches. We reviewed how he calms down when bees buzz around him. He starts by taking deep breaths. He notices how he feels in his body, which helps to activate the captain in the brain’s control center, what we call Level 4. This is the brain region God has given us to calm our strong Level 2 reactions. Now Matthew was eager to try the same “trick” to see if it would help his swimming fears.
When it was time for the next lesson, we reviewed what to do if he was afraid. We practiced deep belly breaths. We noticed how how his body felt. I assured him that if he was too afraid, he did not have to put his head in the water. This was his choice. I am glad to say, the lesson was a success! Yes, he was nervous. Instead of amplifying his fear he calmed himself by taking deep breaths like we practiced. He put his head under the water. With the help of an incredibly patient teacher, Matthew was improving his ability to “dip” and “bob” in the water. At the end of the lesson he said, “Mommy! I am not afraid of the water anymore!” We celebrated.
In this case Matthew was able to override his strong fears. It is important to say that not every fear will resolve this quickly and cleanly. In fact, Matthew’s fears will likely arise again, so we will need to practice his quieting skills over and over. There is the glorious hope that each of us no longer have to miss out on the things we want to do in life because of our fear. Once we learn how to activate the captain in our brain (Level 4) we can greatly improve our ability to handle the situations where we feel the intense Level 2 fear. We can also learn how to process pain and disarm the landmines that rob our joy.
You can learn more about the power of stories here.
Read how Jesus disarmed fear and conquered a scary snow monster here.