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Overcoming Fear, Self-Doubt And Anxiety In The Water

Overcoming Fear, Self-Doubt And Anxiety In The Water

As surfers, we can all agree that it takes some physical work to progress well. Paddle fitness, strength training, mobility…you name it. But how often do we consider the emotional work that’s needed to improve our surfing? Our feelings and mindset are massive contributors in how well we’re able to surf, whatever stage we’re at, and many of us might not even be aware just how much our anxieties, doubts or fears are holding us back. 

Danni Unway is a Transpersonal Psychotherapist and a Surf Confidence Coach based in Newquay, UK, who’s on a mission to raise awareness about just that: how our emotions impact our time in the water. She’s combining her passion for surfing with her desire to ‘guide people into a more peaceful existence’ – and we think that’s pretty cool. 

surfing and Anxiety

Hannah Bevan chatted with Danni to find out more about her work, learn why emotions matter in surfing and get her top tips and tools for building your confidence in the water. Read on for some super useful stuff that you can put into practice in your next surf session.

So Danni, what does being a Transpersonal Psychotherapist and a Surf Confidence Coach involve?

Transpersonal psychotherapy, in a nutshell, is about approaching therapy from the angle that we’re all interconnected. It’s based on healing through human connection and there’s an air of spirituality to it, similar to Buddhism and yoga philosophies. On the psychotherapist side of my business I have 1:1 clients who I see regularly, and I also run women’s sharing circles and group therapy sessions.

The surf confidence coaching is separate but there’s a lot of crossover! 

Firstly, I’m mad into surfing. It’s my ultimate bliss and has changed my life in ways I can’t even explain. It allowed me to live a life of such fulfillment that I never knew was possible and I truly feel as though I found myself when I found the ocean. 

So a year and half ago I decided to train as a Surf Coach. When I started coaching I noticed that on that short walk to the beach there was often a discussion about feelings, like worries or fears, especially with other women. But there was never enough time to discuss it all before we were in the water – and that really inspired me to want to work in this area. 

It was a friend that suggested I run a confidence building workshop for their surf club. That was the seed being planted! I went through a lot of self-doubt at first, especially because I’d just started out as a qualified Surf Coach, but once I’d built enough confidence in myself I went for it. And the first one was a full-house with 17 people, I think. 

Now I’ve run workshops in Cornwall, Devon and Sri Lanka and have more planned in different places around the world in 2024. It’s all still relatively new but I can honestly say that I’m never more in my element than I am when I’m running these workshops. It all comes from my heart and it really is a combination of my two huge passions, surfing and human behaviour. 

Love that! What are the biggest emotional issues that come up for your surf confidence coaching clients and why do you think that they happen?

Fear, anxiety, self-doubt and imposter syndrome are some of the biggest problems that come up.

Our emotions are often so heightened in the sea because surfing can bring such highs and such lows. In just one session we can go from feeling like a legend to feeling like a complete beginner again; with emotions like pride and excitement quickly turning to shame or embarrassment.

Why do we get this? Well, maybe because the feeling that we get when we catch that first green wave is so amazing it’s almost like a drug. We’re always chasing that feeling. And when we’re not achieving it we feel like we’re failing to progress, so feel low or self-critical about it.

Also, surfing is such an escapism for people. It’s almost like a relationship. You have the honeymoon period at the start where you’re obsessed with it, head over heels in love! Then you go through stages when you come out of the honeymoon period where perhaps you hit a wall, plateau and get frustrated. You might get annoyed or anxious then because it’s not giving you that relationship or the fix that it used to.

You could also be facing emotional barriers because you’ve become too attached to a certain goal too, or you’re desperately wanting to become ‘better’. Sometimes, being too focused on an outcome might mean you’re actually missing out the present moment and the joy and magic of surfing – and then it might actually get in the way of achieving the goal.

Anxiety, fear and surfing

So how can doing the emotional work improve our physical surfing?

Well, when we tune into how we are feeling about surfing it can help to uncover some of the mental barriers we might not have known are there.

Also, the more present we are and the less we’re worrying about how we look or what’s going to happen or how much better we want to be, the quicker we’re able to learn. Once you feel calmer and out of your anxious or critical mind, that’s when your surfing will improve. 

There are lots of different ways that you can do this. Here are my tips and tools…

Surf Confidence Tips

Practice present-moment awareness

If you’re finding that fear has kicked in or your mind is starting to spiral with worries, present-moment awareness can allow you to break through the unhelpful thoughts and bring you back into your body so that you feel calmer. You can do this by taking some deep breaths, then taking time to notice what you can see around you, what you can hear and smell, what you can feel on your skin or where you’re making contact with the water or your board. Whatever resonates the most for you, just focus on that for a little while, taking more deep breaths and trying to stay with what you’re experiencing in the here-and-now. You can repeat this exercise whenever you feel negative thoughts or feelings arising, whether you’re walking down to the beach or you’re already out in the line up.

But don’t beat yourself up if you find it tricky at first. It’s something that takes a lot of practice…I still have to coach myself to do it too!

Speak kindly to yourself

We all have that incessant, critical inner voice at times. But if yours is particularly harsh or judgemental this can have a detrimental effect on your performance and how much you’re going to enjoy your surf. 

There are several different ways you can bring awareness to this and try to practice more positive self-talk. Firstly, when you notice your inner critic begin to creep in, ask yourself if you’d speak the same way to a friend or a loved one. If you wouldn’t, see if you can gently reframe what you’d say and how you’d say it to them instead. Secondly, notice and celebrate your small wins! It’ll help to bring less focus to the negative. Even if you miss a wave, for example, remind yourself that it’s all good paddle practice or that you did well to go for the wave in the first place. And thirdly, you could try positive affirmations. These are short phrases that you can say out loud to yourself, perhaps before you head out for your surf. You can choose something that’s right for you, depending on the challenging emotions you’re facing at that time. “I am a competent surfer”, “I love having fun in the sea” and “I am worthy of being in the line up” are all good examples of affirmations for building confidence.

Remind yourself you’re safe

Speaking of positive affirmations, reminding yourself that you’re safe when you’re surfing can be a powerful way to reduce negative emotions or stress. This is because when our nervous system is activated, we’ll enter fight or flight mode and may naturally start to feel unsafe even when we’re not. This is especially true if you’ve had a traumatic or scary experience in the sea. You might even have a mild version of PTSD and being in the water could retrigger you, meaning you feel the same amount of fear in that moment as you did in the incident in the past. 

Take a big breath, assess the situation you’re in and ask yourself the question ‘does this situation really present a threat to my survival?’. If the answer is no, which it usually is, just gently reminding yourself of that fact will really help to calm your nervous system again. If the answer is ‘yes’ and you are, in fact, feeling unsafe and beyond your capabilities, then it’s best to make the call to get out of the water and come back another day when the waves are better suited to you and your ability. 

Talk to someone about how you feel

If you have any worries, anxieties or fears about surfing, don’t be afraid to open up and talk about them. The chances are that your friends might even share some of the same worries, or if not they’ll have their own that they might appreciate sharing with someone too. Like in therapy, once we are able to voice our fears it can help them to feel less ‘stuck’ inside our heads. And sometimes a new perspective or just a little reassurance from a friend can help them to seem slightly less scary too.

In my surf confidence workshops it’s always incredible to see like-minded women share their stories and struggles and, in turn, feel less alone in what they’re going through. Two people will always have had a similar experience and find connections – and that’s such a big help in building their resilience and confidence as individuals.

Try breathing exercises

A powerful way to overcome feelings of anxiety or fear and calm your nervous system is with focused breathing exercises. As long as you’re safely sat out back (or sat on the beach) you can try this pattern: inhale slowly for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, exhale slowly for eight seconds. Start off by trying four cycles and noticing how you feel. And then once you become more used to it you can try building up to cycles of eight. 

This type of breathing is good for several reasons. It allows you to ground yourself back into your body and break any anxious thoughts you might be having. The longer exhale actually helps to reduce your heart rate, which will make you feel calmer. And by focusing on your breath you are also practicing present-moment awareness again, so this too will help you to feel more connected to yourself and your surroundings. 

It’s well-worth trying this technique any time you’re feeling overwhelmed, whether you’re in the water or not.

Use the ‘scale of discomfort’

‘The scale of discomfort’ is a tool that I share with people to help them figure out whether they’re pushing themselves too far out of their comfort zone, or perhaps not far enough. So, imagine a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the safe zone and 10 is the danger zone. If you’re someone who takes risks and pushes yourself really hard to achieve you might be in the 8-10 area. If you’re someone who likes to stay well within your comfort zone, you might place yourself around 1-3 on the scale. In order to progress well, however, both types of surfer should aim to move towards the 5 zone. This is because you’re not likely to learn any new skills or build new confidence if you’re staying too ‘safe’, and you’re actually probably putting yourself under quite a lot of stress (that you might not even recognise) and activating your nervous system if you’re continuously pushing yourself too far. That middle ground is the sweet spot for the right frame of mind for progression and feeling positive about our surfing.

Set some intentions

Taking a little bit of quiet time before you paddle out to set an intention for yourself (perhaps when you’re observing the waves pre-surf) can help to bring some positive focus to your session, give you a moment to check in and be self-aware and encourage you to let go of anxious thoughts or other mental barriers. For example, you might want to decide that you’re going to lower your expectations about how you’re going to perform in the session, or let go of longing to be ‘better’ and just allow more acceptance towards where you are right now. 

Setting intentions can also help if you’ve been struggling with a scary incident in the sea. There might be some resistance towards that same fear you keep feeling time and time again. If this is the case you can set an intention that you will allow the fear to be there and practice acceptance, rather than resist it or become frustrated with it. By resisting it, we are actually prolonging that emotional recovery, so setting an intention to be kind, understanding and welcoming to that fear can help it shift through and, ultimately, heal.

Give yourself permission to have fun…

…the ultimate intention! When we’re stuck in fear or worry, making the conscious decision to choose fun and lightness instead can be a big help. Smile when you’re getting changed in the car park. Make eye contact and smile at other surfers out back. Laugh when you wipe out! Even if it feels like you’re forcing it at first, it can make such a big difference to how you feel.

If you want to find out more about Danni and her surf confidence workshops, take a look at her website or her Instagram @danniunwaytherapy

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