Sailing With Anxiety, Stress Management

Tantrum Prevention 101: The Body

Photo: Me shortly after a tantrum because I got too cold. Sailing is so sexy!

I am humbled to admit that I sometimes throw tantrums while sailing or working on my own boat. This looks like me getting irritable and insanely snappy, sometimes crying, sometimes shutting down, occasionally throwing things, and often saying “I am gonna sell this boat and never sail again.”

At first I was writing a story in my head that this all meant I can’t handle sailing or that I was the only one who sometimes loses their shit. Then I started asking around. Being vulnerable and admitting our struggles is the first step to finding answers. I discovered I was not alone, far from it. I was hard pressed to find any sailor, male or female, who hadn’t lost it somehow over bad conditions, shit breaking or long projects.  I also found that it is quite common for couples and close friends to argue on a boat. Shocking that a small space with pressured conditions would do this. (Insert eye roll here.)

Being a therapist, and an anxiety specialist at that, I happen to know a lot about humans under stress. Being a new-ish sailor and, last I checked, very human: I happen to experience boat related stress regularly. So I have decided to write a series on what I humorously and lovingly call “tantrums.” This is post is Tantrums 101 and I am going to start with the very basics.

Tantrums, aka, emotional outbursts or struggles where a person cannot regulate their body or words in a calm manner, are a sign of overwhelm and struggle and need compassion and action. Often it is boils down to one of three things: body discomfort, expectations, and fear.

Sailing is an experience where you absolutely cannot know it all, prepare for it all, and definitely can’t plan for it all. So you you have to be incredibly adaptive with fast action and problem solving capability. Each time you are on a boat you learn, and you learn through doing. Sometimes this is magical and euphoric; and sometimes it is a complete shit show. Funny enough: my tantrums seem to coincide with the shit show end. After each sail or project it’s important to debrief and explore what worked and what didn’t and why. This informs you for the next excursion or task. Reflection and planning are survival skills in sailing.

After speaking with many very seasoned, and even renowned sailors I have discovered that you have to know what your triggers and fears are, what your edges of discomfort are, and what your strengths and challenges are in adapting. A quick rule of thumb and the thing to ask first and foremost when upset is:

Am I tired, hungry or hot/cold?

Sailing brings out the primal needs and survival first. A skippers primary job is the safety of their crew and boat. Regularly checking in with people if they are getting tired, hungry, or hot/cold is important. In the PNW the cold part is extra important as it often coincides with being wet. Being wet and cold is miserable and can lead to tantrums. (Note: I am not talking about hypothermia here, but in this part of the world that is very serious and you should know the signs and symptoms of it and how to treat it. I am making the assumption you have proper warm foul weather gear and know basics on keeping alive on the water. This also would apply to heat stroke and extreme hot. If you don’t know this stuff: learn it. The Sailing Foundations Safety at Sea course is an excellent resource.)

In this post I am just talking about being cold and pissy about it. As I often coach people: oxygen mask on you first. The skipper has to also check in with their own needs so they can be calm enough to check with everyone else. This may sound like a no brainer, but try sailing in intense conditions for hours on end while keeping the boat in line AND remember to check in with your body on how it’s doing. Tired, cold and hungry creep up on you and often are a baseline at some point as you push through and past your limits and stretch your tolerance and abilities. You have to learn to know what you need before you super extra need it.

In your post sail reflection ask:

How did I get to overwhelm?

Were any tantrums preventable?

Prevention: Layers, snacks, breaks and shifts. Figure out a system and prep before you go. Have things on hand, easily accessible. Talk to your crew about their needs. Be transparent about your cues and signals. Communication is essential on a boat. Eric says I make a very particular tense face when I am starting to go offline into homicidal mode and the first thing he asks is: Do you need a snack? Sometimes he just hands it to me. He is a wise man with good self-preservation instincts.

I am talking about being on the water, but this also applies to working on a boat. I was in the bilge working on plumbing. I was curled up in a weird position holding a water line at a strange angle with one hand and screwing a clamp on with the other. It kept falling, I kept swearing, it was hot and the air was getting stuffy. I thought this was going to be an easy job that took 15 minutes and I was already 30 minutes in. More conditions for tantrums.

The obvious part here is your body getting uncomfortable and how to resource for it. Knowing what your internal cues are for discomfort, being attuned to your body is important so you can notice the irritation at the beginning and not after you are well into the “fuck this shit, I’m selling the boat.” Breathing helps, a lot. Like the navy seals learn to box breathe to cope under pressure, a sailor needs air for the sails and for the body and brain to make the boat go.

The harder part is what are your expectations and how to grow your tolerance of frustration when they are not working out. Sailing, and anything boats is a masterful teacher at the art of adaptation and patience. Nothing ever goes as planned. You have to know your strengths and challenges in these arenas. I am going to address more of that in Tantrums 102.

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