Why the RNLI ‘Float to stay alive’ can also make for great counselling advice

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) today launched its national drowning prevention campaign to Respect The Water. The campaign urges people, should they fall unexpectedly into cold water, to understand what is happening in their body and to try and take action which may initially appear counter-intuitive:

  • Take a minute. The initial effects of cold water pass in less than a minute so don’t try to swim straight away.
  • Relax and float on your back to catch your breath. Try to get hold of something that will help you float.
  • Keep calm – then call for help or swim for safety if you’re able.

It immediately struck me that the messages of this campaign are really very similar to those that I discuss daily with my clients – except in these discussions, the ‘cold water’ we are talking about is Life.

The ‘normal’ Life can be full of threats, unpleasant experiences – things which our mind sees as dangers to our happiness and fulfilment. The list is endless but may include:

  • Anxiety about job security
  • Arguments with our loved one
  • Failure – in exams, at work, in relationships
  • Being judged by others
  • Being rejected by others
  • Not fitting in with the group
  • A general feeling of missing out or not being ‘good’ enough

Our normal human response is to feel discomfort from these experiences in the form of worry or anxiety or panic – just like when we fall into cold water. And just like when we fall into the cold water, we have two options:

  • To panic and flail – for example telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel like this, we are weak for feeling this etc. All this panicking does is increase our psychological unwellness and increase our risk of ‘drowning’.
  • To ‘float’, catch our breath and make a choice to restore calmness to our mind. If we can learn to psychologically ‘float’, then our chances of mental survival and wellness are hugely improved.

We can master psychological floating when we know the basic techniques and practice them regularly – but the RNLI advice offers an excellent starting point. Here I have translated their main points into psychological terms and tools:

  • Take a minute. Slow down and take notice of what is going on in your mind and body: thoughts, images, emotions, sensations, memories. The initial effects of an anxious thought will pass in time – so don’t try to waste mental energy by pushing it away.
  • Catch your breath. Ground yourself by noticing your feet on the floor, your back in the chair, or by, for example, noticing and naming 3 things you can see, hear, smell or touch. This grounding and centering technique will help keep you afloat by creating a small gap in the riptide of your negative thoughts.
  • Keep calm. You can do this by practicing breathing through your nose or mouth but making sure your out-breath is much longer than your in-breath – and that your out-breath continues until you can feel your stomach below your navel expand.  For a full explanation of how to practice breathing for calm, see my advice here.

Of course, just as putting into practice the RNLI’s advice is not so easy if you find yourself in a freezing cold riptide, so it isn’t always easy to practice calmness when you find yourself in a really hard life situation. That’s where the help of a professional counsellor can help – so please do contact me if you would like to find out more.

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