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Swept Away: A Life Lesson

Updated: Apr 7


You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.

~ Rabindranath Tagore



I have been thinking a lot about Maui lately. Maui has held a special place in my heart since I first visited in 1999. However, my thoughts are not just about its magical beauty—I remember a particular moment from many years ago.


Wave

I joined a women's retreat on my third trip to the island. On one of those days, three of us went for an early morning swim and stopped to talk. While engrossed in a conversation, we lost track of our surroundings. Suddenly, we collectively looked back and saw a massive wave behind us, poised to crash upon us. In that heart-stopping moment, we instinctively responded, guided by the paradigms shaping our lives and actions.


The retreat leader bravely leaped into the approaching wave, gracefully coming out on the other side, seemingly unaffected by the ocean's force. On the other hand, our companion chose to stand firm and face the power of the sea. She remained steadfast, closed her eyes, and braced herself as the wave crashed onto her back.


As for my reaction? I succumbed to fear and uncertainty. The force of the wave overwhelmed me, dragging me beneath its surface for what felt like an eternity. Struggling to regain my footing, I found myself trapped in the currents. To this day, over twenty years later, I joke that I still spit out sand occasionally. Or am I spitting out the remnants of the indignity of that moment? 


More Than Choice


Three women stood a few feet apart, facing the same wave. Although the external circumstances were identical for all of us, our personalities, temperaments, and past experiences determined our responses and, ultimately, our results. Rather than making a conscious choice, we each acted on our primal instincts. One of us charged ahead to tackle the wave head-on; another stood her ground and faced it, while I, on the other hand, cowered in fear.


I cannot speak for the other women's histories; those belong to them. I can attest, however, that my response was typical of that time in my life—a distinct byproduct of a history of childhood and domestic abuse. 


These days, I recognize the memory of that morning in Maui as one of my soul's "tells"; it is an invitation to recognize what part of me is operating when faced with discomfort or the feeling of being hit by the unexpected. I have gotten good at diving in and tackling matters swiftly, but that is still not my default. It takes me a moment to collect myself and consciously decide to act. 


Floating


At times, we must float.


When my grandson started swimming lessons a few years ago, I used to get into the water with him after every lesson to teach him how to recover and float so he could continue swimming. He loved it! At times, all he wanted to do was float. I paid good money for swimming lessons to then watch him float away. Looking back, I see he was learning an important life skill.


Nowadays, I remember that wave as I watch my clients navigate the waters of their lives and decisions. What are they choosing? How do they approach tough times? What is their default response? Did someone in their early years teach them how to float if everything else failed? Or were their heads held underwater by those who should have protected them, thus creating responses like mine?


When do I extend my hand if the wave of their choices threatens to sweep them away?


Let's explore the conditions that create these options from a few angles.


Biology


Brain

It is important to understand the biology behind the reactions discussed in this article as I attempt to connect external and internal factors to various scenarios.


For the scientific expert, these explanations will undoubtedly seem simplistic. For the rest of us, they might provide an accessible framework for understanding how to identify, refine, and adapt our stress responses.


Tackling


When we tackle challenges head-on, regions of the brain associated with executive functioning and goal-directed behavior become active. This action includes the prefrontal cortex, which plays a crucial role in decision-making, planning, and problem-solving. The amygdala is responsible for the detection of threats and for processing emotions and may become active to a lesser extent. The brain's reward system, including the nucleus accumbens, may also show increased activity as we experience a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction from overcoming obstacles. In other words, the more we train ourselves to tackle what needs attention, the more adept we will get at finding a resolution to life's events.


Bracing For


Bracing for challenges often involves heightened activation in brain regions associated with threat detection and stress response. The amygdala, which plays a central role in the brain's fear circuitry, may increase activity as we anticipate potential threats or dangers. The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, which regulate the body's stress response by releasing cortisol and other stress hormones, may also become more active. Additionally, areas of the brain involved in vigilance and arousal, such as the locus coeruleus, may increase activity as we remain on high alert for potential dangers.


Cowering


Brain regions associated with fear, avoidance, and withdrawal may become hyperactive when we cower or retreat in the face of adversity. This includes the amygdala, which processes fear responses and may become overactive when experiencing heightened anxiety or distress. The insular cortex, involved in processing internal sensations and emotions, may also show increased activity as we experience discomfort or threat. Additionally, areas of the brain associated with rumination and negative self-referential thinking, such as the default mode network, may become more active as we withdraw into ourselves to cope with distress.


Other Influences


While this list is not extensive, let's explore five other factors influencing our responses.


The Role of Culture


Cultural influences refer to the shared values, beliefs, norms, and practices that characterize a particular group or society. These cultural factors shape our identities, behaviors, and worldviews from an early age. Cultural influences can manifest in various aspects of life, including family dynamics, social interactions, educational systems, and workplace environments. They significantly shape our attitudes towards authority, conformity, individualism, collectivism, success, failure, and adversity.


Temperament and Personality


Temperament refers to biologically based influences and behavioral tendencies that influence how we approach and react to the world around us. Temperament traits are relatively stable and can shape our responses to various situations and challenges.


Conversely, personality encompasses enduring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that characterize our unique identity. Our personality traits, such as extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and agreeableness, influence how we interact with others and navigate our environments.


Temperament and personality interact with genetic, environmental, and developmental factors to shape our behaviors, attitudes, and coping strategies.


Personal Experiences and Beliefs


Personal experiences refer to the unique events, interactions, and milestones that we encounter throughout our lives. These experiences can include positive and negative events, successes and failures, challenges and opportunities, and significant life transitions.


Personal beliefs encompass our core convictions, values, attitudes, and assumptions about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Personal experiences, cultural influences, upbringing, education, and socialization processes shape these beliefs.


Environmental Influences


Environmental influences encompass the external factors and conditions in our surroundings that shape our behaviors, attitudes, and opportunities. These influences include family dynamics, social networks, educational systems, economic conditions, political climates, and cultural norms.


Environmental influences can be proximal (immediate surroundings, such as family, peers, and community) and distal (broader societal and systemic factors, such as economic inequality, discrimination, and social policies).


Trauma Responses


Trauma responses encompass a range of psychological, emotional, and behavioral reactions to traumatic experiences. These responses can vary widely depending on individual factors such as the nature of the trauma, developmental stage, pre-existing vulnerabilities, and available support systems.


Common trauma responses include heightened arousal, intrusive thoughts or memories, avoidance of trauma-related stimuli, negative alterations in mood or cognition, and alterations in arousal and reactivity (e.g., hypervigilance, irritability, difficulty concentrating).


Trauma responses can also manifest in interpersonal difficulties, such as problems with trust, intimacy, and communication, as well as disruptions in daily functioning, including work, school, and relationships.


Individuals may exhibit a range of coping mechanisms in response to trauma, including both adaptive and maladaptive strategies.


Adaptive coping strategies may include:


  • Seeking social support.

  • Engaging in self-care activities.

  • Practicing mindfulness or relaxation techniques.

  • Seeking professional help.


Maladaptive coping strategies may include substance use, self-harm, avoidance, or dissociation.


Understanding trauma responses is essential for providing practical support and interventions for trauma survivors. Trauma-informed approaches emphasize safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment, recognizing the impact of trauma on individuals' lives and promoting healing, resilience, and recovery.


Learning to Swim in Tumultuous Waters


We have established several potential variables that determine our responses to threats, real or perceived. Now, let's dive into some ways of learning to tackle the waves of life before they carry us and drown us.


Cultivating Resilience Through Faith and Spirituality


Engaging in Spiritual Practices


Exploring prayer, meditation, mindfulness, or contemplation to connect with our inner self may lead to peace, strength, and resilience. These practices can help us tap into a deeper source of wisdom and guidance, enabling us to navigate challenges with grace and poise.


Finding Meaning and Purpose


Reflecting on our spiritual beliefs and values to find meaning and purpose amid adversity. As we draw upon our faith traditions, philosophical teachings, or personal spiritual insights, we anchor ourselves in a sense of purpose that transcends temporary difficulties and provides a larger context for understanding life's challenges.


Trusting in Divine Guidance


Trusting in the wisdom of a higher power or universal intelligence may guide us through difficult times. Surrendering our worries and fears to a greater source of wisdom and love, knowing we are supported and held by a compassionate and benevolent force that transcends human understanding might aid our suffering.


Developing Problem-Solving Skills and Resilience Strategies


Breaking Down Challenges


We can start by approaching challenges systematically, breaking them into smaller, manageable steps, and identifying specific actions to address each aspect of the problem while focusing on concrete, achievable goals.


Building a Support Network


Many of us must surround ourselves with supportive friends, family members, mentors, or professional allies who can offer guidance, encouragement, and practical assistance. We benefit from cultivating relationships that foster mutual trust, respect, and collaboration.


Practice Self-Care


When we prioritize self-care activities that nourish our physical, emotional, and mental well-being, we attain joy, fulfillment, and a sense of balance amidst life's challenges.


Cultivate Emotional Intelligence and Coping Skills


Developing Emotional Awareness


Cultivating self-awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and reactions to challenging situations aids us in learning to recognize and label our emotions accurately, without judgment or self-criticism.


Practicing Emotional Regulation


Learning practical strategies for managing and regulating our emotions healthily, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, or mindfulness meditation, can help calm our nervous system and regain balance.


Building Resilience


We can cultivate resilience by reframing negative thinking patterns, challenging limiting beliefs, and developing adaptive coping skills. Focusing on building our capacity to bounce back from setbacks aids in learning from adversity as we grow stronger.


Conclusion


The memory of an encounter with a wave in Maui, the recognition that I am called to action in crucial areas of my life, having a front-row seat to people's lives and choices, the internal struggle of the savior in me, and the memory of my young grandson peacefully floating in the pool are all elements that live in my psyche and compete for attention.


We live on a planet divided by borders, yet we are all in the same boat. Our responses are adaptations necessary for survival under different circumstances. The trick is to develop the self-awareness to know when our response is misaligned with what the moment calls for (i.e., cowering at a time when tackling the wave was the safest response).


A life lesson may come as a tide, threatening to sweep us away. In those moments, may we all know when to tackle, withstand, duck, or, as my grandson learned, when to float.


Tell me, what is your default response?


Be safe, dear sojourner, until I see you again on these pages or a discovery call.




Neidy

Neidy Lozada, MATP, ATCC, CSIC, is an adaptive integrative and spiritual integration coach. She brings over twenty years of experience in transpersonal practices, coaching, and business to her work with individuals from all over the globe. She founded Soulful Sojourners following her long-held dream of building a company to provide top-notch coaching services to women, men, and organizations undergoing a profound transformational process. Neidy continues to serve non-profit organizations in the Bay Area through her work as a board member. She is a proud mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, and devoted caretaker of furry companions.

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Thank you for this wonderful article. Yes, is my response aligned for what this moment is calling for? This is such a great question to ask ourselves in the moment!

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