Reasons People Drown in Chronic Stress

by Lisa Brewster, some rights reserved per Creative Commons license.

by Lisa Brewster, some rights reserved per Creative Commons license.

Today, I heard a repeat of a 2011 segment on the NPR show, Here and Now, called “What You Don’t Know About Drowning.”

Francisco Pia, who used to lifeguard at Orchard Park in Western New York, observed that the popular conception of someone in the throes of drowning is the opposite of what really goes on, and that this misconception leads to deadly results.

In the film he made, “The Reasons People Drown,” the main themes as summarized on WBUR are:

  1. Drowning is often silent: Pia says that people drowning are often not able to yell for help, even though tv shows depict drowning victims as yelling and thrashing.
  2. Drowning happens very quickly: Pia says that drowning victims struggle for anywhere between 20 and 60 seconds.
  3. Drowning often happens when people are around others: Pia said he found many victims drowned while surrounded by others, who didn’t realize the person was drowning.

As I listened to the segment, it struck me that points 1 and 3 are in near-perfect alignment with individuals whose lives are driven by chronic stress. Point #2, however, is the opposite: for these individuals, the drowning happens very slowly, over long periods of time, so that they themselves become inured to it, blind to it.

Jon (not his real name) initially approached me about coaching saying, “I know I need help with a situation, and I think I know what needs to happen, but I’m not sure how to even get started.”

As we worked together, what Jon identified was that he’d been bathing in a toxic blend of stress triggers (triggers are different for each person) over a prolonged period of years and the paralyzing feeling that he cannot change course because he’s already invested so much time and effort. In his mind, he can’t talk to his friends and family about this because they won’t understand why he’s having trouble, and some may even be likely to tell him that he’s crazy to get out of the pool now—not when he’s worked so hard and has so much to lose.

There are many pivotal, and highly individual, decisions I ask clients like Jon to make: How much longer can he submit to the slow suffocation before he drowns? When he grabs onto the lifeline does he see himself getting hauled out or staying in but using the personal float to keep his head above water? Does he want to inflate a life raft and use the paddle? Or maybe learn how to swim and practice treading water and floating on his back? Build a boat with a reliable stepladder to get in and out of the water? How about finding crew members to share in his workload and watch for signs he needs the lifeline again?

Recognizing that you’re drowning when it’s happening IS the most important first step.

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