All my life I’ve been dogged by unrelenting stress, anxiety, and sometimes depression. Since my teens to this very day, I have practiced a range of strategies to relieve myself of the oppressive impacts of these ruminative states. Can one be “cured” of anxiety and depression? In my personal experience, no. However, I have had moments of relief that are sublime and complete, and these are worth sharing.
One place I experienced this type of relief was several miles offshore, in the North Atlantic, on a tiny plastic boat I called home.
In 2013, after living in NYC for well over a decade, I moved onto a 27-foot sailboat that my husband and I had restored together as a dream project. Ultimately we left our jobs, sold our stuff, and moved aboard. We left the northeast and spent five years exploring the US East Coast, Caribbean and Central America. At the center of the experience, I found a practice that worked on my brain in a way that no other meditation, medication, or program ever had: Sailing.
On land, I had developed an outsized stress response. It’s something that sort of sat on top of me for most of my twenties, then sat politely beside me in my thirties as I gained some perspective, “invited it in for tea,” and other nonsense. Over time, my system treated every risk of even small failure as a life or death situation. I think many people have this to some degree—that full-body response to something that is decidedly undeserving of it.
If you worked with me, you may or may not have noticed it (I say that winkingly to my friend-colleagues, who totally saw this, and who often helped me along or were caught up in my stress by proximity. PS, thx and sorry). Before any big deadline, meeting, presentation, whatever cumulative professional moment, no matter how prepared I could be, my body would physically go through the same process—insomnia, anxiety, and tunnel vision on the work until the moment of the thing.
Then, after the thing, during which I would typically appear pretty calm and capable, there would be a second cascade: reviewing the thing over and over to evaluate my part, waves of self doubt and beating back negative thoughts of shame, guilt and remorse. This would all happen over, say, a half-hour talk on water-quality monitoring—to a room full of nerds like me.
What happens when I am sailing disrupts this entire paradigm. When I am offshore for a few days, after the watch-keeping routine settles in and the discomfort of transition wanes, I have the following experience: I feel cold, rain, waves and wind. I see stars, moon, sun, birds and bioluminescent plankton. I steer the boat, and check instruments while I maintain my own personal safety and support that of my husband and boat cat (the crew). We work as a team, we have to communicate clearly but efficiently because there is not much surplus time or energy.
When you are far from land, the need to be completely self-reliant is key, and every small accomplishment is an affirmation of survival itself. Standing watch so other crew can rest, clipping in and walking onto the foredeck to clear a line or a sail while underway, climbing the mast to untangle a halyard from the mouseline, securing something stored on deck that has come loose underway—all of these are thoughtless tasks when you are tied to the dock, but offshore, they become the central focus of your limited energy. When accomplished, you bask in the opportunity to recover and rest.
When a threat arises, like a squall or too-high winds, or too-cold weather or too-hot sun, then I feel fight-or-flight, but it’s an appropriate context in which to feel it (as opposed to, say, in anticipation of giving a talk). The crisis passes (because the response works!), we complete the leg, we come to shore. Arriving back to literal safe harbor, I feel the total relief of my stress response returning all the way to "normal."
One time, outside of Norfolk, Virginia, some weather kicked up as we approached the narrowed entrance of the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads Harbor. It was after nightfall, and I can remember the lights up ahead of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel, the long roadway that spans the mouth of the bay, accentuating the wave action of our boat relative to the dipping horizon. The winds picked up, and the boat heeled deeply as we charged into the bay, surrounded by the resident Naval fleet that made our boat look like a bathtub toy by comparison. My job was steering on the tiller as the rest of the crew worked on deck to pull down sails in the hectic and changing conditions.
My vision narrowed to the navigational markers ahead, and I held the tiller to my chest, all the while leaning into the open cockpit and repeating my main mantra, “just stay aboard…just stay aboard…”.
Soon enough we were in flat water, tied up among the massive warships, laughing about the “sporty entry,” and putting the deck gear back in place, flaking sails and planning dinner.
These are the times in my life when I have “zeroed out” stress and anxiety. I can only describe it like therapy in reverse: Instead of trying to bring the mind into context with the body, sailing brings my body into context with my mind.
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