Weathering The Storm: Managing Stress & Anxiety at Sea

By TWS resident Neuroscientist Dr. Hayley North

Life on the sea is full of stressors; whether our safety is threatened in high winds and seas, we are kept up at night worrying the anchor is dragging or we are overwhelmed with uncertainty as we change plans or approach a new port. Stress, and the body’s ‘stress system’, developed very early in our evolutionary history as a natural biological reaction to perceived harm or uncertainty.

What does stress really look like in the body?

When we experience stress our heart and breathing rates increase, blood vessels contract, we stop digestion, and our levels of adrenalin and the stress hormone, cortisol increase. This is our body’s way of readying us to either fight or take flight (run away). Funnily enough, in the past few hundred years, our society has progressed more rapidly than our biology has had a chance to keep up with, so we react to a complex range of emotional and cognitive stressors with an often irrelevant physiological response and anxiety. Anxiety is characterized by feelings of tension and pervasive worrying thoughts, which can work in a cycle to intensify those physical aspects of stress, which then increase anxious thoughts (1). Interestingly, when our brain senses anxiety in others we become more anxious, this is especially relevant in the close quarters of a sailboat.

Breaking the stress cycle early is the key to managing your own and others’ stress!

Sailing in stormy weather

What are the consequences of stress?

Stress isn’t all bad. A little bit can actually be beneficial because it can increase our focus and energize us to achieve goals. However, long-term stress or chronic stress is detrimental to our physical health and mental health and reduces our cognitive abilities (2). Further, when we’re very stressed not only are we worse at fighting off infections, but we revert to habitual ways of thinking rather than being rational and making good decisions (3). This can be problematic when sailing because conditions are never the same and we need to be creative to solve problems when they arise.

Thankfully, there are a variety of strategies that we can apply to break the cycle of stress before it becomes chronic, and by reading this article you’ve already started the first step which is understanding stress.

Throwing out the life ring -Reduce the likelihood of experiencing stress

The most effective ways to avoid unnecessary stress are to

  • Exercise regularly

  • Get high-quality sleep

  • And reduce feelings of uncertainty by making and clearly communicating plans with your sailing companions (4, 5).

Exercise can sometimes be hard on a boat but there are a lot of ways to exercise if you get creative, you could start by trying a few simple yoga poses to get the blood flowing and engage the core muscles- see the article Everyday Yoga on a Boat HERE. Because stress is a ‘fight or flight response, the body is fully prepared for exercise, even if it’s an emotional stressor our body has the same outdated response. So, when we’re stressed but don’t exercise, all of those stress molecules build up and make things worse until they’re flushed out of the system with exercise, especially if we get sweaty.

How to reduce the impact of stress when it does happen

Sometimes life just happens, and stress can’t be avoided so the following tips can help you deal with and break the cycle early before stress becomes chronic.

  • New research has shown that being able to predict stress actually minimizes its impact, so keep notice of how the physical signs of stress feel in your body, and when you experience things like increased heart and breathing rate, sweating or a dry mouth, let that be an early warning sign. Then once you predict and notice stress have a simple plan in place to manage your reaction. This should be something that works for you as an individual, it can be as simple as sipping on a warm drink (but we don't mean coffee- caffeine may increase the physical symptoms of stress, try for a herbal tea instead), calling a friend, taking 10 minutes to lay down or meditate or doing a simple breathing exercise.

  • The most well-established tool to effectively reduce the stress response is breath work (6). We actually do a very simple breathing technique called the physiological sigh automatically, but we can consciously do it when we notice those early warning signs of stress. It involves two short quick inhales and a long, extended exhale (and repeating it). The key to reducing stress is having longer exhales than inhales. There’s another technique called box breathing that also works to effectively reduce the physiological and psychological stress response. For the box breath, do each of the following for a count of 4-5 seconds: breath in, hold the breath in, breath out, hold the breath out and repeat.

  • Interestingly, using our visual system in different ways can influence the stress response (7). Having a very narrow visual focus on a point (e.g. looking at a screen) can increase stress whereas having a very broad and expansive visual focus (e.g. looking out across a vast sea) can reduce stress. We can also reduce stress by experiencing visual flow, which occurs when the world is moving around you like when going for a walk/run/cycle or even sailing.

Salts and land-dwellers alike all experience stress and anxiety throughout life, but some people can have a more extreme stress response than others. The key ways to prevent excessive stress include exercising regularly, getting good quality sleep, and communicating clearly about plans. But when stress and anxiety do occur, there are ways to reduce their impact. The key strategies include predicting stress, identifying the physical signs, having your own stress response techniques, or using some scientifically grounded techniques such as breathwork and experiencing optic flow... those dreamy moments of gazing out at sea are in fact as therapeutic as it feels.

​Dr. Hayley North

Hayley is a neuroscientist and a keen sailor, she learned to sail in high-stakes yacht races in and around Sydney Habour, but it is the cruising lifestyle that she resonates with. As a scientist, she has spent over a decade studying the human brain with major contributions to the field of understanding the biological underpinnings of mental health disorders. She believes that by understanding our brains, we have unlimited potential to alleviate suffering and improve all aspects of our wellbeing and that’s why she is passionate about communicating the latest neuroscience research to people on shores near and far.

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2. Marin, M. F., Lord, C., Andrews, J., Juster, R. P., Sindi, S., Arsenault-Lapierre, G., ... & Lupien, S. J. (2011). Chronic stress, cognitive functioning and mental health. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 96(4), 583-595.

3. Schwabe, L., & Wolf, O. T. (2011). Stress-induced modulation of instrumental behavior: from goal-directed to habitual control of action. Behavioral brain research, 219(2), 321-328.

4. Jackson, E. M. (2013). Stress relief: The role of exercise in stress management. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 17(3), 14-19.

5. Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2014). The role of sleep in emotional brain function. Annual review of clinical psychology, 10, 679-708.

6. Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., ... & Li, Y. F. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874.


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