A big wave surfer on turning the tide on anxiety

Big wave surfer and ocean adventurer Al Mennie’s new book teaches people how to deal with fear by planning for stressful situations, writes Paula Burns

A big wave surfer on turning the tide on anxiety

Big wave surfer and ocean adventurer Al Mennie’s new book teaches people how to deal with fear by planning for stressful situations, writes Paula Burns

Those of us who were teenagers in the 90s will remember the last scene of the cult classic movie Point Break. That heartbreaking moment as Bohdi rode the ‘50 year Storm’ waves to his death.

Imagine doing this on the daily. Riding the biggest surf in the world not knowing if the adrenaline will be your saviour or you will succumb to the swells of the sea. This is just a drop in the ocean for big wave surfer and ocean adventurer, Al Mennie. Since his first time paddling a board at the tender age of nine, the 6ft 5inch Portrush man has scoured the world for the biggest and best waves.

“At fourteen I started competing, but I was always on the search for the bigger waves. Then at 22, I went to California to surf Maverick’s beach that is famous for its big wave surf. This was a turning point for me.”

From then on Mennie scoured the world for the biggest waves, eventually bringing it back home to Ireland where he continuously chases the biggest waves along the coast.

This is a man who literally enters unchartered waters, putting his life at risk for something he loves. While on the outside it appears he has no fear there is the inevitable internal turmoil of knowing the outcome could be death.

Anxiety and fear are an integral part of the process for him. But as the title of his book suggests he can either “Overcome or Succumb” to fear. He chooses to overcome.

“It wasn’t until a friend who is paramedic said to me that a lot of his callouts are from people suffering from anxiety,” explains Al.

“He pointed out that I overcome many anxieties to do what I do surfing and that the techniques I use could help other people.”

Mennie doesn’t proclaim to be a psychologist or a mental health expert. Instead, he hopes by sharing his experiences in his book he can help others. He has translated what he has learnt from facing the unpredictability of the ocean into his own everyday life.

“People are really surprised when I say I’m terrified of going to the dentist. I’ve dedicated a whole chapter to it. I put off going for 11 years but then I realised if I use the same preparation process I use for surfing into going to the dentist it would ease the fear,” he explains.

Mennie believes the key to overcoming anxiety is planning. By planning every element of the event up until he goes out to sea he then feels he has some control over the situation.

“I meticulously plan everything in advance. My equipment, the team I’m with to keeping constantly updated on the wind and weather conditions. I have to accept I can only control so much.

"On the day I can’t predict the weather nor can I predict the actions of others on my team but knowing I have planned as much as I can gives me back some control.”.

It is this idea of strategic planning that Al explores in the book. If, for example, a person has a fear of doing presentations he would recommend executing this planning around the room where the presentation will take place.

“Check out the room where the presentation will be held. Check the layout, what facilities there are like, for example, a white board etc. Plan the technical side of the presentation, envisage the room and know your presentation inside out,” he says.

“By doing this you have controlled everything that is within your control. You can’t predict what people will ask on the day or the actions of others during the presentation but having a certain control will ease the fear.”

According to Mental Health Ireland, one in six people experience mental health problems such as anxiety each year. But this could be more as not everybody seeks help. We are well aware of the gender imbalance when it comes to men seeking help or talking about their emotions. It’s refreshing to hear the male perspective. Through social media, a platform often criticised for its negative effects on mental health, Al has received extremely positive feedback — from both genders.

“I have had people messaging me saying thank you for putting this into words,” he says. “It’s been equal from both men and women. I’ve grown to like social media more because of this. I have found that people have confided in me in messages on Instagram. It seems that the anonymity of being behind a screen makes it easier for people to confide.”

The message behind Overcome or Succumb is undoubtedly positive.Al not only wanted to provide people with the tools to deal with anxiety but also to help them face their fears. He believes that by succumbing to the fear we inevitably are holding ourselves back from truly living.

His message is clear, choose the life you want rather than fear: “Everybody is scared of something no matter how big they are, but it is up to us to turn the tide. If you push yourself to overcome your fears you can create the life you really want.”

Overcome or Succumb by Al Mennie is available at almennie.com €20

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