EP #22 Shaun Eggie on helping veterans heal through whitewater kayaking

In this episode of The Discomfort Zone Podcast, Shaun Eggie, a military veteran who has found healing through whitewater kayaking, shares his experiences and strategies for navigating discomfort and post-military life. 

Passionate about supporting veterans in re-integrating into civilian life, and healing mental injuries, Shaun talks about strategies for grounding, the importance of separating fact from story, and what you can do when you get caught up in negative narratives. 

This episode will give you practical strategies for navigating discomfort, growing self-awareness, embracing accountability, and cultivating a strong community of support.

You’ll get a lot out of Shaun’s experienced and wisdom whether you’re a veteran or civilian.

About Shaun

Shaun Eggie served in the military for 13 years, including three deployments in Iraq. He served in various capacities, including as a soldier, leader, police officer, gunner, driver, team leader, squad leader, and operations. He lived in Alaska for the last four years of his military career before moving back to his hometown of Columbus, Georgia. There he discovered whitewater kayaking and got involved with Team River Runner, a nonprofit organization committed to providing all veterans and their families an opportunity to find health, healing, community purpose, and new challenges through adventure and adaptive paddle sports. Sean is passionate about supporting veterans in navigating post-military life. He and his wife, Tiffany, have been married for 21 years and have two children and one grandchild.

How to connect with Shaun

IG: @shauneggie

FB: https://www.facebook.com/SugarShaunEggie

Team River Runner

Anna
Shaun Eggie served in the military for 13 years, including three deployments in Iraq. He served in various capacities, including as a soldier, leader, police officer, gunner, driver, team leader, squad leader, and operations. He lived in Alaska for the last four years of his military career before moving back to his hometown of Columbus, Georgia. There he discovered whitewater kayaking and got involved with Team River Runner, a nonprofit organization committed to providing all veterans and their families an opportunity to find health, healing, community purpose, and new challenges through adventure and adaptive paddle sports. Sean is passionate about supporting veterans in navigating post-military life. He and his wife, Tiffany, have been married for 21 years and have two children and one grandchild. Welcome to the podcast, Sean. I’m excited to have you.

Shaun Eggie
Thank you, I’m excited to be here.

Anna
So my first question for you is what does your discomfort zone feel like?

Shaun Eggie
Um, so discomfort for me, uh, comes in a lot of forms, but the biggest one is the, uh, the emotional and the physical. Um, normally I, I notice it when the sweat starts, when I start getting a little wet under the armpits, a little sweaty in the palms, and then I feel the tension in my body, and then I know that I’ve, I’m starting that cycle, I’m going down that path of discomfort, something is making me not in my normal zone.

Anna
Hmm. And when you start to feel the sweat, what is your strategy? Does a strategy immediately turn on for you to try and calm yourself down or does it take a moment? What does that look like?

Shaun Eggie
Um, it really depends. It, depending on the, what is causing the discomfort to begin with, um, you know, something as simple as my headphones wouldn’t work. Now I’ve got to figure that out. It doesn’t take as long to recognize, but if I’m sitting in a restaurant and I have this view of something that is just really catching my eye and I can’t figure it out and I can’t get it out of my head.

A lot of times my wife, Tiffany, will recognize it before I do and she’ll change positions. And then that’ll allow me to figure out, okay, I am getting in that zone. And then once I can recognize the sweating and okay, I’m in that zone, then the strategies start to kick in. And this is also work that I’ve been doing since probably 2010 when I went to my very first mental health appointment. So it’s, it’s taken a long time to be able to recognize it.

Anna
Do you have a strategy that you find most effective or that you turn to in times of stress or discomfort?

Shaun Eggie
Uh, it’s grounding, whatever you can use to ground you. For some people, it’s other people. For some people, it’s solitude. For some, it’s animals. For some, it’s getting in their kayak and heading down a class four rapid.

Anna
Yeah, for me, it’s taking a deep breath. And I actually do like to feel my feet. Sometimes that really helps me out. Even in my kayak, feeling my feet or feeling my butt connected to the seat can really be helpful. So I think that I love that you use the word grounding or ground yourself. I think that is very helpful for a lot of folks.

Shaun Eggie
It’s funny that you say that because that initial deep breath was my go-to that everything’s gonna be okay. But when you get turned upside down in a kayak, it’s kind of hard to go. Everything’s gonna be okay. So it is.

Anna
So true. When you turn upside down in a kayak, you can’t breathe. It’s true. So you’ve got to have something else to turn to, for sure. Well, that points to what I like to coach my clients on in terms of flipping upside down and staying calm underwater, which is a key skill for the enjoyment of kayaking, is to use a mantra or a saying or that you repeat, whether that’s…

you know, reach up in terms of the role, being able to roll or whether it’s I’m okay, or something to focus on, something, a physical sensation to focus on, like the feeling of reaching up into your setup for the role. So I think that different things can ground you, but I think an important strategy is focus on something other than the fear, other than the discomfort, because then it starts to blow up in our minds, or it can, at least that’s my experience.

Shaun Eggie
Yep, yep. Yeah, if I wanna focus on the discomfort, I start to live in the stories what’s causing the discomfort and trying to dig and living in that story rather than just being in the discomfort and moving forward with it.

Anna
Yeah, you’re pointing to one of my favorite strategies that I love and I coach that comes from work in Landmark Forum, which is separating fact from story and recognizing that there’s a difference between what’s happening and the story that I’m telling myself about what’s happening. And most of my suffering lives in the story I’m telling myself about what happened, not really in what’s happening. And as humans, we tend to collapse the story we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening as truth. So there’s all that work of separating out the facts of what’s happening versus story. So I love that you brought that up because that’s a powerful strategy that helps me out a ton.

Shaun Eggie
I mean, it’s, it’s done so much for me as well. Just, you know, going back to the headphone things when I messaged you and was like, Hey, I’m having a hard time getting my headphones together. So is it going to be hard? Is it going to be easy? And I can hear you in my head and we’ll get out of the story about what’s going on and just make it happen.

Anna
Yes, and it points to also part of getting out of the story in our own heads is having someone else that can help us do that. And I think that’s something that you’re passionate about in terms of working with veterans in navigating post-military life is, you know, breaking, being an accountability partner, being a support for other folks so that when you see them kind of get stuck in the stories of maybe they’re telling themselves or society is telling them or the military is telling them that you can help them break free of that.

Shaun Eggie
Yeah.

You had said something that was sending me on a path and I forgot the word you used, but what it took me to was that self-discipline. For me, that was one of the things I had to realize when I got out of the military. I had a lot of people telling me, you’re not the same, you’re not doing the things you used to going to the gym, you’re not eating properly, you’re not being active, you’re not spending the time with the family that you used to.

And hearing those things, taking it personally, you get defensive. But when I get out of the story of what I’m hearing and just listen to it, the reality is I did lose my discipline. And having to admit that to myself was very hard. And I think that’s the hardest part for a lot of veterans because we spend so many years being so, you know, under the not discipline, doing everything to the tee. Everything’s pass, fail has to be perfect, and then you get a little bit of freedom and you don’t realize how far you can go the other way.

Anna
What comes to mind too, as I was watching a documentary about the Harry Potter movies, specifically about how the stunt double for Daniel Radcliffe, the star of Harry Potter, had an accident that paralyzed, left him paralyzed on the set of the final movie while he was at work, like doing one of the stunts. And why I bring this up is that

Daniel Radcliffe in the documentary says that he had a hard time after the movies ended because he had spent 10 years in that framework and in that container of the Harry Potter movies and the cast, the crew, the routine. And so I bring that up because it is, I have not served and so I can only imagine the discipline,

You know, once that structure is gone, you know, that there’s a void there. And, and that structure can, can look like, you know, a job. It can look like a family, certain family life. It can look like going to school. It can look like 10 years of Harry Potter movies and you take that away. And yeah, the mind can just go way the other way. So.

I don’t know, I just bring that up because I think that it’s something important for a lot of folks to recognize veterans and anyone who has experienced a lot of structure and then had that taken away or left that.

Shaun Eggie
That’s bringing them on to something that my brother told me once. We were talking about deployments. I had, we had just been on my second one. He had gone on his first one and we were both in Baghdad together. We got to see each other a few times. That was really cool. Um, but when we got back, we were talking about it and what he said was it’s like.

Music is my thing. So that’s what he was using to relate it to. And at that time, burning CDs was the big thing. He’s like, he said, it’s like burning a CD, man. When we go on deployment, everybody at home, CD is still writing. And ours is just getting written a little differently. So when we come back and we’re trying to merge back into that life, we’re trying to merge back into that life where we were rather than recognizing how their story has been written and folding into that.

And then it’s the, so it’s the same concept coming out of the military. I spent 13 years in that structured, you know, just knew what I was doing every minute of every day to now I’m back in the civilian world where the story has still been being written out here. I just wasn’t a huge part of it. Now I’ve got to figure out how to fold myself into that story.

Anna
Yeah, how are you navigating or how did you navigate that discomfort of folding yourself back into the story?

Shaun Eggie
Um, I’m still working on that really. I’ve asked a lot of my friends that got out before me or that have gone through a lot of these same things, that same question. And they always tell me, I can’t tell you what happened. I can’t tell you when I just know I woke up every one day and everything just seemed like it was back in place. And I think it comes from that. Fine. Finding that discipline again restarting those routines and just starting from the beginning. Get up in the morning and make your bed. The next day, get up in the morning and brush your teeth. The next day may just be getting up and making your bed, but for the next day, strive to get up and brush, make your bed and brush your teeth. And that is that continuation of it. Um, it helps, helps to keep from falling into that cycle so much and just knowing that it’s okay to, to not go as far one day.

Anna
Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that. It is important. Accountability is really important, I think. Discipline is important. And it’s also important to accept that not every day is gonna be like the last day and to leave room for spontaneity and change and also…

be able to miss something one day, like for instance, miss making your bed one day, but then being able to go back to it the next day. And I think that, I know what, I think that in our culture, the all or nothing attitude sometimes can hold us back from, okay, I didn’t make my bed yesterday, or like the attitude will be, I didn’t make my bed yesterday. So what’s the point? Like…

I’ll never make my bed again. Like I just can’t do it, you know, because you missed once. Same thing with yoga or exercise, you know, missing one day or maybe one day it’s 10 minutes instead of an hour. And to recognize that there’s value in those 10 minutes and that it’s still worth, instead of being like, oh, I only have 10 minutes, not worth it. Like I should just give up.

you know, getting to your mat for those 10 minutes or going for a 10 minute walk can still have major benefits. And if we can get ourselves there to do that and to not buy into the all or nothing attitude, then we experience those benefits and then it’s easier to move forward from there. At least that’s been my experience and the experience when I’m coaching folks and they play around with this concept they do seem to, it does seem to help them stay on track.

Shaun Eggie
Coming from the military side of it, we call it go or no go. It pass or fail basically. You’re either a go at this station or you’re a no go at this station. And once you’re a no go, it’s like that mark is on the bottom of your kayak or that mark has been put on your helmet that you were a no go at that station and people are going to remember that forever. So when you wake up that morning and you didn’t make your bed, then when you get to the next day, you’re going, well, that mark’s already on my helmet.

I’m already a no-go at this station, why make the bed? Well, why not start over? Why not be a go at this station today? Stay out of the story of it. You’re not a failure because you got one mark.

Anna
Yeah, that’s great.

That’s right. Because what we do is not a, it does not equal our self-worth. For instance, my kayaking, my kayaking performance on any given day does not equal my self-worth. So, because if, and I did live like that for a long time, especially when I competed, if I was in the medals, I was on top of the world. If I was…

If I miss the medals, I was devastated. And it was really silly things like, or I say that they’re silly because, you know, top five is really good. But I would get into a, you know, especially if my boyfriend now at the time now husband would be in the medals and I wasn’t because we were competing at the same time. You know, I would go into this big story about how I suck, everyone thinks I suck, I shouldn’t be here, like so much suffering. And I think that’s the thing to remember is if I equate my self-worth with my performance on any given day, then I’m like riding a roller coaster of life, like ups and downs, like the highs are gonna be great, but the downs are gonna be really sucky.

And so why not bring some equanimity? And of course that’s the, I love yoga and meditation for that concept of equanimity. Celebrate the highs, know that they’re impermanent. Don’t be super averse to the lows, know that they’re impermanent.

Shaun Eggie
I think soldiers and athletes are a lot the same, are a lot alike in that aspect. Um, and I’ve, I’ve even got to the point where like, I don’t really watch sports on TV anymore because I’m that competitive. I’m going to tell you what the next play is going to be. I’m going to tell you what the next pitch is going to be. I’m going to tell you which one the next batter is going to hit. And I just get so involved in it and developed in it. And it’s all a story because I’m not even there.

And it just takes over. It’s crazy.

Anna
Yeah. When you, so what has you or why, let me start over. So why do you choose to keep putting yourself in your discomfort zone and keep starting over every day when you need to?

Shaun Eggie
Um, I tried not being in my discomfort zone. I tried being very comfortable. I worked a big majority of my life into my mid thirties, very hard to be as comfortable as I am to raise my children so that I don’t have to support them now to own a home so that I don’t have to worry about paying rent. Um, my vehicles are almost paid off. You know, I’m retired. I don’t have to work.

I’m very, very comfortable.

But then what else is there to life? That’s the question I find myself, I find myself asking myself over and over again. Well, if you’re this comfortable and you’re fine, then why are we here? Like, what’s the point? Why are we, the questions that no one is ever going to be able to answer. So getting into my discomfort zone allows me to stay out of that mindset, allows me to stay out of that mentality.

I know a lot in the military we hear if you’re not growing, you’re dead. I’m sure that’s across a lot of sports and, you know, a lot of cultures. And it really is true. I sat at home for five years, you know, pretty much not going, it being a part of society, watching TV. I did study some psychology, some sociology and things to try and figure out the PTSD and anxiety.

Because it was always, well, when I can control the anxiety, then I can get back into society. When I’m not sweating like a beast out there because I’m scared to be around people, then I can go out and be in front of people. Well, you’re never gonna get to that point if you don’t put yourself in those situations. And before I knew it, it turned into five years of that, just static.

Anna
Hmm. What had you come out from those five years? Like what had you stepped back into society after five years?

Shaun Eggie
Um, to explain that, I got to have to kind of back up to what we were talking about a little while ago with the discipline and the accountability and that kind of stuff.

At least the soldiers that I’ve talked to, my soldiers and other veterans that I’ve talked to, once we’re willing to admit it, our families are the ones that take the biggest toll from our injuries, our service and our injuries. And I’m not just talking about the moving from place to place or us being gone or.

My wife is my rock. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t, she’s how I ground myself. So if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I do. Sorry, I got a little sidetracked on that, thinking about my wife. Made me emotional for a second.

Anna
We love Tiffany.

Shaun Eggie
Yeah, so just to kind of round that off, admitting that the family, my family took a big toll because of the decision I made to serve, right? And that’s okay. My wife, okay, she’s happy with our life. My kids are great. They tell me all the time that we’ve done a great job. And so why am I carrying the burden of the things that they went through when they’re not carrying them?

So once I was able to put that down, that’s when I was able to realize that I wasn’t spending that family time. And at the time my youngest son was 17 years old and I just realized I’ve got to get out there with him. My oldest son had just joined the army himself and was off at basic training. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get those last three or four years of his high school back, but I could start with Ethan and then start teaching Dakota these same things that I’ve been learning and just recognizing that being able to get out of the self-doubt, the anger and just letting it be what it is. My service was great. I had a great career. My family is amazing. They’re doing awesome. Why am I so caught up in this? And then just, hey, how do we get out of this Ethan? And he said, hey, let’s go kayak.

So I found a way to go kayak. And then three years later, here we are.

Anna
When you started kayaking, whitewater kayaking, it was, you would put yourself into definitely, I would say the discomfort zone. Whitewater kayaking is not, it’s awesome. Obviously, we both have a passion for it. It is definitely uncomfortable.

Did that help you? Was that exciting? How did Whitewater kayaking help you move forward in getting back to family life, in coming back into the fold, so to speak, as you mentioned earlier?

Shaun Eggie
Oh, so being a paratrooper, I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie, just is what it is. And kayaking is adrenaline. So why not? And it was very enticing and it hooked me. It got me. Once I got into kayaking, I realized, well, I need some real instruction to be able to do this the way I want to do it. And then through that instruction, I started to find the healing side of kayaking and the healing side has slowly won me over to where, yeah, I still like to go out there and run them big rapids. Yes, I still wanna go jump out of airplanes. Yes, I like being out there on the zip lines. But I’m not doing it for the adrenaline anymore. I’m not doing it for the rush anymore. I’m now doing it for the discomfort, being uncomfortable and working through that. So that way, when I face it in life,

I’m ready to go. I have the tools I need. I’ve created the team around me and I have the tools I need.

Anna
Hmm. It’s powerful. What would you say is the… So what I heard you say is that putting yourself in a whitewater kayak, choosing to go into your discomfort zone helps you face challenges in everyday life. When you say that whitewater kayaking is healing, is there another aspect of it that you find healing?

If you were to name the most healing part of whitewater kayaking, and it may be the discomfort zone piece, but is there another piece that you find very healing?

Shaun Eggie
Oh, definitely the community. Um, I’ve been very lucky that once I, when I decided to get into kayaking, um, there’s national champions in my area. I mean, there’s world champions in my area that I get to learn from on a regular basis at the wintering grounds. Uh, and this, I’d always been an athlete. I’ve been to professional sports, baseball games, football games, hockey games.

And I’d been around athletes all the time, but then being around these world class, I mean, literally the number one paddler in the world is standing there giving me advice and compliments. Like he’s as new as I am. And that access was just, it shook me for a moment. I didn’t really know how to react to it.

But once I got out of that discomfort of the people that I was, or the class of people that I was around, that story I was putting in my head, it just opened up a new world, like, I mean, kayaking became very easy, very, I won’t say easy, it’s not easy. I grew very fast in the kayaking industry because I allowed myself to be around those people.

Anna
Mm. Yeah, and it sounded, it sounds like you allowed them to contribute to you. Yeah. Yeah, I think Whitewater, go ahead, what was that?

Shaun Eggie
Oh yeah, oh yeah. The vulnerability piece, that vulnerability piece.

Open it up.

Anna
Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think that it’s easy, or at least for me, I’ve grown over the years, but allowing people to contribute to me has definitely been a growth area for me because it does require vulnerability.

I think that that’s something that’s really cool about whitewater kayaking is that it’s not unusual to find yourself on the river with excellent paddlers, world champions, former champions, some of the best paddlers around. It’s very fun in that way to be able to, yeah, to have, like you said, to have that access to the world’s top athletes.

I don’t think that’s necessarily very true of most sports.

That’s a whole other subject for me. So I don’t want to open that can’t one.

Anna
Yeah

Anna
Yes. What have you learned about yourself through stepping into your discomfort zone?

Yeah, and I love what you said. Well, you said one day at a time, I would say one moment at a time, and again, yeah, allowing ourselves to go step by step. It’s a great kayaking analogy too. You’re in one, Eddie. Just look, set your angle, look to the next, Eddie, and…

paddle over to the next steady. You don’t have to run the whole rapid all in one shot. You can break it down. What’s the next move?

Anna
Yeah, that’s beautiful and very powerful.

And I think actually listening to you, it goes beyond also veterans to anyone who’s feeling like no one understands them. It takes a lot of vulnerability. And I get it. We’ve all felt that. We’ve all reached out, made ourselves vulnerable, and then the person didn’t step up to the plate, so to speak, and really hear us. So…

I know what that feels like, it sucks to not feel heard. And it doesn’t mean that everyone you open yourself up to will be that way. And just like you said, one step at a time, it does take sometimes broadening our community reaching out to different people. And then when we find the folks who do earn the right to hear us or to give us advice or whatever it is, then keeping those relationships alive is important. I know sometimes for me, I will tend to pull back if I’m starting to go down a negative rabbit hole and I have to… really coach myself. No, reach out, send a text, you know. And I’m pretty much always grateful that I do.

Anna
Hmm. Yeah. Well, thank you for trusting me.

Yeah.

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