Swim Yourself Happy

I was recently approached to write a piece to be included in a book. An anthology of personal stories of how a range of activities and hobbies help people manage their depression and mental health. The brief was to focus on why sea swimming helps my mental health and how it helps me. So, whilst I was incredibly flattered I was also incredibly nervous. My thoughts normally dictate what I write and  they are very much my anecdotal ramblings. Now there are rules and a format! Anyway, here is the first draft, I hope you like it. 

Picture this; A cold crisp winters day on the beach, wind whipping along the shore, foreboding pewter coloured waves and …….a bunch of scantily clad people smiling and squealing in the sea. I am likely to be one of them.

I swim in the sea, all year round, to keep my anxiety and depression at bay.  When I looked to understand how this works for me,  I first had to consider how my mental health moods manifest themselves. Everyone with a mental health diagnosis or individuals struggling to manage their well being experience very unique moods, feelings or thoughts, although there are themes that resonate with many sufferers. Here are some of my most common ones.

Most of the time I see the world in black and white, devoid of colour, devoid of joy. The flip side to this, is when I occasionally experience joy it is so completely indescribably wonderful – it’s like the moment when Dorothy lands in Oz and suddenly there is colour. I can be happy and content but unadulterated joy is very rare and only happens when I am completely present and in the moment. When it happens I find myself scrabbling around for ways to recreate it, which as you can imagine is counter productive and pushes me into the waiting arms of the “mental monkeys”.

The “mental monkeys” is the name I have given to the constant internal dialogue in my brain. They don’t miss a trick and are very rarely quiet. Any opportunity to chatter about situations out of my control, inconsequential self enforced deadlines missed, what people think about me, did I say or do the right thing. You get the idea. They have no concept of night or day and will happily fill my brain with their negative opinions and questions 24/7. When I am tired or overwhelmed and my resilience threshold is low, there is a veritable chimps tea party going on in there, one which I am not enjoying!

Being overwhelmed is my normal state du jour.  At times, self inflicted, as I chase the elusive joy by filling my life with lots of things to do. Accepting every invitation to prove I can be ‘normal’. Self destruction button well and truly depressed. If I do not get the rest and respite I need,  I am liable to shut down. This doesn’t happen quietly like a worn out battery, it will be accompanied by a lot of angry noise before I lock myself away for varying lengths of time depending on how tired I am. Just acting like a ‘normal’ person can leave me shattered by around teatime.

This list is not exhaustive, but just indicative of how I feel most of the time. So what does sea swimming do for me to keep anxiety and depression at bay?

Sea swimming, as a pastime, is joyful. Instead of constantly trying to orchestrate feelings of pleasure and elation, the sea provides it. I swim with a great bunch of people a few times a week and we play in the water. Literally play like children.  We connect as community and we laugh hard and long. Even on the bleakest of days, I never regret a swim, and there is always a warm welcome. The post swim high can last for hours after the event and knowing that the sea is a constant and therefore I have a constant supply of joy,  it buoys me up. 

When I am in the sea, the endless negative internal dialogue is silenced. The sea overloads all of my senses, silky water on my skin, salty tastes and smells, shingle sounds,  blue sights. The sound of the mental monkeys is quite literally drowned out. Repetitive activity of stroke after stroke gives me space to collect my thoughts. I used to shy away from mindfulness exercises and meditation, too afraid it would give the mental monkeys free reign. What I have discovered is the exact opposite happens – I have my best thoughts and ideas in the sea. The cluttered brain fog clears with the sea breeze.

The rest and respite I need to counter how overwhelmed I can feel  is easy achieved at the beach. You cannot take your phone into the sea and you cannot hear it beeping on the beach when you are in the water. The constant scrolling images and high pitched sounds are replaced by a never changing horizon. I swim year round, in freezing temperatures and challenging sea states. Putting myself in these situations on a regular basis I am exposing my body and mind to stress. Getting into wavy cold water is stressful for your body and mind, but I cope. I have adapted to deal with this stress and it helps me go on to deal with every day stress. When I am swimming in these conditions I can only be concerned about myself, in that moment, in that situation – there is no room to be concerned with anything else. 

Other people think you are mad for swimming in the sea, all year round and I own that label! Being in the sea reminds me that my depression and anxiety is transient, it ebbs and flows like the tide. It provides me with the opportunity to check in with myself, to see if another episode is on the horizon. Although dark times are part of the disease, sea swimming can provide a break in the clouds.  I did not chose to feel this way, but I have chosen how I deal with it on a day to day basis. I have found a safe haven when my seas are stormy. 

Author: Seabird Kath

N.B. I was asked to write by the founder of The Recovery Letters website www.therecoveryletters.com . They have already produced a book entitled  ‘The Recovery Letters: Addressed to People Experiencing Depression’ published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers

There has been a huge increase in the popularity of wild swimming. We live in strange times, that humans were not designed for. Many of us have founds ways to escape, to be our unaffected selves for just a moment, recapturing those feelings of possibility. If you want to give wild swimming a go to the Wild Swim website to find a group to join near you.

Author: seabirdsbrighton

Cath and Kath run a not for profit wild swim shop that raises funds and provides opportunities for people to manage their wellbeing by getting in the water. Both keen sea swimmers and wellbeing warriors, this blog helps us to share the salty seabird love.

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