January doesn’t have to be Blue!

A guest blog by Salty Seabird Claudine – how to beat the blues whatever time of the year it is!

Guest blog by Salty Seabird Claudine

January, hey?  It gets a bad rap.  “New year, new you”, Dry January, Blue Monday.   Not much fun and joy contained in those words.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A couple of years ago when I first discovered the body positive movement, it became so much more than a transformation of how I see myself when I look in the mirror.  I did an exercise called “taking the blinkers off”, and it opened my eyes to the nonsense I’d been fed by the media for so long.  Not only the societal ideal of beauty which for the most part was airbrushed, unrealistic and certainly not what I was ever going to look like, but also to other media bias.  I mean, I had of course known about this and been somewhat mindful of what I chose to read and watch, but suddenly I saw through the lies I’d been blind to before.

One of them was about how depressing January is, and in particular the concept of Blue Monday, the third Monday of the year.  As well as being a song of my youth, it is a concept apparently made up by the travel industry to make people feel particularly low so they book a holiday to escape the grey drudgery of a British winter.  This is despite being “depressed” (obviously, some people actually suffering depression and others just feeling pretty down for a while) and having the Christmas bills coming in whilst waiting desperately for January pay day.

But it doesn’t have to be all bad, does it?  I have the joy of seeing my girl turn another year older each January, always scraping together a party for her after the madness of Christmas.  Although I haven’t made new year resolutions for years, I like to use the start of a fresh year to take stock, think about what’s happened over the last 12 months and give some thought to the 12 months ahead – how I want to be, and how I can achieve that.  And now for the second year, I’m looking forward to swimming (or at the very least dipping on the coldest of days) in some of the lowest water temperatures of the year.  It’s a pleasure to have something to look forward to through winter, and for us cold water lovers and to the confusion of the rest of the population, the colder the better.

 

At the event I curated for iSWIM, entitled Reclaim Blue Monday, we heard from a range of panellists and experts in cold water immersion and blue space.  The discussion was about why and how we benefit from this crazy (as some people see it), pastime of wild swimming, in terms of socially, physiologically, psychologically, spiritually and environmentally.  What does the sea give us; and in return, what can we give the sea?

We heard about the stimulation of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, enabling us to cope better with stress – physically and mentally.  We heard about the transformative, connective and re-orientating power of a swim, especially a chilly one.  We heard about the power of awe, and how immersion in freezing water and being in nature contribute to positive wellbeing.  We heard of the value of the beach and the sea as a therapeutic landscape, and the idea that the more we use the ocean and gain some benefit from it, the more likely we are to care about its wellbeing and take action against water pollution.  It reminded me of the short film, Nature is Speaking, with Julia Roberts voicing “mother nature”, a powerful message about how nature doesn’t depend on us but we depend on it.  Nature has existed for billions of years before us, and will exist long after us, she will evolve no matter what our actions.  But we need to evolve as well if we want to carry on as a species.

All this means much more than the things we might be encouraged to do every new year: cutting out alcohol, stopping smoking, becoming fitter, faster and slimmer, or setting ourselves goals of achievement, smashing our PBs.  It means being mindful of what is around us, of separating the truly important things from those we are told to believe are important.  And for me, this begins in the sea.  It’s a place where I can be myself, get what I need, and take nothing away (apart from plastic I find on the beach).  The sea is a place I can feel free, forget the stresses of the day, week, month, and reset.

Every swim is different and gives me something the last one or the next one may not.  It could be a purely physical refresh, a wake up, a shock to the senses by the prickling of the cold water on my skin, bit by bit as I get in.  It could be the sense of achievement of getting in a bouncy sea, assessing from the shore when and where to get in, whether the waves are too big, how often they are breaking.  Watching the waves break with such power and force, working out where the shelf of the beach is, and how likely it is I’ll get “washing machined” by the shore break.   On these swims I barely notice the cold, too busy trying not to drown.  Once I’m in, I’ll enjoy the swim, but with a little part of me feeling anxious about how difficult it will be to get out, whether I’ll time it right or get knocked over by a wave, and pummelled by stones.

Once I’m out after a swim like this, I feel like I can take on the world!  Or it might be the conversation or uplifting support of fellow swimmers.  I’ve had such a vast range of conversations with people whilst bobbing along beside them, hearing and sharing such profound and personal stories with people I’ve just met, or sometimes sharing my own struggles and letting the overwhelm and anxiety wash away, with my tears, into the salty water.  Other times, it’s the hysterics of the after-drop, the not remembering exactly how to get dressed, the giggles about a risqué comment from another swimmer, or just the fits of laughter that come out of nowhere and are about nothing.

Whatever I get from a swim, whether it’s the things I consciously feel and think, and whatever unconsciously going on in my brain and my body, I always get something good.  Even on the very rare occasion I feel like it wasn’t much fun, I didn’t really enjoy it, felt rubbish as I went in and far from ecstatic coming out, and I got battered with wind and rain trying to get dressed, I’m still convinced I come out feeling better than if I hadn’t gone in.  It’s sometimes hard to put into words what I get from it.  But every time I get in, once I get over the breathlessness of cold shock, I find myself taking a deep inhale, and as I exhale, I always find myself saying, “ahh, that’s better”.  Discovering cold water swimming and meeting the incredible community of i-swimmers and seabirds has certainly cured anything blue about January for me.

Note on the Author; The life-changing film Embrace is being screened again by BoPoFitCo – Christine Chessman and Claudine Nightingill-Rane – a body image coaching duo from Hove. For both of us, and for many more who have seen our previous screenings, it has been a catalyst for a hugely positive change in the way we see ourselves, treat ourselves and the work we do to help others do the same

Sometimes a Seabird needs Grounding

How the sea can set you free from negative thoughts and feelings

Not literally – you can’t clip a seabirds wings and stop it from swimming – but grounding is a technique used to focus on what is happening in the present moment. And we all need that once in a while.

Rumination is my usual state of mind.  It causes me sleepless nights and anxious days,  thinking about things I cannot solve but also cannot accept. I focus on the past and problems rather than the present.  My solution for rumination is grounding.  I need to be bought back to the moment. Sea swimming does this for me

Grounding is a technique that can be used to distract you from negative emotions or challenges. We can use things in our physical environment to do this as way of redirecting our thoughts. The seascape and immersing yourself in the sea is a really good way of doing this.

Being in or around the sea is an absolute assault on the senses so works really well as an environment for grounding. In fact you can ground yourself without actually realising that you are doing it. Your senses focus on everything around you leaving little room for rumination and anxious thoughts.

Part of grounding is not just focusing on something physical but touching something, a tangible object. And what could be better than a large body of water. I love how the seascape changes everyday depending on the sea, weather and tide conditions. I love the changing colour of the sea and sky and have begun to consider different names for them/. A Seabirds colour wheel. I focus on my hands as they glide through the water and provide a perspective on the shade and tone. I have been known to base my decision to swim or not to swim on the colour of the sea. Focusing on my surroundings grounds me.

Against all good safety advice, I enter the water swiftly. Normally because I need a wee (I always need a wee) but also because by nature I am quick to act. It stops me from hesitating and procrastinating at the waters edge – which is just another variant of rumination! My routine is to then take a few head in strokes and flip onto my back to float once well clear of the break line.

Floating as a physical form of grounding is incredible in so many ways. When you enter cold water, particularly when you do it quickly, your breath is literally taken away and you can find yourself gasping for breath. Lying on my back, I am able to regulate my breathing with either deep diaphragmatic breaths, singing (in my head or out loud) and counting. I am present in my breathing. Once my breath regulates I take time to consider how the water feels. Which direction s the current going in so I can decide which direction to swim in. How choppy is it so I can consider which way to breathe or do head out breast stroke. How cold does it feel on my skin and is the burn subsiding. Although the temperature can remain static for weeks on end, how I am feeling mentally and physically changes all the time impacting my ability to cope with cold water. Floating allows me to take stock of this before I venture too far from shore.

Getting in the water is not at simple as it sounds, particularly when faced with a steep shingle shelf. You have to focus on the waves, their size and speed and search for a lull to enter. All done on a floor of shifting shingle whilst you trying to maintain your balance and muster up the courage needed to plunge into cold water. At certain tides,you feel with your shuffling feet for the soft sand that you know you will eventually find making staying on your feet more likely. It’s the same when you are getting out, head swinging from shore to sea to decide when to swim and run like Billy-O. There is no room in your brain to worry about anything else.

Once swimming, I find that moving my body, in long purposeful strokes is a distraction from the day to day. Challenging my arms to ignore the muscle memory of my inefficient stroke and consider my body position in the water. I almost enter a hypnotic state as I count my strokes. Keeping on eye on my direction, location and proximity to other swimmers and shore also keeps my mind occupied. When the water is clear you can use the sand lines to find your way home, swimming through them horizontally until you hit shingle. Then listening to the shingle roar grow louder as the water grows shallower indicating when it is time to stand up. (or do a handstand!)

As well as physical grounding techniques there are also mental ones. Most of them are not intended to prevent rumination but to ensure I have a joyful swim. There are preparations to be made when you go for a sea swim in Brighton. You can’t just grab and towel and jump in. Well you can but it is not advisable. Where and when we swim is dictated by the tides and conditions so being able to read various complicated apps becomes a girl guide badge mission. Once on the beach,  a review of your swim area also helps you focus on the here and now.  Are there other beach/sea users, where are your safe entry and exit points, are your clothes lined up ready to be quickly pulled over your head post swim. Do you have your underwear and is it wrapped in a hot water bottle! All of this occupies your mind so your anxious thoughts can’t.

In all of these ways and many more the sea provides a way for me to manage my negative thoughts and feelings. The sea, as a brilliant oxymoron, can ground you! The sea sets me free!

Author: Seabird Kath

 

 

 

 

The Anthropology of Salty Ornithology

How does community connect in the modern world? By Social Media and Swimming!

As a social introvert I am fascinated by human interaction. Envious of those that seemingly find conversation and connection easy.  Over the festive period the Salty Seabird flock grew to record numbers but I am not always able to face new faces. I observed from afar (social media screen) but was still able to share in their joy and happiness at experiencing a cold water sea swim. I still felt part of the flock.

Being part of a community is not a new thing. Nor is swimming in the sea. But doing it as a community activity arranged via social media is. But what fundamental components of being part of a community remain unchanged?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Community is; a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. The internet and social media platforms have meant that I can watch someone else’s swim live, from the comfort of my own home. Watching their face erupt into a smile, breathe in the beautiful scenery and converse with them via comments. It’s not that same as actually being there. Only two of your senses are engaged and there is no real replacement for physical presence but I do still feel part of a community, albeit virtually. We don’t necessarily live in the same place but we do live in the same space.

We also have a particular characteristic in common. The Outdoor Swimming Society have claimed the characteristic ‘stoic’ for the virtual Zeno’s Swim Club. The ability to just keep going – or in this case just keep swimming.  This is true of my local Salty Seabird community and my virtual outdoor swimming community. The impact cold water immersion has on our physical and mental health, has been researched and written about, both anecdotally and academically.  What we all seem to agree on is that in that moment, in the water, we have escaped the day to day. We know it will be there once we’ve dried off but we will be better equipped to deal with it. We are testing our resilience. Why would you enter freezing water willingly? Its takes your breath away and it burns your limbs. Because, you know, once you’ve had a swim you will feel like you can keep going.

I have talked and written at length about the sense of connection I experience from swimming with a group. In a fragmented world, and during times of austerity, the need for connection and community has never been more necessary. The Salty Seabirds have grown from a few to the many, some I have never met, some have names I don’t know, some swim in different spots, some swim long distances and some dip. But I am connected to them. Connected by the shared need for respite and rest and the ability to find it by the sea. Connected by sharing cake and tea post swim. Connected by a rediscovery of childlike joy and the ability to play in the water. For me, connection is at the heart of the community.

Recently the Salty Seabird community has demonstrated the strength of the connection at its heart.  A new Salty wanted to raise some funds for a paediatric study into treatment for Alkaptonuria, the genetic condition her son has. So she posted a call to arms for swimmers join her swimming in the sea through the 12 days of Christmas. The response was overwhelming with incredible numbers of swimmers joining her on a daily basis, donating and sharing the fundraiser. This community, didn’t know her, or her son, when she asked for support, but because a bunch of people have a sense of belonging or connection they answered her call.

Connection is prevalent throughout the virtual outdoor swimming community just as much as it is locally. ‘Tits to the Wind’ organised by 3 wild swimmers via social media was supported by swimmers the length and breadth of the country. The idea was to swim topless and raise money for Mind a mental health charity and raise awareness for Coppafeel which encourages people to check for lumps to ensure early diagnosis of breast cancer. Instagram was full of wonderful images of people exposing their “Tits to the Wind” and sharing the experience. All the topless swimmers are alike in some way, they feel a sense of belonging with each other even though they’ve never met.

Whenever Lindsey ‘Stompy’ Cole puts a shout out for people to join her for a swim or for a bed for the night she is never disappointed. In 2018 she swam the length of River Thames as  mermaid to raise awareness of plastic pollution. Since then she has cycled and swum around the UK instantly recognisable by her infectious grin. Again, via social media, she posts shout outs for swim buddies and place to stay which are answered by the supportive  community she is part of.

Lindsey is not the only one to swim with strangers. Salties join us from all over the world to experience the sea on the South Coast of England. In addition to the wild swimmers individual and group social media accounts, there is a Wild Swim Map and the Outdoor Society FB group. So many way for swimmers to connect with one another. Whenever I go on my holidays I will find a local swimmer or group to swim with. And you know that when you do eventually make it to that waterfall, lake, tarn, you will be made to feel very welcome and very much part of that local community.

The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to say; the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common. Again by wild swimming virtual connections when posted words or an image resonate you instantly feel part of a community. I frequently comment on other people’s posts and have regular dialogue with people I have never met, but I know they are my people. Some of these may be sea swimmers local to Brighton and Hove, who swim in the same spots as me yet we have not met. Some of these sea swimmers may in fact be part of the same Salty Seabird community group but we are yet to swim at the same time and place. This is the beauty of these leaderless, self-regulating communities glued together by sharing the swim love.

Watching my own community of Salty Seabirds thrive brings me joy on a daily basis. Every week new swimmers join us, entering the sea as strangers and leaving the beach as friends.. The local connection of community is incredible. We’ve had single Salties spend Christmas day together. Poorly Salties spend their birthdays on the beach with us even when they are too ill to swim. They fundraise and volunteer for Seabirds, provide lifts to Shoreham Port, swap stories, give warm welcome and advice to new swimmers…….the list goes on. They are the salt of the earth – or in this case salt of the sea.

This is what community looks like – it hasn’t changed – just the way we connect has.