Anxiety, the Sea and Me

How an ever worrying, anxious, brain can be soothed by the sea.

Anxiety and the sea have been two constants in my life. Always there. Not always at the forefront consuming me and dictating my daily activities. Sometimes simmering in the background. But ever present. They are intertwined as one balances out the other. The pull of anxiety is heavy but fortunately the pull of the sea is stronger.

Lots of people are aware of depression but it’s close ally anxiety, is lesser known. Much like depression, anxiety can occur during certain phases of life or as a response to a situation/experience. It can also be a life long companion. It can be a very valid response to a given situation. Everyone, at times will feel anxious, uneasy, worry or nervous, as a response to the new or uncertain. But, when these feelings are disproportionate to the situation and/or dictate your everyday life you are suffering with anxiety rather than feeling anxious.

Like many, my first experience of anxiety was as a teenager. The teenage brain is particularly vulnerable to anxiety. During puberty and adolescence, it isn’t just the body that grows rapidly. The brain does too. As the brain function moves from one structure to another, as it transitions from childhood to adulthood, it has to recreate all the connections it had made previously and relearn responses to the external environment. This makes teens especially vulnerable to stress and anxiety. Being female you get to experience times in your life when anxiety can come to visit. Perinatal anxiety is anxiety experienced any time from becoming pregnant to around a year after giving birth. And my current state due jour, the peri-Menopause. When you are totally unable to string a sentence together, remember what you were going to say and not be able to concentrate on the flow of a conversation you are naturally going to be anxious about going out and seeing people.

Then there is the global pandemic. If you have managed to navigate your way through life without experiencing anxiety, a worldwide virus has decided it’s time you had a taster. Lock down anxiety is a proportionate and very real response to having your choices taken away.  Rational worries about family and friends, jobs, food, home life are at the forefront of your mind. Usual coping mechanisms of physical activity, coffees with friends, for me, swimming in the sea became inaccessible overnight. Losing sleep, stewing over the future, chipping away at your resilience. The ever changing guidelines, public shaming and blaming, choice comparisons took no prisoners over the last 13 weeks. And now, anxiety about the loosening of lock-down just as we’ve got used to isolating. We don’t know what the new normal is going to be and anxiety comes with that.

As a life long anxiety sufferer I felt better equipped than most to deal with the last few months. I have a number of go to coping strategies and in all honesty, not having to come up with excuses from bailing on social arrangements at the last minute or spending the day before meeting friends in the pub with my stomach in knots was welcome respite. I’ve also had a pretty easy ride of it, no shielding, no ill family or friend, no jobs losses and kids that can home school themselves. As soon as you were allowed to the beach and to swim in the sea I was back on my even keel. My boats still heels from time to time but it is most definitely sea worthy and buoyant.

I first discovered the sea soothed my anxious brain when I walked out of my corporate job after 15 years of service. I’d worked full-time, part-time, condensed weeks, home flexi-working. I even took a sabbatical. I finally realised that no matter what adaptations I made to my working arrangements, my poor mental health followed me. Once I realised it wasn’t the hours of work, but rather it was that I was unable to balance the content and pressure of my work, I made the decision to leave that very day. I remember it so vividly. It was day one of a two day workshop and I was sat in a conference room in the Hotel Seattle looking out onto the pontoons of Brighton Marina. I was being told how some new reporting software would allow me to manage customer satisfaction levels even though it was not compatible with the product platform and we had no way of actually implementing it. I voiced my concerns.  It wouldn’t work. I was not heard. I was not in control. I was staring out to sea wishing I was anywhere else instead.

That evening I called my boss, a super bloke, and told him I wouldn’t be in the next day. He asked when I would be back and I said never. I then, through tears, explained to him about my mental health and that any resilience I’d had in this role had been worn away. He was surprised, I have a very confident outward persona, but he was incredibly supportive and orchestrated my exit.

The first thing I did was to scoop up my young family, load up the car and headed for the South West. For a week I slept a lot. Every time a picnic blanket was placed on the sand, I’d be curled up asleep on it within minutes. My husband would care for and play with the kids in the day and work in the evenings so I could begin my recovery. I’d been so busy running from the internal conversations, too afraid to let them in but actually that is exactly what I needed to do. So I let the loop of anxious narrative and internal chatter have a voice. In the sea swimming and on the beaches in the still of morning I took the time to listen, challenging the thoughts when I needed to and accepting them at other times. A week by the sea allowed me to be honest with myself for the first time probably in forever. I was tuning into my gut feelings, not always liking what they told me but facing them none the less.

I often wonder, if I had listened earlier would I have made this life changing decision to leave work and take steps to manage my mental health sooner. But I think it wasn’t just the right time, I was in the right place. I was with the people that I loved in a place that I loved, by the sea. I would while away the hours walking on clifftops, snoozing on the shore and swimming in the sea. This allowed my broken brain the subconscious space to figure stuff out and fit stuff together. I realised I was working hard for all the wrong reasons. By keeping busy I was trying to keep the mental monkeys at bay. I was also afraid of failing in the workplace and I wanted to equally contribute to the household income, but this was all at the expense of my happiness and wellbeing. My ‘aha’ moment happened where all my ‘aha’ moments have happened since, within he sight, sound and smell of the sea. I need to take some time away from the workplace to rest.

Since then my choice of work has been mainly voluntary and pretty much all third sector. I do appreciate how fortunate I am that my family circumstances allow me this choice (read exceptionally kind and compassionate husband and self-sufficient kids). I have never returned to full-time work and most of what I do is local, focuses on improving community wellbeing and takes place on the beach or in the sea. I resemble a leather handbag have briny bleached hair and have the most amazing network of supportive and encouraging beach bums you are every likely to meet.

It’s not all been plain sailing. There have been significant challenges and set backs along the way. But the introduction of regular me time, in other words sea time has allowed me to make quick and significant decisions to maintain my mental health equilibrium rather than wait until it’s sometimes too late.

How does it work, this relationship between anxiety, the sea and me? Well I’m no neuroscientist and I’m certainly not an academic but I have spent a lot of time, swimming and floating in the sea and snoozing and starring by the sea thinking about how it helps me. So if you want a salty charlatan’s take on it all, here goes;

Anxiety is a human response to potential threat and uncertain outcomes. So in the context of swimming in the sea, which at times can be risky to be in or on, it’s actually a reasonable reaction. Cold winter seas can quite literally take you breath away and your brain becomes occupied with pacifying the flight impulse and staying aware of your environment. This leaves little room for overthinking your day-to-day worries. The more you expose yourself to the freezing sea and a huge deep expanse of water and not only survive but come to enjoy the experience you are encouraging your brain to re-wire the anxiety hard wire. Sort of like CBT in the sea.

You are strengthening and maintaining your resilience by swimming in the sea. The sea is uncertain and it cannot be controlled and is constantly changing. Experiencing the changing seascape, which you are unable to influence encourages the brain to stop worrying about things it cannot sway.

Many treatments for anxiety are easy to practice in the sea. Meditation; part of the cold water acclimatisation process is to float on your back until you have regulated your breathing. Swimming regular strokes and slowing your breathing to match your stroke is necessary as humans have yet to earn how to breath underwater. Mindfulness; repetitive strokes and a focus on the hear and now encourages you to remain in the present. Physical activity; regardless of ability anyone can splash about in the sea and moving your body helps you keep warm. Self-Care; you cannot take your phone into the sea and no one can contact you. Away from screen scrolling total rest and relaxation is possible.

Connection; This for me over the last couple of years has had a profoundly positive impact on my wellbeing. The human experience of belonging increases confidence and self-esteem and can eradicate anxiety. And most certainly feel I belong with the group I swim with. Within this group being vulnerable is your strength. Talking; A nurturing open environment has formed on Brighton and Hove’s beaches where you are able to talk about your worries and concerns. And eat cake.

I will always have anxiety, but I will also always have the sea. And while the two remain as constants in my life, I’ll be OK.

Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Ellie

The forth in our ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs where we bring salted wellbeing away from the beach and into your home. Grab yourself a cuppa and get to know the salty seabirds.

I’m Ellie, I live in Hove with my husband and 2 kids exactly 15 mins walk from the Seafront! I’ve lived by the sea all my life and cannot imagine living inland at all. I lived first near the beautiful sandy beaches that give Sandbanks in Dorset its name. Not the posh peninsula, but still just a swift stroll to the sea. When I was choosing a university it was a choice only between places near the channel.

 

I really struck gold when I first arrived in Hove – a 1 min stroll to the beach and a glimpse of the sea from our huge bay windows. Shame the flat was so tiny!

Fast forward a few years; 2 kids, a stressful and emotionally demanding job as a primary school teacher and then management in a large school and my visits to the seafront to swim had all but dried up! Discovering the Seabirds has changed that in a big way.

Thinking back to my earliest swimming experience  it wasn’t in the sea at all. We had swimming lessons in the local Pool in Poole and I was awarded a certificate for swimming 5 metres! I think my mum’s still got it somewhere. I’ve never really liked swimming in indoor pools and that one was particularly noisy and smelly! I much prefer to remember my early swimming experiences as being back on that beach at Sandbanks. We often spent whole days (or that’s how it felt) building sandcastles in the white sand and collecting shells at the water’s edge. I’d often just run in and out of the shallow water watching my older brother but the competitive side of me couldn’t resist a challenge. Lifting my feet off the sandy sea floor and splashing along behind the rubber dingy dragged by my dad was a wondrous moment. The smell of sea is still one of my favourites even the algae that’s lurking around at the moment!

 

At the beginning of last year I’d resigned from my teaching job following increased anxiety and the return of my depression. I thought hard about why I’d suffered again with my mental health and concluded I needed to find a new community of people, to join something (I’m not a joiner!) and hopefully feel happier in myself.  I’ve not been disappointed!  The encouragement and support from the seabirds has been a huge part of my recovery and their companionship has been so powerful.

 

Just as I found the Seabirds wild swimming community on Facebook, I heard about the Women, Wellbeing and Water course they were running and joined the 4 weekly sessions. I loved hearing Kath wax lyrical about the tides and currents and it gave me great confidence and resilience in swimming more frequently in the sea. (The tea and cake after each dip helped too!)

I took the plunge and joined my first Seabird Swim on 1st May last year and could not have imagined how amazing it would feel. A year on and I was disappointed to spend only 5 minutes in the sea on my ‘Salty swimversary’. Although much more confident in the water than I was a year ago – big seas still scare me and the lack of Seabird laughter and screeching during this time has made the sea swimming experience a serious and almost silent one!

 

The great thing about swimming with the Seabirds is that you can just post a swim if you fancy one, no need to organise weeks in advance, and see who rocks up. Sometimes it’s just 1 other person sometimes 20. I’m still shy in big groups and often hover on the edge of a Monday Mass if I manage to get there at all. But at every single swim whatever I am  feeling when I turn up, the sea and the salty flock always make me feel welcome and part of the community and that is after all why I joined! Thanks to all you amazing people who’ve chatted, shared cake, swimming hats, laughter,  tears, lifts to Shoreham and companionship with me over the last year I’m so looking forward to being back with  the flock soon.

Woman cannot live on Swims alone

I’m all come swim with me until the summer when I have no desire to swim. Or is it because I have no need to swim?

It’s that time of year again when the inevitable summer swim slump occurs. Life gets busy and the beach gets busy. I find myself muttering under my breath about fair weather swimmers as I approach our increasingly crowded favourite spot of shingle in front of Hove Lawns. Hardly aligned with my belief that swimming is for all and everyone should give it a go. The warmer waters remove the temperature barrier that prevents so many from swimming in the sea. This is a good thing. But still it keeps me away from my sacred sea.

It’s not that I like solitude when I am swimming. I have written many times about the sense of community and connection I gain from swimming with others. But I also do not like crowds. Too many people, too much noise, bodies invading my fiercely protected personal space overwhelms my over sensitive brain. I also fiercely protect my swimming space and when I see plastic all over the pebbles I want to weep. Hardly my happy place in the summer months.

My swim squad also disperses across Europe on their holidays. They share images of Italian Lakes, Yorkshire Tarns, French Rivers and Greeks Seas. They have all found secret swim spots, a Salty Seabird haven away from our busy beaches. There really is nothing better than finding a swim spot with family and friends and there is no one else there. You’ve hit the wild swimming jackpot. This is impossible in Brighton and Hove as the beaches are always busy in the summer and good old Sussex by the sea is a wild swimmers dry spot. There are rivers and lakes in abundance but they are not accessible to the public. I scroll through neighbouring Surrey’s wild swim group in envy at the access they have to the Thames and the River Wey. The Wild Swim guide books offer no real alternative to the sea in Sussex.

The alternative would be getting up at sunrise before the beach gets busy. Not really a hard task for an early riser like me. What ever the season I will wake up between 5-5.30am every day. During the summer months it is light enough to head down to the beach for a swim. Seabird Christine runs the 6.15am club and most mornings partakes in a dawn dip so I would even have Salty company. But I just can’t seem to muster the enthusiasm during the hot months. I think I may be a cold water junkie. If the sea temperature is below double digits it seems to be more appealing. During the summer the sea is room temperature, which for me, is a bit bath like.

I am currently on holiday in France where they have a much more tolerant attitude towards swimming outdoors than we do in the England. There are Lakes and rivers in abundance close to where I am staying. But, in all honesty lakes just don’t do it for me, especially when they are 25 degrees. I class the Mediterranean as a Salty Lake – not a sea. The water level is low so the rivers near by are too shallow to swim in. With lots of research and driving around I could no doubt find a suitable deep bend in a river. But I came on holiday to relax and read not to swim. And I am just as happy to be dry for the duration.

So what happens to my mental health during these times of drought, when I am an advocate of outdoor swimming as a way of managing wellbeing. As I write this, with a glass on rosé sitting on a veranda in Provence in the cool outdoor air I am happy. I have in fact been happy all summer long, even with a reduction in regular swims. Life has been by no means smooth swimming, life isn’t for anyone, but I have experienced no significant episodes of anxiety or depression. Which has made me consider why. Don’t get me wrong I am glad not to be sad but I wonder why.

Cold water swimming is just one thing in my arsenal against my mental health demons. I have lots of other things that are working alongside regular sea swimming. They have been been doing their thing in the background consistently as the dips have dwindled. Supplements, talking, rest, new experiences, good books, digital downtime, exercise, dog walks; are just some of the things in the mental health ammunition box that allow people to continue to cope. I am fortunate to have access to them all.

I have a husband and a business partner that keep me in check and tell me to slow down when I am accelerating at a rate of knots that is not necessary. Down time away from digital distractions is a necessary part of my mental maintenance but difficult to balance when you run your own business. Being disciplined with my down time and clever with scheduling has had a positive impact on my wellbeing.

I am currently well rested. Lots of early nights and saying no to too many evenings out has enabled me to manage and recover from numerous Seabird evening sessions, lessons and events. Now I am on holiday and the pace has definitely slowed to a crawl. If we are lucky, the kids may rise before lunchtime, so our excursions are mainly low key and local. I have entire mornings to read, write, think.

I know these things, amongst others, are working on my wellbeing. They are the hidden cogs that aren’t as visible as my sea swimming. My shoulder was injured for months preventing me from doing any swimming of substance. Yes I was frustrated but I accepted it. The busy beaches have reduced my swim time to once a week but I don’t mind. I am on holiday and the main focus isn’t finding a swim spot and that’s OK.

Don’t get me wrong the desire to jump into any body of water I happen to stumble across is still there. And I cannot wait to get back to the pebble, waves and community of my favourite Hove beach. But for now I am just as happy out of the water

Author: Seabird Kath

How a child copes with a curfew

Children experience new things all the time. It’s how they grow. All that we are experiencing now is not new. So look to your inner child for ways to cope.

I am an adult, but a large proportion of my responses to situations, no matter how trivial, are very childlike. As I navigated and passed through adolescence to adulthood, I learnt to disguise my immediate response, most of the time, sometimes my face will still give me away. My unadulterated go to emotion in any given situation will be raw. Painfully raw. Followed rapidly by ‘it’s not fair’ thoughts and lots of self-pity. Even someone’s light-hearted comment about what they cooked for dinner last night can release my jealous inner brat. He’s normally sent to his room without any dinner for reacting so childishly and rational thinking is allowed to return. More paradoxical thinking.

Much of childhood is spent learning to be an adult. Not the understanding credit card APR, mortgages and pensions type of learning, but how to behave appropriately and responsibly in society. And most of us have nailed it. But sometimes to the detriment of the inner child. Feeling childlike joy, playful happiness and innocent wonder is something you should never grow out of. I got this back in abundance when I started to swim with the Salty Seabird flock. We bring out the child in each other, pulling moonies, doing handstands, diving through waves accompanied by loud laughter. Lots of loud laughter.

Having always had mental health issues and episodes of poor emotional wellbeing I am always checking in on how I feel. Now I have a new worry. I worry about other people’s mental health. Particularly the mental health of my flock of Salty Seabirds with the removal of their regular cold water swims. And we are most definitely having to act appropriately and responsibly at the moment. Just when we need it our escape hatch has been firmly closed.

It isn’t just the company, connection and community that make our daily dips such an adventure. Cold water swimming means we regularly subject our brains and bodies to a risky environment and our fight or flight reactions are triggered. I do it because this repetitive behaviours demonstrates to my brain that I can and will survive when the worst happens. So I know I will survive the current situation. What worries me is that everybody has the capacity to experience poor mental health and as a direct result of social isolation and lock down regulations some normally sound and stoic people will. I have had years of therapy, counselling, reading books and articles exploring mechanisms to manage my mental health. But others are not as well equipped as me to deal with it.

But we do all have a childhood. And that has equipped us to deal with the current situation in more ways than we probably realise. Whether we had a good or a bad childhood, we had one, during which we experienced new things. Our first snow, our first kiss, our first swim. I listened to a podcast recently in which Dr Gabor Maté said the response to C19 crisis has seen the removal of distraction from our everyday lives and that the emotions we are feeling are not new. We have experienced this uncertainty before. Everything we experienced in childhood, at some point, was a new experience. And it got me thinking. I have experienced a much more insular world, insecurity, boredom, simple pleasure, waiting and day dreaming all before. As a child. And I realised I was experiencing it again.

I had a rich upbringing in the 1970s and 80s. Not rich, as in financially well off but rich in substance. I haven’t experienced any childhood trauma and look back with affection on my family life. Over the last few weeks, I realised I have readily drawn upon the skills I learned as a child. Bought up in a large family by a fireman and a teacher, self-sufficiency was encouraged and to make do and mend was a necessity rather than a response to environmental concerns. A make ends meet philosophy has seen me regularly whip a meal from leftovers and tins just like my parents did.

I can also deal with the seemingly endless same old, same old day by replicating my childhood activities. This is not a time for learning new things. It is a time for remembering how to do things you used to do! One of which was the skill of being bored. So you will not see me joining zoom anytime soon or partaking in a Facebook quiz. Don’t get me started on top 10 albums, they are for listening to and reminiscing, not posting on social media. Instead I am remembering how to grow carrot tops and mend my favourite cut off jeans. I can read quietly in a corner, I can go for a walk and recognise sky lark song, I can cloud gaze and I can watch rain drops run down a window pane. All these things I have done before as a child. Even my relationship with the sea was borne of my upbringing.

My mum asked me recently if my mental illness is her fault. ABSOLUTELY NOT. In fact, the way she raised me has given me a huge range of tools and coping mechanisms including my love of the wild and the water. But the most important lesson she taught me is that children need to be bored. Because it is through that boredom that your brain can create a whole new world of experiences and you can feel all the emotions it provokes. I’m struggling with the uncertainty and insecurity of it all but I have accepted that being frightened is a ‘normal’ response and reaction rather and I’m going with the flow.

So, let that inner child have a tantrum at the injustice of it all. But also let that imaginative, curious, self-sufficient, problem solving kid have a turn at the helm once in a while. Seeing things through their eyes, feeling the emotions they experience will remind you, you’ve been here before and you survived. Just with a few grazed knees and great stories to tell.

Stay Salty

xx

The inner teen!

Bird of Paradox: Finding your Flow

“And if we swim with the current, instead of fighting against it, we find a momentary state, one of motion and yet paradoxical stillness that is flow” Bonnie Tsui

I still get people exclaiming surprise that I suffer from Anxiety and Depression. After all these years, lots of no shows at parties, periods of silence, people that have known me for years are still shocked when they ‘find out’.  Even when people have read my blogs, which are basically a handbook for interacting with me, they proclaim they had no idea and overwhelm me with intense and intimate questions which see me recoil instantly. You see I am a bird of Paradox. I have a loud, outgoing, confident public persona and I have a much protected, social introvert private life. Very few get to see both as I am ashamed of the latter.

I also have paradoxical emotions and feelings about the same situation at the same time. Which has me well equipped for C19 lock-down – everyone is swinging from high to low. Feeling anxious one minute and feeling relieved at the slow pace the next. For once my feelings are deemed NORMAL. Oh the times I have wished to be normal, but I didn’t really imagine a global crisis would be the way I achieved it. I have always had periods of energy and enthusiasm mixed in with periods of overwhelming sadness and staring into space. They can happen in the same day, the same hour and the same moment. But having lived like this for years, I have found my flow.

I am best in the mornings, I am fresh and ready. How I start the day can pretty much dictate how it will pan out. So my routine is awake around 5/5.30, I am an early bird, and drink a vat of tea in bed coming round slowly whilst my husband gets up for work and leaves the house around 6am. I will then do emails, write and do some work with a lot of pottering in the quiet kitchen. The teens normally surface or are woken at 7.45 and are gone by 8.30am. I’ll do some form of exercise and then the day starts. None of this is now happening. No one leaves the house, there is no pottering, exercise is sporadic, the only consistent is the amount of tea I drink, which will always remain a lot!

So I’m having to find a new flow. This new flow sees the social introvert in me thriving. But hiding yourself away all of the time isn’t exactly healthy although I am enjoying the removal of social pressure, particularly nights out, I know this isn’t necessarily good for me. Regular exposure to situations that make me anxious form a vital part of my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

I find flowing easier when coping mechanisms like swimming are in my life and just when I need it the most, it has been taken away. Bonnie Tsui, author of ‘Why We Swim’ said it best recently in a New York Times article ‘What I Miss Most is Swimming.’ She said, “And if we swim with the current, instead of fighting against it, we find a momentary state, one of motion and yet paradoxical stillness that is flow” So I am learning to accept my new environment and go with the flow.

Having lived my whole life with paradoxical thoughts about my existence and personal circumstances I am actually adapting to the current situation well. I guess years of practice has me game ready. I accept my conflicting thoughts about my current living arrangements, upheaval of my precious routine and limited access to the beach and sea.  I am not trying to change my mindset with gratitude exercises, positive affirmations or celebrating getting dressed for the day. Having furious thoughts about the world, silent sobbing moments and over-reactions to the smallest things are my state du jour. And right now it’s acceptable, reasonable and frankly unavoidable.

So in the absence of swimming in the sea, give yourselves permission to feel all the feelings. Positive and negative, rational and irrational. I am of the school of thought that no feelings are irrational as some valid emotion has triggered them. And at the moment a global pandemic is it. So I asked myself, how am I feeling?

Well I feel relieved because life was beginning to get very busy before all of this happened and now the pressure is off to perform at my optimum and there is absolutely no chance of burn out. I am fretful for my family and friends and their safety and wellbeing. I am hopeful that the outpouring of appreciation for our poorly paid key workers, the rejection of being productive as a measure of success and the limitless capacity for human kindness will continue when all of this is over. I am overwhelmed at the opportunities available to me to finish DIY, clean out cupboards and learn a new language. I am grateful that my eldest is confined to quarters with me before she flies the nest. I am nervous that social isolation will undo all the hard work I have done to balance my brain and preserve my mental health. I am content in my own company, never bored and pottering in the kitchen and garden is something I could do all and every day, especially when the sun is shining. I am concerned about the uncertainty of lock-down, how long will it last, when can I plan gatherings, holidays and trips. And that was just a quick check in!

I know I cannot control the current situation or how I feel about it. Having paradoxical thoughts and emotions is OK and for once deemed ‘normal’. They ebb and flow like the tide. But I can control how I react to those feeling and emotions. So it’s not really like I’ve found my flow, as the blog title suggest, but rather I am going with the flow. Acceptance is my reaction.

Author: Seabird Kath

NB; this blog was actually a lot longer but has been split into two. So part II will be next weekend.

 

One Flew Over the Seabirds Nest

Navigating a new world without the salty seabirds is a new learning. Simply being, eating and sleeping is enough right now. No pressure.

The sun is shining. The sea is inviting. I have the luxury of time on my hands. My family are all around me. All that’s missing are animated bluebirds chirping around my head. But we’re day one of lock down. I can’t enjoy the sun and the sea. I have time on my hands because I have no paid work to do. And there is definitely chirping around and in my head, and it’s not the seabird post swim chatter or the beautiful bluebird.  

I don’t naturally do slow pace, unless I am drop dead worn out or asleep. But I have learnt to do slow pace. After many years of approaching everything I do with plans, speed and efficiency I have learnt, the hard way, that I need rest to manage my mental health. Rest appears on the list and in the plan to ensure it is a task completed before we get to the drop dead worn out stage which is normally accompanied by a period of being unwell. Still not always able to spot the signs of when it’s needed, so being in the schedule, like a dog walk or a sea swim ensures it happens.

As well as the slower pace, there are a lot of silver linings to lock down. There’s the book you never got round to reading. The cupboard that is due a big clear out. The garden that needs weeding as spring sunshine encourages growth. But are we putting too much pressure on ourselves to learn the piano or to crochet when we are already trying to navigate a new world? My new reality worry is that I will have too much rest. Yes this is how my ever firing amygdalas work. They can create an anxious thought in the calmest of situations. As the world slows down my adrenaline production does not.

So my new reality is sharing my, what I thought was, spacious house with another 3 humans. I have created a space to hide myself away from them when I need to. And I need to. And as a result I am finding myself partaking in certain self-care activities a lot more than I am used to. Reading in an armchair. Staying in bed longer in the mornings. Afternoon naps. The problem is, this self-care is so similar to my depression symptoms that they can actually become the problem! Yes I need rest, but I also need a good dose of heart rate raising exercise, cold water stimulation and the company of the salted wellbeing community.  Hibernation and social isolation mimic my response to feeling down, and then we get ourselves in a wonderful cycle of what came first, the chicken or the egg.

The pressure people are putting on themselves to use this new found ‘time’ wisely during lock down is counterproductive in some cases. Definitely in my case. As we keep being told, these are unprecedented times. This isn’t just a turn of phrase – humans, literally do not have a standard response to a global pandemic. We are all trying to adjust to new home life dynamics and routines whilst trying to home school and earn a living. Why the fuck is now the best time to start a new hobby or learn a new language? I feel we should all receive gold stars for making it through the day. (If you have children at home, 2 gold stars if they have been fed and watered.)

Keeping the Seabirds business and swimming community going is enough pressure right now. I will learn Italian another time. Without our regular sea and tea time together we are suffering. And alongside many others we have witnesses our income disappear overnight.  Our wonderful Wild Swim Shop is our financial Tow Float earns us revenue which funds our work on our water and wellbeing projects. Again when we consider how to spend this time wisely promoting our wares to keep our heads above water has taken a bit of a bashing. Trying to keep the normally self-regulating flock afloat is now at the forefront. We specifically chose not to be a club with a committee and a constitution for a reason. But we have found ourselves in uncharted waters making Chief Seabird announcements and updates to deal with our changing world.

Just as the virus hit, Seabirds were on the cusp of growing. Our hard work was beginning to pay dividends. We’d been in Coast Magazine, and were due to be in Top Santé and will be in Outdoor Swimmer magazine. The numbers in our swimming community were soaring. Sales in the Wild Swim shop were encouraging and new products and stock were being added on a regular basis. We had swimposiums, pop ups and ‘Women, Wellbeing and Water’ courses planned for the summer months. And the cherry on the cake was our beloved 12 Moon Swim project exhibition curated by top bird Coral, being unveiled at the Fringe Festival. But all of this is now on hold. AND, confession time, I am a bit relieved the pressure is off!

Exciting times were imminent and they are still ahead, just a bit further away on the horizon. The time not being spent dispatching orders just means we have more time to plan. We have so many ideas about where Seabirds will take us next sometimes we don’t have time to sit back and appreciate all it has become and all it can be. When we started Seabirds we had an idea of what it would look like but it grew in some directions we hadn’t planned and halted in the places we thought would be more successful. We have been reflecting since January on the changes we would like to make in tandem with growing and nurturing what we already have. And we were concerned about how we would fit it all in whilst maintaining strict work/life balance boundaries. Now, as the world slows down, we can catch up. We can still do all the things we wanted to do, it’s just the finish line is further away.

It is very much a time to batten down the hatches and learn to adapt to a new world for the foreseeable future. This is the ONLY learning I will be doing. And this is what I have learnt so far;

  • My husband is paying the mortgage and bills solo for the next few months and now he is a permanent member of the crew I just need to suck it up
  • Ditto Bosun daughter and Cabin Boy son – who I will not be attempting to home school
  • I’ve got it good – and I am grateful (Although I don’t always sound it)
  • When your access to the outdoors is threatened the entire population of the South East of England makes their way to Brighton beach
  • Britain’s favourite food is anything tinned or dried
  • Britain is also partial to a clean bottom
  • That using a delivery service for groceries (Ocado), loo rolls (Who gives a Crap) and milk (Milk and More) for years was the best decision I ever made for the environment and now my stress levels
  • You can watch the Harry Potter films an infinite amount of times and it never gets old or boring.
  • I love Matt Haig more than I ever thought I could.
  • Mother Nature has a dark sense of humour by sending us a deadly virus and then sending us constant uninterrupted sunshine.

In some aspects the world is becoming a better place. Big industry impact on the environment is paused. We are getting to know our neighbours and considering the impact of our actions on others. I hope we all organically learn from our new world and continue the good habits the nation is now adopting. Kindness in the community, a love for the outdoors, looking after ourselves physically and emotionally. There will always be room for shit telly in my life but hopefully in the future balanced with a gratitude of my freedom, access to the sea and shared tea and cake with the Salty Seabirds. Lesson over!

Author: Seabird Kath

 

Seabird Sanctuary

looking for solace during strange times

Now, more than ever I need the sea to save me.  Certainty helps me survive, but those sands have shifted under my feet. The sanctuary of the Seabirds has also been stolen as the flock scatters across different shores. But what’s really making me anxious?

 

My Social Media stream is full of advice on how to weather this storm. Get outside-check. Swim – check.  Run – check. And there are so many silver linings to this cloud. The world slowing down has already had such a positive impact on the environment. People are picking up the phone to check on family, friends and neighbours. Communities are pulling together to provide practical solutions to problems we never foresaw. But my anxiety is still brewing behind closed doors.

And it’s the closed doors that are the problem. I’m not worried about a crippled economy, friends and family falling ill and the end of the world as we know it. Well I am. But I worry about that shit ALL OF THE TIME and I take to the beach and the sea to get back balance and continue operating as a ‘normal’ human being. The anxiety that is brewing is all about changes to my small insignificant ( but not to me) world.

I control my small world to the enth degree. I am Captain of my ship. My First Mate is normally exploring uncharted seas across the European continent  returning late into the evenings or at weekends. The Bosun is either at college or playing football. And the Cabin Boy is usually at school, playing football, out on his skateboard or locked below deck on his Xbox. I know where they need to be and when. I also know with a degree of certainty that I will have the Mother Ship to myself from 8.30am to 4pm every day. But now I don’t!

I don’t like change. I like routine, plans and lists. This year, at Christmas time,  the First Mate decided to take 2 weeks annual leave so the whole crew could all be together at home. This was all good while there were presents flowing but then it was crap. No structure to our days, shitty weather confining us to our quarters, we got cabin fever. Well I did. I longed for them to return to work, school and college and for the reappearance of my routine. A routine that is filled with numerous but solitary activities.

When I am home alone I can be the real me not the Oscar winning performance me. Acting ‘normal’ can be knackering but I have self care solutions. My version of self care can be staying in pyjamas til lunchtime and pottering. And it can be an early morning run on the seafront followed by a swim with the Salty Seabirds. It all depends on my mood and workload. But I only have think about me – not 3 other people. My small insignificant world is expanding when everyone else’s is shrinking.

These self-care strategies have been honed to perfection over years of suffering from depression and more recently anxiety. I have the luxury of part time flexible working from home to put them into practice. But these interlopers, formally known as my family, are now invading my physical space and my head space.

I fully appreciate how this sounds. My biggest fear is something akin to not being able to have a bath whilst watching shit telly in the middle of the day in peace and quiet. While the world is waking up to a pandemic the size and scale of which has never been heard of, I sound like a self-indulgent you know what. But activities like daytime baths, alongside the more well regarded ones like quietly reading, walking the dog alone are how I silence the mental monkeys. Without adequate alone time I don’t get to recharge my batteries and I will not make it to the evening – the time when the whole crew are on board and they need a fully functioning Captain.

My swims with the Salty Seabirds have taken a battering too. My swimming schedule looks something like this; On Monday I attend the biggest swim of the week as it is the start of the week and it’s after a yoga and gym class so my head is able to handle a crowd. Tuesday I’ll opt for an intimate one. Thursday I go with the crowd post run – again after some fresh air, exercise and calming chat with my fellow seabird runners, lots of people don’t faze me. And I may again dip on Fridays with one or two others. If I go to any of the larger swims I tend to get there early and chill on the beach a few groynes over before everyone arrives. This is my schedule. This is my sanctuary. But sensible social distancing is changing the schedule.

When I can handle the big swims they are the best. There’s always laughter and love. But now we are having to sort out smaller swims at different times and places. The community we worked so hard to build is suffering at the hands of unwashed hands. The cold water high is still possible, the respite from day to day worries is still very much achievable but the community that is at it’s core is dispersing. My worry is that people will form smaller exclusive groups and not come back together when the time comes. My worry is our strong bond will be broken. My worry is that some of the seabirds will stop swimming.  I worry.

So what’s the solution? I love my self-enforced self-isolation but I also love my Salty community. I am a bird of paradox.

For my crew we need a family meeting and a timetable of when mum needs to be left the f@?k alone. Especially when I am writing, another form of self-care for me. I need complete silence and solitude when I write as it is one of the few times I allow my brain the freedom to think and it responds at a speed it is hard to keep up with. I have vacated the office to allow the First Mate to work there so I need to build a nook in our bedroom with views over the sea and place a big no entry sign on the door.

For my community I need to look to the community for solutions, which they are already providing in abundance. The challenge  is moving away from social media to maintain your sanity versus remaining connected to your community. So we’re going to look at staring some on-line groups and virtual swims so we can continue to share the swim love.

Whatever my worries are, small or big, self-indulgent or survival, the sea will remain a constant in my life, as will the sanctuary of the seabirds. As for my crew, well, time will tell!

Author: Seabird Kath

Sending you all a shit ton of love  – stay well and stay salty! If you have any suggestion on how to stay connected please get in touch.

Community ideas!

Seabirds Rowena has set up a Women and Nature Book Club that will start on-line until we are able to stop social distancing. There is a small fee to join that will be donated to the Seabirds Women Wellbeing and Water projects.

There will be writing workshops online too hosted by Seabird Sam – we are just going to need to practice with zoom first!

I’m really keen to get the ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs ready to publish. Please get in touch if you would be happy for us to share your story so other Seabirds can get to know each other a bit better. Spaces for 3 more! Can be done over the phone or face to face at a safe distance!

There are lots of opportunities to get involved in the blogs too. We have another three series in  the concept stage.  1. Brighton Beach Community will be a series of interviews with people that live or earn a living by our beaches here in the city. 2. Britain’s Beach Review will be exactly that – when you swim on different beaches in the UK we want to hear all about it from the cafes, to the cliffs and everything in between. 3. Seabirds on Tour – if you have visited or swim in another part of the country or world in lakes, rivers or waterfalls we want to hear about it. I did have trips planned in Ireland and Jersey this year, fingers crossed they will still happen. Where will your swimming take you?

Record sound bites and videos of your smaller swims and share them in the group.  Snippets of your post swim chitter chatter. Descriptions of the sea. Time lapse videos of swims

Positive Pebble Project – get out your sharpies and start writing on pebbles and then leave them in places you know others swim. Positive affirmations, meaningful messages, drawings, whatever you want. If you find one take a picture of it, post it in the group and put it back for the next person to find it.

 

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

 

 

 

 

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.

Sink or Swim

What is achievement?

This blog had a very different working title when I started it and then I watched Channel 4’s Stand Up to Cancer series Sink or Swim. Keri-anne Payne and Ross Edgely have 12 weeks to get non-swimming celebrities ready to be in a relay team to cross the Channel. I was lucky enough to spend three days with Keri-anne, back in June, as she facilitated my Level 2 Open Water Coaching award course. Since then all of the participants and Keri-anne have stayed in touch providing each other with overwhelming levels of support. So when we knew the Keri-anne was involved in the SOS programme we naturally all tuned in.

 

I undertook the Open Water Coaching course so I would have the relevant skills, knowledge and qualifications to run courses to encourage other people to try wild swimming. I swim for my mental health and am an advocate of it’s wellbeing benefits. Doing something on my own, away from home, is something I am not always able to do. Sometimes my anxiety wins. Sometimes it is all I can do to leave the house to walk the dog. (This is the very reason I have a dog!) I am not even always able to to head down to the beach for a swim. Fortunately this is rare but it does happen. So turning up for the course was a massive achievement for me.

Initially I felt like a fish out of water amongst my fellow course mates. They were/are swimmers extraordinaire. But they soon had me at ease and we’ve all stayed in touch since the course providing each other with advice and support. Some of them have gone on to achieve incredible feats. One has relayed around the IOW, one has relayed across the channel and another has relayed there and back across the channel, to name but a few. Things I could never dream of achieving. But I have achieved, in my own way and their cheers were just as loud.

I’ve been thinking a lot about achievement lately. I am surrounded by people I admire who have achieved impressive feats of human endurance. But also other, smaller but just as significant achievements. Achievement is something very different for every individual. I can swim and I am relatively fit for my age yet I would never consider swimming the channel. Yet swimming without a wetsuit all year round in sea temperatures as low as 3 degrees with snow on the beach does not faze me. Entering a rough sea does not concern me (not life threateningly rough). Not knowing what lies beneath the surface and being touched by a creature of the sea does not bother me. My friends and family see this as an achievement and I brush it off. Not arrogantly, it’s just I know it’s within my limit and therefore I can achieve it.

I know that swimming the channel is not within my limits of attainment. I would not be able to swim in the dark, I would be distracted by jellyfish and try to catch them, and I would be risking my mental health by spending that much time alone in my head. So I stick to doing things that push my limits outside of my comfort zone but are achievable. And what that looks like for me is something very different to what it looks like for other people.

I watched Sink or Swim already in awe of the celebrities that had signed up to do it as I wouldn’t ever consider it. Some of them couldn’t swim, couldn’t float, had previous bad swimming experiences, had physical challenges and mental challenges. Yet they agreed to give it a go. What an achievement. They had just 3 months to learn to swim and train for it. Can you believe that? What an achievement. As I write this I have no idea if any or how many drop out, or if they make it, as the swim is scheduled for next month. But because even contemplating it is beyond my limit I already see them as achievers.

I have been able to achieve my year round skin swimmer status by getting to know my limits. This wasn’t initially a conscious decision, I just didn’t put my wetsuit on one year when the temperature began to drop. However, it did allow me to really reflect on what my body is capable of and get in tune with what it was telling me without words. In the sea you are able to really focus on yourself, your whole self,  and start to see what it can do. I soon knew I would be able to skin swim all year round –  my limit was how long I could last in the water. This I was able to push, within a limit of being safe, and soon my body just adapted to the cold.

It’s hard to see achievement when somethings are comfortably within your limits. I can run. I am one of those annoying people that can talk while they run and can run substantial distances with little training. I have done a couple of marathons and although one year I was plagued with IT band problems I didn’t find the training or event too arduous.  So I made the decision to never sponsor anyone, unless they were doing a marathon or more. If you wanted sponsoring for a 5km you could jog on. I completely failed to see that running a 5km could be a massive achievement for someone that had only started running 2 weeks ago, was recently bereaved, had no childcare, had agoraphobia, had heath issues, the list goes on. I wasn’t intentionally being unkind or  dismissive, but I was, because running is comfortably within my limit.

What was interesting on Sink or Swim were the number of athletes taking part. Linford Christie was was once, the fastest man in the planet, but he couldn’t swim for toffee (Sorry Linford). Then there is Greg Rutherford and Tessa Sanderson. All achieved huge accolades at the pinnacle of their careers but struggled to swim 500m in the open water. Yet they have signed up to swim the Channel. What an achievement. Georgia Kousoulou, is a reality TV star, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She is on TV without make-up, in a swim hat and unflattering neoprene, which for me is no big deal, but for someone like her, who, by the nature of her fame needs to always be insta-ready this is an achievement. Her experience resonated with me in others ways though, as she struggled to regulate her breathing. Controlling your breathing is the best tool in your toolbox if you suffer with anxiety. It’s also the key to being able to swim front crawl. Having you face in the water means you cannot decide when you are going to breathe. Yet she still signed up to do it. What an achievement.

Since swimming in the sea with a huge variety of people, I no longer have a fixed idea of what an achievement is. We are all unique individuals so it makes sense that our achievements would also be unique. One individual’s 500m swim is another individual’s Channel swim.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, achievement is; a thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage. Using this definition,  many things individuals do in their day to day is an achievement. Some of the people I have coached with acute anxiety have turned up, that took effort and courage. Putting on a wetsuit for the first time, that took effort and skill. Swimming in the open water, that took effort, skill and courage. Therefore, by it’s very definition, it is an achievement.

The toughest battle most people face is with their own mind. We all have that voice that sometimes tells us we can’t do something. If the voice shouts loud enough, some people don’t even bother to try. I know there are a lot of things I do not do because my head tells me I can’t. But those that do, despite the internal dialogue, even if they ‘fail’, have achieved. They tried and sometimes this is the only way to push your limits to know if it something you can achieve. The difference between try and triumph is a little ‘umph’.

The all or nothing approach to achievement is something I always have to keep in check. I am, by nature a sink or swim person. I either swim 1km as planned or I have not achieved. This can be really detrimental to my wellbeing. So I have had to adjust the way I view and approach achievement. I now count every step forward towards my end goal as an achievement. I am still trying to achieve, but to remain positive and engaged in the process as I am able to celebrate each incremental step in the process. In this way I am able to maintain some semblance of resilience if things do not go according to plan as the smaller steps of goal setting allows more flexibility.

What I have learnt through my consideration of achievement is that I need to be kinder to myself and kinder to others and recognise achievement in all it’s forms.  I firmly believe that if at first you don’t achieve, try, try again. Being afraid is OK, but it shouldn’t stop you from striving to achieve. Just by trying, you have achieved.

Author: Seabird Kath

NB a significant achievement for me was being able to spell achievement by the time I had finished writing this blog! I before E.