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.