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.

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

 

 

 

 

Reasons to swim in the sea

The head-space of sea swimming

Reset. Release. Recalibrate. Relax. Respite. Resilience. All reasons to swim in the sea.

When you are reading this, I will  be waking up on the Roseland peninsula ready to explore new swim spots. I have a week in Cornwall before heading up to Snowdonia to swim in a lake. I will be spending a week wet, walking and writing, but not much else, with the three people (and dog),  I love most in the world. And it is much needed. The life of a Seabird gets busy during the summer months and I need this before a couple of months of sea time but less me time. It is at times like this when I have more reason than ever to swim! It resets and relaxes me. It releases my mood and allows me to recalibrate. It provides me with respite and increases my resilience.

Reset – a bit like switching a computer off and on – you enter the sea full of stress, anger, frustration and leave it more serene. The bad mood may return later that day, week or month but for an amount of time you are reset. I think of my mental illness as faulty wiring in the brain, sparking with no where to go. It just needs the right synapse to connect to so the spark can continue on its journey rather than clogging up my brain with unhelpful thoughts. The sea jump starts the synapse – with the help of some happy hormones – and balance is restored in the brain.

Release – you can cry in the sea and no-one knows. Getting into the cold water screaming and shouting is in itself a release. All of the above is socially acceptable behaviour when you are in the water. On dry land you may invite some strange looks when you let out a guttural cry, squeal with delight or sink into shuddering sobs. But in the sea, with a group of like minded swimmers, it is encouraged. There is literally nothing better than letting out all of that pent up anger, frustration and anxiety in the safe environment the wild swimming community provides. Physical activity also releases happy hormones endorphins and the cold water can create an adrenaline rush.

Recalibrate – being in the sea, whatever the weather, whatever the conditions, gives you the chance to think.  And not just think what am I going to cook for dinner, or how far am I going to swim today, but really think. It is an opportunity to change the way you do or think about something. The idea of Seabirds was borne of the sea. Away from the life’s chatter we had the chance to think, and we thought more people need to get in the sea and experience this head space. The clarity that can flow with the tidal stream is like no other for me. I made the decision to leave a well paid corporate career after an all day meeting in a hotel at the Marina over looking the sea. I spent most of the day staring out of the window wishing I was somewhere else instead, in the sea. Even being near the sea helped me to gain perspective and clarify my thoughts. That night I called my boss and the rest as they say, is wet wellbeing history.

Relax – sounds easy.  Not for me and not for many. My shoulders are permanently around my ears somewhere and my gut is in constant turmoil. All symptoms of anxiety and poor stress management. I am a masseuse’s worst nightmare as I literally cannot relax and the more they ask me to, the more my body contorts into acute stiffness. Don’t get me started on meditation – any excuse for my mind’s mental monkeys to reek havoc when given even the merest opening in my Mind Fortress (Think Mind Palace with infinitely more walls, boiling oil, archers and portcullis.) But I have found my own way to relax. Busying my mind with tasks that need my sole attention but not a lot of thought  like reading, crocheting or exercise classes are ways I chose to relax. Swimming does the same. When I swim alone and get into a rhythm it can be quite hypnotic.  To be candid I have to be in the right frame of mind for this. But I always like to float!

Respite – getting away from the day to day. No more so was this more necessary than in the modern day world. We are slaves to our phones, the instant, the immediate. An expectation that messages will be answered the moment it has been read. Images of perfect lives, in perfect homes with perfect families holidaying in perfect locations bombard our brains in every form of media. But there is a revolution starting in the sea that rejects the notion of always being available and living a more simple existence that is in tune with the tides. This revolution is gaining momentum and Seabird numbers are soaring with respite being our raison d’etre. We will only bombard you with the imperfect smiley swimming pictures we take in the sea!

Resilience – if you swim year round, particularly in the sea and particularly in skins you build a ton of resilience. When the ice cold water burns your skin but you continue to enter the water. When the winter waves look fierce and foreboding but you continue to enter the water. When the colour of the sea is a pissed off pewter giving off hostile vibes but you continue to enter the water. When you struggle to regulate your breathing as you submerge but you continue to enter the water. You become a water warrior. You are resilient.

For all these reasons I swim in the sea!

Author: Seabird Kath

Note: no seabird was hurt during research into reasons to swim. As ever, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these anecdotal ramblings.

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A Seabird Singing The Blues

The ramblings thoughts and wonders of why being in, on or by the sea chases the blues away.

It’s Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. The Salty Seabirds have had a great week of activities and sessions all aimed at improving wellbeing and all centred around the beach and sea. This is how we manage our blues. By Blue Health, Blue Science, Blue Space, Blue Gym, Blue Mind.

Evidence from around the world continues to grow that being in, on or around the sea and ocean has a positive impact on our mental and physical health. In a world of instant and virtual the constant and real is respite.

There is a lot of science and studies centred around how this works and why. I am no scientist and  haven’t studied for over 25 years but the beach is my happy place and I have spent time wondering why. Here are my thoughts on how and why the big blue can stave off my blues.

One of my thoughts turns to human biology – we are made up of 70% water, and salt water at that, like the sea.  The sea covers 70% of the earth’s surface. So going into the sea is like coming home. Think of it like osmosis – when we return to the sea we gain balance.

I think that things that are certain in the world around us, ground us, make us feel safe. I know that the tide will come in and go out every day. So although the state of the water is not constant the moon’s pull on it everyday means the sand will appear and disappear, much like worries. As the tide ebbs and flows so do my cares and concerns.

I find the sound of the sea soothing. I remember arriving in morocco, some years ago, in the dead of night and being shown into a cool white room with windows wide open to a pitch black vista. I had no bearings, no idea where I was, what was outside the window, in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar faces. But I had the best night sleep, soothed to sleep by the sound of the sea, the waves steadily meeting the sand. Better than any lullaby.

In fact, it is all I can do to stay awake when I am on a beach. When I left full time work due to ill health we spent a week in Cornwall for me to begin my recovery – I slept on the beach every day. Another trip west, I had a badly infected leg which prevented me from getting in the sea. I would regularly be found slumped and snoozing when the family returned from surfing or rock-pooling. On top of the cliffs by Godrevy Lighthouse there is a particularly soft spot of sea pink and grass by a sheltered stone wall for anyone looking for a secluded snooze.

Just seeing the sea lifts my mood. As a child, crammed between siblings, my mum would try to distract us with ‘first one to spot the sea’ wherever we were going. And I still play along now – even if I am the only one in the car. The excitement of discovering a new beach and possibility of new surfing, swimming, snorkelling, walking, rock-pooling, coasteering, kayaking and possibly sleeping adventures. Being physically tired from a wet activity, and mentally tired from focusing on a new environment is the best kind of tired. It is a clean childlike exhaustion caused by good clean fun and happiness, not day to day stress. I realise that new beaches cannot be a daily occurrence but the changes of the local seascape can be enough escapism to create a similar satisfactory tiredness and happiness.

I never tire of the sight of the sea. The blue goes on forever. The constant horizon, never changing allows the brain to recover from constant screen scrolling. The blue light from our gadgets suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone which is responsible for inducing sleep. The natural light at the beach has the absolute opposite affect on me – it quietens my brain and invites rest (and sleep!). So just being by the sea, looking out to sea can be enough. Drifting while you water gaze. Mindless mindfulness.

My relationship with the sea can be described as a ‘healthy respect’. I am a safety first kinda girl, know my limitations  and only go in when I know I can get out. I have many of the same fears as others about deep water and what lies beneath yet I am still drawn to it’s vastness. It is bigger than us yet it does not overwhelm me. I think, it is because it is so big and so vast that I become part of it when I am in it. I am diluted along with my anxiety and low mood.  I am cognisant that this sounds very new age and evangelical but I am not trying to covert the world via baptism. I just feel that the significance of the sea,  washes my worries into insignificance.

The sensation of the sea is a funny one to wonder while we are in the midst of may bloom. The sea is like a thick pea soup while the algae ferments. It feels slimey and smells awful. So to times of clearer waters….. The waters off the UK coast are always cold and although you can acclimatise and it warms up during the summer months you can still feel the cold sensation on your skin whatever the time of year. In the winter months it bites and burns making you aware of every part of your body. Making you feel alive. In the summer months it cools and soothes, no movement is required to to cope with the cold water, but instead you can float. Oh how I love to float – as soon as I can, I flip onto my back, sight to the skies and immerse my ears in the water. Many a seabird has researched Cold Water therapy, Total Immersion and the Wim Hof method. For me a good head dunk re-sets and re-calibrates – I have no idea why – it just does. And doing handstands in the sea is fun!

So today it is a Blue Moon and and I will be swimming under it’s shine tonight with lots of other salty seabirds. The perfect end to a week of chasing the blues away in, on or around the big blue. However it works, I just know that it does, for me it’s the sea.

Author: Seabird Kath

I can confirm that absolutely no controlled research was conducted to support the ramblings, thoughts and wonderment contained in this article. It is all anecdotal. A Seabird singing the blues

I can also confirm there are many other places you can swim outdoors other than the sea that may or may not chase the blues away – but I am a seabird and I am salty and cannot comment on regular swimming in lidos, lakes or rivers. But I do like a good waterfall!