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.

Preserved in Salt

We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing – George Bernard Shaw

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.” Victor Hugo

Since its conception, the Salty Seabird Sea swimming community flock has grown rapidly.  Not sure whether it is due to the group name, the times we swim or because of the community aspect but the majority of our flock are female. And not just female, but females of a certain age. Most of us fall into the 45-55 age group and we regularly forget our knickers. But we feel a lot younger! 

As the sea temperature drops our numbers continue to grow. Swimmers who have been bathing regularly  over the summer are keen to continue, with company, into the winter months. Many arrive for their first swim consumed with anxiety about their swimming ability, what to wear and stormy seas. After weeks of bathing with us they are becoming confident water warriors. It’s good to do something you are afraid of. Swimming in the cold sea, when the waves threaten to knock you off your feet provides reason for a very real fear. It would be so much easier to go home. But what the flock have found is, it is a fear worth facing because the other side of it is a feeling like no other. It’s recapturing the feelings associated with our younger selves, having adventures, experiencing pure joy. We are preserving ourselves in salt!

Regularly swimming in the sea exercises our brain, keeping it young by learning new skills like how to read sea forecasts and how to exit the sea safely. Swimmers have learnt by experience that their fears can be overcome. This neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways and synaptic connections in response to learning, having new experiences or healing from an injury, keeps us young!

We are also exercising our bodies – but in a playful, kind way. Free from distraction, in the sea, we can tune into how our body feels (which is bloody cold most of the time). We begin to understand it in a way that is just not possible on dry land. Every part of your body immersed in cold water is talking to you and you have time to listen. We are weightless. We are soothing aching limbs. But we are moving. Anybody can get in the sea regardless of their swim abilities – and just move. This joyful movement has the added benefit of improving memory, focus and motivation. We really are preserving our youth.

Mother of all Movement, Kathryn Meadows puts it perfectly. After starting a family, struggling with PND which lead to an unbalanced approach to exercise, she stopped all intense training. “Part of my knowledge growth in that time was learning to love moving again. Moving for the sake of feeling how awesome my body was, not because I “had” to lift heavier or go faster or prove I was still fit. I fell in love with exploring how it felt to use my muscles well, to improve how efficiently I could use them and how amazing it was when I asked my body to do something challenging and it could respond.” This is also true of our Salty swimmers.

Women who swim through winter have a lack of fuss about themselves. Day-to-day dressing, hair and makeup do not apply here. It’s all about getting warm, fast post swim. Underwear is foregone, layers are essential and showers or hair brushing are positively frowned upon.  Photographer Christian Doyle photographed the Salty Seabird Swimmers as part of her ‘Against the Tide’ project.  She said, at the time “Getting your subject to relax in soft flattering light is the aim of every portrait photographer. None of the rules apply here – rather it is saying ‘this is us, how we are now, makeup free, cold and wet and unbelievably happy‘. And its’s true. We give less of a f@?k about what we look like. As long as we’re cold in the water and warm afterwards we are happy.

It is not just how our body looks that we are confident about, it is a confidence in its strength and capability in the water. We may not have washboard stomachs, toned biceps and the tight arse of our youth (did we ever?), but we are strong.  Whatever shape or size, level of fitness or swim ability our bodies are up to the task of winter swimming. Every month ticked off on the calendar is a reminder of what our wonderful wobbly bodies have helped us achieve. And we need to nurture those wobbles with cake.

During a woman’s lifetime they will experience huge changes. During the menopause years alongside all the delightful symptoms many of us are experiencing varying forms of grief. We are saying goodbye to our youth symbolised by our inability to reproduce. We are saying goodbye to our fledglings and they begin to leave the nest. And many of us are saying goodbye to our parents.  It can be a very lonely time and a time of great sadness. But there is a cure for this loneliness and it is swimming in the sea with a bunch of women who have or will experience the same grief as you. Alongside laughter and fun there can also be tears when we swim. But there will also be a hug, some stoic advice and a piece of cake. The salt in the Seabirds preserves your sanity.

Swimming in the salty sea I am not sure if we are being cured, or being cured, but we are definitely having fun! And as Mae West said; “you are never too old to be younger!”

 

The change of life or life changing?

Have the sea swim your dry vagina deserves!

The menopause usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, when a woman’s oestrogen levels lower. And it has some ‘oh so lovely’ side affects to accompany it. Night sweats, hot flushes, low mood or anxiety and memory problems. A woman’s sex life may also be affected, with decreased sex drive, vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex. Lucky us! But there is also something quite positive about being an old bird.

When we started Seabirds Ltd and brainstorming names for our Community Interest Company,  Director Catherine came up with the perfect one. Seabirds. And there is a story behind the name. When her two eldest daughters we preschool age she moved back to the UK and settled in Hove after many years living abroad. She would walk regularly along the prom with initially two and then three small children in tow or in a buggy. She often saw women who were older than her swimming in the sea at all times of the year displaying so much confidence and strength. She admired those old birds from afar and named them Seabirds. A few months into her sea swimming journey a decade later she realised she had become one of these Seabirds that she admired all those years ago. When a few months later we started a wild swim group to encourage more people to get in the sea we added salt and the Salty Seabirds were formed.

Preserved in salt the seabird flock has grown rapidly. Not sure whether this is due to the group name, the times we swim or because of the community aspect but the majority of our flock are female. And not just female, but females of a certain age. Most of us fall into the 45-55 age group and regularly forget our knickers.

The menopause is rarely talked about, even among groups of women that are living through it. There is a mass exodus from the workplace when women reach 30-40 and begin families, but there is also a mass exodus at 45-55 when women begin their journey through the menopause. As women are having families later in life, the gap between post natal and peri-menopause is very small. Unable to concentrate, distracted by hot flushes, the inability to retain even the simplest pieces of information make it, for some, impossible to carry on.  They are unable to work in the environment or pace that they were once proficient at.

Some women realise early on that these symptoms are hormonal and that they are not losing their marbles, Some take longer. Some never make the connection. Whatever your awareness is, the impact of the physical and cognitive changes is low mood, low confidence and increased anxiety.  As if the sweats and memory loss weren’t enough to deal with! The solution for many is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) but GPs can be slow to prescribe as the weaning off process is difficult to manage and many women have been slapping on patches for decades with no monitoring which isn’t ideal. For some of the Salty Seabirds a plunge in the cold sea has been a great way to deal with the symptoms and I’m not just talking about dowsing the flames of the hot flushes!

But there are positive changes that occur during this time. As a response to feeling inadequate in the workplace many women leave and find alternative employment.  It may be their long talked about dream job or have better working hours and conditions.  Many start their own businesses and as entrepreneurs they can dictate their own working environment.

As a Salty Seabird I have witnesses the positive changes in our swim group. Many of the women now work for themselves or have changed careers in their 40s and 50s. Many have arrived for their first swim consumed with anxiety about their swimming ability and what lies beneath. After weeks of bathing with us they have become confident water warriors. They have exercised their brain keeping it young by learning new skills like how to read tragic seaweed forecasts and how to exit the sea safely. They have learnt by experience that their fears can be overcome. This neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways and synaptic connections in response to learning, having new experiences or healing from an injury, keeps us young! They have become more body confident. Confident in it’s strength and capability in the water. One Salty Seabird has recently bought her first bikini after realising half of Brighton have seen her in the all together getting changed on the beach and if not now, when? Seabird Cath summarises the positive impact of getting older very succinctly. “We give less of a fuck”.

Whatever way it works, the water seems to keep the mental menopause monkeys that like to invade our brain with negative thoughts, at bay. So whilst the menopause is the ‘change of life’ it can also be ‘life changing’ in many positive ways. Swimming in the sea is preserving us with salt. We are the Seabirds.

As a closing note I have to share this amazing strap line with you that the visiting Southsea Mermaids shared with us when discussing the joys of the menopause. “Have the sea swim your dry vagina deserves!”

Author: Seabird Kath

p.s. Has anyone else forgotten they are boiling their moon cup on the stove and let it boil dry until the damn thing melted leaving the smell of burning rubber in the house? At least we know the periods will stop soon – always seeing the positive!