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.

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

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.

 

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.

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!

 

 

Mental Health Awareness week – I should be happy right?

Being aware of your mental illness is the first step to managing it.

A week of awareness in the UK hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. The idea is to bring people together to start conversations around mental health that can change and even save lives. With a diagnosed mental illness and as advocate for managing my own wellbeing I should be happy when this week comes around, shouldn’t I?

The answer – to put it bluntly –  is no. This week, albeit worthwhile and necessary, supporting a cause I will continue to champion is a double edged sword for me. On the one hand, getting more people to talk, get the help they need and just make society more aware of individual needs is nothing short of brilliant. On the other hand with all the media interest, interviews, talks and campaigns it just reminds me that I am ill, and I will always be ill – kind of like rubbing salt in the wound.

I realise how that sounds. I realise how hard that is to read. I realise it is a big departure from  the normal salty swimming smiles. But sometimes I do not want to be aware. I want to forget. My illness doesn’t just disappear for a week every year, when MHA week comes around. It’s here for the long haul, a lifetime, my lifetime.

I also don’t practice what I preach during MHA week. I become so focused on helping others I forget to help myself. Rest is critical for me in terms of managing my wellbeing. Any time I am over worked or over whelmed the familiar feelings start to invade my boundaries – because I haven’t stuck to my boundaries.

Over the years I have learnt to manage my mental health. Sounds great, but in reality it has been decades in the making. Could have been oh so much quicker if I had learnt how to say no! So the normal pattern is lots of nay saying, then a yes or two creeps in until there are too many tabs open and system overload occurs. And it is not pretty. There are two phases to it. The first is scream and shout a lot – mainly at my long suffering husband but sometimes at the kids. The second is complete shut down – wracked with guilt for my previous behaviour I hibernate and I locked myself away watching shit TV unable to leave the house without a huge amount of coaxing and persuasion.

The first phase surprises people. Anger and rage are not symptoms traditionally associated with depression. Also, not a lot of people get the pleasure of meeting moody me – like most people with the invisible disease we can become award winning actors when we need to be…only to melt down exhausted after the performance and certainly do not attend the after show party!

I am a get shit done girl so the first phase continues to be a common occurrence but fortunately it can be nipped in the bud early on as it is so obvious when it occurs. I am one of the worlds organisers. I herd my extended family, I organise my friends, I sit on committees, I volunteer for charities, I run my own business. So do lots of people, I know. Being overloaded and overwhelmed isn’t good for anybody’s wellbeing and may be they are struggling to stay afloat too. The human need to help others before we help ourselves. Self care isn’t selfish it’s self preservation.

So maybe I do need reminding. Maybe I should be more aware. But self aware.

Yesterday I began to feel overwhelmed. Lot’s of place to be and people to see and the inbox was full to overflowing. I mentioned it to Seabird Cath who sent me a link to the Grange Hill cast singing “Just say no”. That was all I needed. I just needed recovering heroine addict Zammo to tell me what to do.

Author: Seabird Kath

Here is the link to see Zammo

And Finally: a note from Catherine Kelly who suggested we put on a week of activities for Mental Health Awareness week which has been wonderful so far……………..”I’m using this week to do the procrastinated selfcare ..dentist..osteopath..eye test.. all those little things that if they were for my kids I would not put off. Challenge everyone else to do the same! 😁💙”

 

 

Come and join us in the sea, you know you want to!

Come and join the Salty Seabirds for a swim on Wednesday evenings!

I watched my partner sea swimming for years thinking he was a bit bonkers (while seeing clearly how good it was for him) before I took the plunge and discovered it was for me too. You can see how it benefits the smiley swimmers in the pictures but you still feel hesitant about actually taking the plunge…

As part of Mental Health Awareness week this week the Salty Seabirds have come together to put together various events – one is our new Wednesday Evening Swim – the first one very much aimed at encouraging newbie swimmers to come and try a dip with us.

We are a friendly, inclusive bunch, open to ALL who want to swim/splash/dip/bathe with us. Visible female bias in the shared photos and chat we know but men very welcome, honest!

So, to practicalities. Now it is a bit warmer, what do we actually need to get in the water apart from our swimsuit (not expecting anyone to skinny dip for their first swim!).  The real answer is nothing. Warm layers for afterwards are essential so that you don’t suffer from the cold you will inevitably (it’s the good bit, I promise!) feel. There are also a few other bits of kit that make it much more do-able – you can do it without them as some choose to but it can be the difference between putting you off and you getting in and enjoying yourself so I have tried to pare it down to the basics:

  1. Swim hat; to limit the ice-cream head effect, support pain free handstands and keep hair (relatively) dry to protect against wind chill on wet hair. Having said that some of us insist on dunking the head before getting out for the full cold rush/re-boot effect.
  2. Large towel or changing robe; as we change on the beach these can protect against wind chill and flashing your arse to passers by. We have had a few dressing gowns recently which do the trick nicely.
  3. Warm layers for afterwards; woolly hat, thick sweater etc. Easy to put on dampish skin.
  4. Neoprene socks/boots and gloves. Many of us have ditched the gloves by now but not the boots. Decathlon have them or you can find them online (Some folk are fine without them it has to be said.
  5. Hot drink: not totally essential but very helpful; (using a cup as a hand warmer great tip)

Any other tips please feel free to comment below. If you want to try before you buy gear message us in the event page and we can see about lendings…people may have spares hanging around…

For more tips and information about beating the cold and keeping warm post-swim see our older blogs here and here.

I will bring the biscuits – see you next Wednesday!

Author: Seabird Cath

Salted Wellbeing – A seabird approach to Mental Health Awareness Week

A week of salted wellbeing!

When we started Seabirds and then the wild swim group Salty Seabirds, we never imaged the kind of energy and enthusiasm it would create. But it has. Who knew that a bunch of sea swimmers could create such contagious sense of belonging and infectious joy. But they have. This is apparent in their approach to Mental Health Awareness  (MHA)Week 13-19 May.

A few days ago, Seabird Catherine Kelly, was asked to do some media for Marine CoLab for MHA week in her own work/research capacity.  This got her wondering if we Seabirds might try to do something around watery wellbeing.  It’s what we are all about after all. So she asked the question in the wild swim group. The response was over whelming. This wonder became a call to arms for many and offers, ideas and suggestions flowed.

Our approach to wellbeing is simple. We meet, we swim, we chat, we drink tea, we eat cake, we breathe. We wanted our approach to MHA to be the same. Being part of this group has had a profound effect on many of it’s members and MHA week is an opportunity for us to invite those that have watched from the sidelines to join in, meet us, swim with us. It is an opportunity to show others how much can be gained from belonging, relaxing, playing in it’s simplest form.

So we plan to provide a week of swims, conversations, and experiences. Everything will be centred around the beach and seafront to align with our blue health ethos. We have sunrise fitness classes and early bird swims. We have swim story telling and yoga. We have meditation and a mindful body image session. We have new member swims and a talk on the tides. We have a Blue Moon swim and a beach clean. We have a kids swim and a kids wild beach school. We have a mindful swim and Parkrun takeover. There will be writing and guided swims. All provided by the Salty Seabirds – a group who didn’t know each other 8 months ago – but have pulled together a wonderful week in a matter of days.

They will take place in the mornings, evenings, weekends, after school and during school hours. They are all outdoors and if it rains then we will just get wet! They are free to participate but we ask for a small donation if you are able to Mind mental health charity. We are fortunate enough to have each other and our swims to provide us with respite, many do not, so we are keen to support charities that can be the only safety net for some.

So thank you to Catherine for wondering. Thank you to all the Seabirds that answered Catherine’s ‘wonder’. Thank you to all the Seabirds who are giving up their time and sharing their skills and experiences. Thank you to the Seabirds for your ideas and encouragement.  Thank you to all the Seabird swimmers that make everyone feel welcome and part of something special. We get compliments all of the time for starting the Salty Seabirds. We are just a sum of the parts that provided a conduit for communicating swim times and meets. The Seabirds that swim with each other and support one another made the Salty Seabirds what it is.  We planted the seed, the Seabirds allowed the group to grow in any direction that it wanted and it thrived without being pruned by the constraints of rules or regulations. I am a Seabird, you are a Seabird, we are Seabirds – swimming wild and free – but coming together as a flock in formation to create this wonderful week of wellbeing. A week of salted wellbeing!

Stay Salty xx