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

How a child copes with a curfew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Salty

xx

The inner teen!

Seabird Sanctuary

looking for solace during strange times

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Seabird Kath

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

Community ideas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sometimes a Seabird needs Grounding

How the sea can set you free from negative thoughts and feelings

Not literally – you can’t clip a seabirds wings and stop it from swimming – but grounding is a technique used to focus on what is happening in the present moment. And we all need that once in a while.

Rumination is my usual state of mind.  It causes me sleepless nights and anxious days,  thinking about things I cannot solve but also cannot accept. I focus on the past and problems rather than the present.  My solution for rumination is grounding.  I need to be bought back to the moment. Sea swimming does this for me

Grounding is a technique that can be used to distract you from negative emotions or challenges. We can use things in our physical environment to do this as way of redirecting our thoughts. The seascape and immersing yourself in the sea is a really good way of doing this.

Being in or around the sea is an absolute assault on the senses so works really well as an environment for grounding. In fact you can ground yourself without actually realising that you are doing it. Your senses focus on everything around you leaving little room for rumination and anxious thoughts.

Part of grounding is not just focusing on something physical but touching something, a tangible object. And what could be better than a large body of water. I love how the seascape changes everyday depending on the sea, weather and tide conditions. I love the changing colour of the sea and sky and have begun to consider different names for them/. A Seabirds colour wheel. I focus on my hands as they glide through the water and provide a perspective on the shade and tone. I have been known to base my decision to swim or not to swim on the colour of the sea. Focusing on my surroundings grounds me.

Against all good safety advice, I enter the water swiftly. Normally because I need a wee (I always need a wee) but also because by nature I am quick to act. It stops me from hesitating and procrastinating at the waters edge – which is just another variant of rumination! My routine is to then take a few head in strokes and flip onto my back to float once well clear of the break line.

Floating as a physical form of grounding is incredible in so many ways. When you enter cold water, particularly when you do it quickly, your breath is literally taken away and you can find yourself gasping for breath. Lying on my back, I am able to regulate my breathing with either deep diaphragmatic breaths, singing (in my head or out loud) and counting. I am present in my breathing. Once my breath regulates I take time to consider how the water feels. Which direction s the current going in so I can decide which direction to swim in. How choppy is it so I can consider which way to breathe or do head out breast stroke. How cold does it feel on my skin and is the burn subsiding. Although the temperature can remain static for weeks on end, how I am feeling mentally and physically changes all the time impacting my ability to cope with cold water. Floating allows me to take stock of this before I venture too far from shore.

Getting in the water is not at simple as it sounds, particularly when faced with a steep shingle shelf. You have to focus on the waves, their size and speed and search for a lull to enter. All done on a floor of shifting shingle whilst you trying to maintain your balance and muster up the courage needed to plunge into cold water. At certain tides,you feel with your shuffling feet for the soft sand that you know you will eventually find making staying on your feet more likely. It’s the same when you are getting out, head swinging from shore to sea to decide when to swim and run like Billy-O. There is no room in your brain to worry about anything else.

Once swimming, I find that moving my body, in long purposeful strokes is a distraction from the day to day. Challenging my arms to ignore the muscle memory of my inefficient stroke and consider my body position in the water. I almost enter a hypnotic state as I count my strokes. Keeping on eye on my direction, location and proximity to other swimmers and shore also keeps my mind occupied. When the water is clear you can use the sand lines to find your way home, swimming through them horizontally until you hit shingle. Then listening to the shingle roar grow louder as the water grows shallower indicating when it is time to stand up. (or do a handstand!)

As well as physical grounding techniques there are also mental ones. Most of them are not intended to prevent rumination but to ensure I have a joyful swim. There are preparations to be made when you go for a sea swim in Brighton. You can’t just grab and towel and jump in. Well you can but it is not advisable. Where and when we swim is dictated by the tides and conditions so being able to read various complicated apps becomes a girl guide badge mission. Once on the beach,  a review of your swim area also helps you focus on the here and now.  Are there other beach/sea users, where are your safe entry and exit points, are your clothes lined up ready to be quickly pulled over your head post swim. Do you have your underwear and is it wrapped in a hot water bottle! All of this occupies your mind so your anxious thoughts can’t.

In all of these ways and many more the sea provides a way for me to manage my negative thoughts and feelings. The sea, as a brilliant oxymoron, can ground you! The sea sets me free!

Author: Seabird Kath

 

 

 

 

Swim Yourself Happy

I was recently approached to write a piece to be included in a book. An anthology of personal stories of how a range of activities and hobbies help people manage their depression and mental health. The brief was to focus on why sea swimming helps my mental health and how it helps me. So, whilst I was incredibly flattered I was also incredibly nervous. My thoughts normally dictate what I write and  they are very much my anecdotal ramblings. Now there are rules and a format! Anyway, here is the first draft, I hope you like it. 

Picture this; A cold crisp winters day on the beach, wind whipping along the shore, foreboding pewter coloured waves and …….a bunch of scantily clad people smiling and squealing in the sea. I am likely to be one of them.

I swim in the sea, all year round, to keep my anxiety and depression at bay.  When I looked to understand how this works for me,  I first had to consider how my mental health moods manifest themselves. Everyone with a mental health diagnosis or individuals struggling to manage their well being experience very unique moods, feelings or thoughts, although there are themes that resonate with many sufferers. Here are some of my most common ones.

Most of the time I see the world in black and white, devoid of colour, devoid of joy. The flip side to this, is when I occasionally experience joy it is so completely indescribably wonderful – it’s like the moment when Dorothy lands in Oz and suddenly there is colour. I can be happy and content but unadulterated joy is very rare and only happens when I am completely present and in the moment. When it happens I find myself scrabbling around for ways to recreate it, which as you can imagine is counter productive and pushes me into the waiting arms of the “mental monkeys”.

The “mental monkeys” is the name I have given to the constant internal dialogue in my brain. They don’t miss a trick and are very rarely quiet. Any opportunity to chatter about situations out of my control, inconsequential self enforced deadlines missed, what people think about me, did I say or do the right thing. You get the idea. They have no concept of night or day and will happily fill my brain with their negative opinions and questions 24/7. When I am tired or overwhelmed and my resilience threshold is low, there is a veritable chimps tea party going on in there, one which I am not enjoying!

Being overwhelmed is my normal state du jour.  At times, self inflicted, as I chase the elusive joy by filling my life with lots of things to do. Accepting every invitation to prove I can be ‘normal’. Self destruction button well and truly depressed. If I do not get the rest and respite I need,  I am liable to shut down. This doesn’t happen quietly like a worn out battery, it will be accompanied by a lot of angry noise before I lock myself away for varying lengths of time depending on how tired I am. Just acting like a ‘normal’ person can leave me shattered by around teatime.

This list is not exhaustive, but just indicative of how I feel most of the time. So what does sea swimming do for me to keep anxiety and depression at bay?

Sea swimming, as a pastime, is joyful. Instead of constantly trying to orchestrate feelings of pleasure and elation, the sea provides it. I swim with a great bunch of people a few times a week and we play in the water. Literally play like children.  We connect as community and we laugh hard and long. Even on the bleakest of days, I never regret a swim, and there is always a warm welcome. The post swim high can last for hours after the event and knowing that the sea is a constant and therefore I have a constant supply of joy,  it buoys me up. 

When I am in the sea, the endless negative internal dialogue is silenced. The sea overloads all of my senses, silky water on my skin, salty tastes and smells, shingle sounds,  blue sights. The sound of the mental monkeys is quite literally drowned out. Repetitive activity of stroke after stroke gives me space to collect my thoughts. I used to shy away from mindfulness exercises and meditation, too afraid it would give the mental monkeys free reign. What I have discovered is the exact opposite happens – I have my best thoughts and ideas in the sea. The cluttered brain fog clears with the sea breeze.

The rest and respite I need to counter how overwhelmed I can feel  is easy achieved at the beach. You cannot take your phone into the sea and you cannot hear it beeping on the beach when you are in the water. The constant scrolling images and high pitched sounds are replaced by a never changing horizon. I swim year round, in freezing temperatures and challenging sea states. Putting myself in these situations on a regular basis I am exposing my body and mind to stress. Getting into wavy cold water is stressful for your body and mind, but I cope. I have adapted to deal with this stress and it helps me go on to deal with every day stress. When I am swimming in these conditions I can only be concerned about myself, in that moment, in that situation – there is no room to be concerned with anything else. 

Other people think you are mad for swimming in the sea, all year round and I own that label! Being in the sea reminds me that my depression and anxiety is transient, it ebbs and flows like the tide. It provides me with the opportunity to check in with myself, to see if another episode is on the horizon. Although dark times are part of the disease, sea swimming can provide a break in the clouds.  I did not chose to feel this way, but I have chosen how I deal with it on a day to day basis. I have found a safe haven when my seas are stormy. 

Author: Seabird Kath

N.B. I was asked to write by the founder of The Recovery Letters website www.therecoveryletters.com . They have already produced a book entitled  ‘The Recovery Letters: Addressed to People Experiencing Depression’ published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers

There has been a huge increase in the popularity of wild swimming. We live in strange times, that humans were not designed for. Many of us have founds ways to escape, to be our unaffected selves for just a moment, recapturing those feelings of possibility. If you want to give wild swimming a go to the Wild Swim website to find a group to join near you.

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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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