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.

Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Claudine

The fifth in our ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs where we bring salted wellbeing away from the beach and into your home. Grab yourself a cuppa and get to know the salty seabirds.

Tell us a bit about you?

I’m Claudine, a 43 year old mum of two, wife, business owner and Seabird.  I have always loved swimming.  It was the sport I was “least bad at”, at school!  We also had swimming lessons outside of school and I remember it being one of the few extra curricular activities I enjoyed.  I continued to swim, on and off, throughout my adult life, it has generally been my go-to exercise.

I have always loved the sea and for years I was unable to visit a beach without going for a paddle.  I have lived in Hove for 13 years but it took me nearly 10 to actually swim in the sea here.

I discovered proper sea swimming two years ago now (my swimmiversary being 20th April).  In March, I was running on the seafront and saw some swimmers come out of the sea, I decided to walk over to and chat to them.  As I got closer, I realised one was Rachael, who my children had had some swimming lessons with.  As I spoke to her and her two friends, I said wistfully “I wish I could do that”, and they all looked at me, puzzled, and said “why can’t you?”.  Good question.  So a month later, I did.  I met Rachael and another of her friends, (now one of mine), and went in the freezing April ocean (why not start in more or less the coldest sea temperature of the year?), wetsuited up.  It was joyous!  I felt the buzz.  Two years on and I have done two winters, mostly without a wetsuit, and it is now “my thing”.

What made you join the Salty Seabird Swimming Community Group?

I did a few swims with a colleague I was working with in Portsmouth, and then with another Brighton swimming club.  One day I picked up a flyer for the Seabirds.  I liked the sound of them, swimming for wellbeing.  I went along to Lagoonfest where they had a stall, met them and bought some of their wares.  Then decided to join them for a swim.  I loved the community feel of the group, even though it was much smaller then than it is now.  It felt casual, there were a few who would swim off and get some distance covered, but others who would bob and chat.  It was nice to have the choice to do either.  I have since swam regularly with the Seabirds, several times a week, either in the large group swims, or when I am feeling less able socially, I’ll message one or two of them and see if they’d like to meet. With the Seabirds, there are people who completely get me.  I feel that amongst the Seabirds, I’ve found my tribe.

Where is you favourite place to swim in Brighton and Hove and why?

I’m not sure I have a favourite spot.  Anywhere along the beach at Hove is good with me.  Anywhere there are not too many people.  I don’t mind Shoreham when it’s too rough at Hove.  It’s not the prettiest but it’s good knowing you’re right next to the RNLI station, although it would be quite embarrassing to have to be rescued a few metres away from it!

Why do you swim in the sea and when did you start?

I’m interested in the research and the findings about the positive impact of cold water on mental health, and in particular depression and anxiety.  I struggle with these two unwelcome visitors at times, and take medication for it.  I would love swimming to be a way of reducing or getting off medication for me.  I would love it to be socially prescribed so I “have” to go, (although that might take the fun out of it)!  I know there is research going on to prove its impact so that it can be prescribed.

Does swimming in cold water itself impact positively my mental health?  Yes, I think it does. I no longer get the rush and buzz I got when I first started.  I rarely get the hysterical giggles after a cold swim any more.  I wonder if the impact in that sense has warn off over time.  I haven’t since got the child-like rush of excitement I got after swimming 30 meters in 2 degree water at the Cold Water Swimming Championships.  Dr Mark Harper suggests the cold water swimming high replicates a cocaine high.  Well, I have developed a tolerance to the effects of my drug of choice.

However, I still get a lot from it.  I have a great sense of achievement when I’ve overcome the freezing-ness and got myself in, shoulder-deep and then dunked my head.  Once I catch my breath I always have a sense of “ahh, that’s better”.  I feel invincible when I’ve gone into deeper water and swam round the buoys, especially after overcoming a panic attack out there.  But most of all I have a great time when I swim with my salties,  I have the connection.  So for my wellbeing I think what I need is to swim, with a small group if that feels right, or a big one on other days.  To listen to myself and see whether I need to chat with newbies or stick to those who know me.  I always need to dunk my head and get my face in.  And above all just get in that damn sea!

What do you love most about swimming in the sea?

I love a cold day when the sea is still and the sun is sparkling off it.  I like being able to have a good swim and look at the sky, look at the sun sparkling on the water.  I love a calm day when I can float on my back, stare at the clouds and feel grateful for being able to do that.  I love the summer when the buoys are out and I can challenge myself to swim around them.  I love a bouncy day when the waves a just a little bit scary but fun to jump around in.  I love getting out and feeling the bitey cold of my skin, trying to dress quickly so I don’t start shivering, and then feeling the warm ribena slowly heating me up from the inside.

How often do you swim in the sea?

As often as I can.  It would be every day if I could.  Generally it is 3-4 times a week.  Last year I completed 200 swims, over 190 of which were in the sea!  This year’s target is 201 but Covid 19 has made that target look difficult to achieve.

How would you describe your experience of swimming with the Salty Seabirds?

Empowering, joyful, necessary.  I never regret a swim.  There are days when I’m not sure I feel like it, or can’t be bothered or am feeling socially awkward and don’t feel like seeing people.  Even on the crappiest day, in the lowest mood, and the trickiest swim, I come out feeling at the very least a little better than I went in, and very often hugely better.  I enjoy the long detailed conversations about tea after swims, and the hilarity that follows.  I enjoy giving penguin hugs to those who shake when they get out. I am one of the lucky ones who have enough natural neoprene (or “bioprene”) to offer insulation to the cold so I have rarely shivered, even after almost half an hour in under 10 degree water.   And one of my favourite seabirds moments, I stood on the shore at Shoreham contemplating going in the water, in tears, and felt a huge warm hug envelope me.  I didn’t know which Seabird it was holding me, and it didn’t matter.  Only when we eventually pulled away, I saw the huge smile of our own baltic mermaid.  She didn’t say anything, other than perhaps “come on”, and gently encouraged me to get in the water.  She had known exactly what I needed at that moment, a big bear hug and a freezing cold swim: the two best cures for most things.

What would you say to anyone thinking of starting wild swimming as a form of managing wellbeing?

Give it a try.  As long as you do it in a safe way, what have you got to lose?  I have taken a couple of friends in for their first cold swim and they have loved it.  It’s great to see the buzz on their face and then hear later on that they felt incredible for hours afterwards.  The sense of a achievement to accomplish what many people couldn’t (and admittedly many people have no interest in doing), is awesome.  So many friends and acquaintances say they really want to join me, one day…..

Where and when was your favourite swim? – details please and lots of them

One of my favourites was during the crazy weekend in Wales a few of us Seabirds went to, for the Bluetits weekend.  We drove a looooong way to get there, had a great Friday night, dipped at a lovely couple of beaches on the Saturday, a rather crazy Saturday night in the cow shed, followed by a magical swim on Sunday.  I’d seen idyllic pictures of the Blue Lagoon and was thrilled to be swimming there.  It is the sea but in an almost enclosed pool so it would be possible to swim even when the waves are too big.  It did not disappoint.  Surrounded by smooth black rocks that some swimmers climbed up and dived off.  We knew that as honorary Bluetits for the weekend, we would collect a muffeteer badge for going in naked.  So I was up for the challenge.  Not one to rush into getting my kit off in Hove, I was happy to strip amongst this wonderful group of crazy (mostly) women.  It was liberating.  It was a gorgeous location, a lot of fun doing it naked, watching the brave ones cliff jumping without putting pressure on myself to have a go.  And someone said there was a seal.  I didn’t see her pop her head up but later saw an incredible video of one of the group having a little chat with the seal.

Possibly my favourite local swim was the sunset starling swim which was the last in the 12 moon swims series.  By the Palace pier, we gathered and swam, or at least jumped the waves, as the starlings did their beautiful murmuration above us. It was magical.  I have seen so many pictures and videos of the starlings making their shapes, but rarely seen them in reality, so to look up whilst being in the sea and watch was magical.

What’s been the biggest barrier you’ve had to overcome to regularly swim in the sea?

I have never been particularly nervous of a little dip in the shallows, but on a rough day it can scare me.  I have been in a number of situations where fellow swimmers have been tumbled or got into trouble quite a way out from shore.  I have kept my cool and helped those who needed it.  But confidence is certainly something that I have gained whilst swimming.

Time is always a barrier for many of us, and as a working mum running my own business, I can’t swim as often as I’d like.  I am often away for work and have yet to pluck up the courage to meet up with other wild swimming groups wherever I am staying.  When I’m not away I am based at home so some days have too much to do, to justify time out for a swim.  But when I can go, I go.  Sometimes for a long chill on the beach afterwards, and sometimes for a “dip and dash”.
Thirdly (although I know you said your biggest barrier, I have picked three!) I have a reputation amongst the Seabirds for being terrified of “creatures” in the sea.  I am not sure where it comes from, as i have willingly paid good money to swim with creatures in all sorts of parts of the world.  And yet if I feel something touch my leg or hand, my squeal can be heard for miles, and I jump 5 metres in the air.  I am particularly afraid of jellyfish,  to the extent that when I saw one last year during the 2.5km swim as part of the Paddle Round the Pier Festival, I could barely catch my breath an had to cling onto the surfboard of a young lifeguard who then stayed with me for the whole swim.  This slowed me down as I stopped the next two times I saw jellies, despite them being meters below me, and it resulted in me missing the cut off time for the swim and being pulled out by the safety boat.  Jellyfish 1,: Claudine 0!  This year I was planning on getting hypnotherapy to help with my irrational fear, and so I can conquer that 2.5km sea swim, but as yet it hasn’t been possible.

Is there anything else you want to add? 

One of the things I think about when I’m swimming is that the onlookers (and often there are many, pausing their walk along the prom to look at the group on the beach, particularly in the middle of winter) are thinking.  I reckon half are thinking “what a bunch of crazies, why on earth would they be going in the sea??  I’m cold and I have a hundred layers on – you wouldn’t catch me in there!” or words to that effect.  I think the other half are thinking “ooh, that looks fun and exhilarating, I wish I could join them” or perhaps “one day I will”.  This assumption is based on the fact that these are the two reactions I generally get when I chat to people about sea swimming in winter.  So many friends have said they’ll join me, but haven’t as yet.  I do feel pretty tough when I’ve got in past my shoulders and caught my breath.  But that’s not what I do it for.

The other benefit, and this is a big one, that I have gained from sea swimming is that it has helped me gain confidence in my body, in terms of it’s capability and the image I have of it.  I’ve had a fairly negative relationship with my body most of my life, until a couple of years ago when my eyes were opened to the idea that I didn’t have to conform to society’s one dimensional idea of thin = beautiful, thin = healthy, and that I can be large and beautiful, and large and healthy.  I now appreciate my body for what it can do, including entering cold water, swimming (nearly) 2.5km in the sea, swimming out beyond the west pier, carrying me 3.8km down the river Arun.  I have stopped beating myself up because my body doesn’t fit certain norms and I now feel far more comfortable changing on the beach, and even, as mentioned above, having the odd naked swim without worrying what judgements people are making about how I look.  The only judgement that matters is my own and that is gradually getting more positive.

Finally, I am so pleased to have found the Seabirds, and for the Seabirds to have found me.  During this time of lockdown, I am speaking to friends and family more often than I would otherwise, as many of us have more time on our hands.  But the ones reaching out to me most with hands (not literally) of support are my birds, the Seabirds.

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.

 

Unprecedented Times

A Guest Blog by Seabird Claudine

It was a clear, crisp day.  Filled with sunshine, then rain, then sun, then hail, all within 5 minutes.  A typical spring day then.  Perhaps not typical as in regular, but typical as in we’ve seen it all before, weather-wise.  Four seasons in one day.  It’s one of those days where we don’t go out.  Is that because we can’t be bothered?  Because it’s the weekend and getting the children dressed and out of the house is more effort than it’s worth?  Or is it because we are on lock-down, the pandemic of Covid 19 wreaking havoc on the world?  The entire world.

As I sit in the sunshine whilst the heavens aren’t opening, I wonder if there are parts of the world unaffected, remote and cut off from others in a way that is protecting them from all that is going on.  I wonder what it would be like to live in those communities.  Before this, as well as now, I sometimes dream of the ideal “getting away from it all” lifestyle change, as many do I’m sure.  A log cabin on the coast in a remote part of Canada, on the Sunshine Coast, maybe near Sechelt, away from people, near bears, (but friendly ones), with a glorious sea to swim in literally on my doorstep.  Or in another daydream fantasy, one of those houses the characters live in on Big Little Lies; a modern mansion on the beach with a luxurious expansive deck, with sofas bigger than my entire living room, and a roaring fire-pit, overlooking the waves, and a little wooden boardwalk down to the golden sand.  Anyway, I digress.

“It is unprecedented” is the phrase of the week/ fortnight/ month – who knows?  We have all lost track of time.  It’s like something from a Sci-fi film.  People in hazmat suits (a term I wasn’t even aware of until the virus hit) all over the news, looking like they are treating people who are radioactive, or taking evidence from a crime scene.  Who knew the world could be put on hold in this way?  For some it has all come to a standstill. No-one needs certain products and services right now, maybe they never really did.  I have always looked at certain jobs and industries and wondered if they really needed to exist.  Occasionally even my own.  But for some it isn’t like that.

Simultaneously other people’s worlds have gone from high pressure to incredibly intense.  People working night and day to adapt, to change to find a need and meet it.  For some that means profiteering: opening a shop especially to sell overpriced toilet roll and hand sanitizer.  For others that means thinking how they can use their skills to provide a slightly different service and continue to make a living; restaurants offering take away service, coffee delivered to your door, everything possible being offered online, even the things that “couldn’t possibly” be done online before.  Whilst others do their best with the limited resources they have to take care of others.  People risking their lives working in hospitals with the most sick, trying to reduce the death toll and slow the spread.  People have made the sacrifice of leaving their own homes and families so they don’t take the virus home to their loved ones or from their loved ones to the workplace where the most vulnerable are.

I miss things.  I know I am privileged to have a nice house, large garden, family members to keep me company, the tech I need to stay connected.  I still have the ability to go down to the seafront occasionally, get in the sea, as long as I do it alone.  But I’m not sure if I should. It isn’t as much fun as going with a few others, or the big social swims when I am in the right mood for them, but it is still glorious to get into the shimmering sea and feel the bitey cold on my body.

I’ve realised, or remembered, that I am the kind of person who manages with a new situation, and doesn’t really notice how much I miss something until I get it back again.  It sounds a bit contradictory, but I just plod along, feeling not quite right but OK, and dealing with the challenges that “home schooling” and struggling children bring.  Some days are a battle, calming down the children who show their angst in ways that are difficult for the rest of us to be around.

But last week we had a zoom call (again, an app I was unaware of until the corona virus hit) with salty seabirds, most of us getting in a cold bath as a substitute for the sea.  And I realised how much I miss them.  I miss the whoops and squeals as we get in the sea.  I miss the chatter and banter when we are in.  I miss the giggles.  I miss the dialogue: sometimes ridiculous and hilarious and sometimes profound.  I miss the support when I need a moan.  I miss the empathy when I have a cry.  I miss the hugs when a fellow seabird just knows I need one.  I miss touch.  I miss conversations about something other than my family, school work, and C19.  I miss the wide open space.  I miss the horizon, I look at and enjoy its endlessness, it represents infinite possibilities.

But this too shall pass.  Many people are in far more difficult situations than me.  Many people won’t make it through.  Many people will be living with the financial, emotional and physical fall out of this for years.  I am lucky, but that doesn’t mean I’m not struggling.  It doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to feel low.

For many, life will go back to normal, soon enough, and we’ll be back to rushing around, cramming too much in, getting stressed, spending money.  But at least then we will be back with our wider tribes, we will have the freedom to come and go as we please, we will have the sea and we will have the horizon, where anything is possible.

Author: Seabird Claudine

 

One Flew Over the Seabirds Nest

Navigating a new world without the salty seabirds is a new learning. Simply being, eating and sleeping is enough right now. No pressure.

The sun is shining. The sea is inviting. I have the luxury of time on my hands. My family are all around me. All that’s missing are animated bluebirds chirping around my head. But we’re day one of lock down. I can’t enjoy the sun and the sea. I have time on my hands because I have no paid work to do. And there is definitely chirping around and in my head, and it’s not the seabird post swim chatter or the beautiful bluebird.  

I don’t naturally do slow pace, unless I am drop dead worn out or asleep. But I have learnt to do slow pace. After many years of approaching everything I do with plans, speed and efficiency I have learnt, the hard way, that I need rest to manage my mental health. Rest appears on the list and in the plan to ensure it is a task completed before we get to the drop dead worn out stage which is normally accompanied by a period of being unwell. Still not always able to spot the signs of when it’s needed, so being in the schedule, like a dog walk or a sea swim ensures it happens.

As well as the slower pace, there are a lot of silver linings to lock down. There’s the book you never got round to reading. The cupboard that is due a big clear out. The garden that needs weeding as spring sunshine encourages growth. But are we putting too much pressure on ourselves to learn the piano or to crochet when we are already trying to navigate a new world? My new reality worry is that I will have too much rest. Yes this is how my ever firing amygdalas work. They can create an anxious thought in the calmest of situations. As the world slows down my adrenaline production does not.

So my new reality is sharing my, what I thought was, spacious house with another 3 humans. I have created a space to hide myself away from them when I need to. And I need to. And as a result I am finding myself partaking in certain self-care activities a lot more than I am used to. Reading in an armchair. Staying in bed longer in the mornings. Afternoon naps. The problem is, this self-care is so similar to my depression symptoms that they can actually become the problem! Yes I need rest, but I also need a good dose of heart rate raising exercise, cold water stimulation and the company of the salted wellbeing community.  Hibernation and social isolation mimic my response to feeling down, and then we get ourselves in a wonderful cycle of what came first, the chicken or the egg.

The pressure people are putting on themselves to use this new found ‘time’ wisely during lock down is counterproductive in some cases. Definitely in my case. As we keep being told, these are unprecedented times. This isn’t just a turn of phrase – humans, literally do not have a standard response to a global pandemic. We are all trying to adjust to new home life dynamics and routines whilst trying to home school and earn a living. Why the fuck is now the best time to start a new hobby or learn a new language? I feel we should all receive gold stars for making it through the day. (If you have children at home, 2 gold stars if they have been fed and watered.)

Keeping the Seabirds business and swimming community going is enough pressure right now. I will learn Italian another time. Without our regular sea and tea time together we are suffering. And alongside many others we have witnesses our income disappear overnight.  Our wonderful Wild Swim Shop is our financial Tow Float earns us revenue which funds our work on our water and wellbeing projects. Again when we consider how to spend this time wisely promoting our wares to keep our heads above water has taken a bit of a bashing. Trying to keep the normally self-regulating flock afloat is now at the forefront. We specifically chose not to be a club with a committee and a constitution for a reason. But we have found ourselves in uncharted waters making Chief Seabird announcements and updates to deal with our changing world.

Just as the virus hit, Seabirds were on the cusp of growing. Our hard work was beginning to pay dividends. We’d been in Coast Magazine, and were due to be in Top Santé and will be in Outdoor Swimmer magazine. The numbers in our swimming community were soaring. Sales in the Wild Swim shop were encouraging and new products and stock were being added on a regular basis. We had swimposiums, pop ups and ‘Women, Wellbeing and Water’ courses planned for the summer months. And the cherry on the cake was our beloved 12 Moon Swim project exhibition curated by top bird Coral, being unveiled at the Fringe Festival. But all of this is now on hold. AND, confession time, I am a bit relieved the pressure is off!

Exciting times were imminent and they are still ahead, just a bit further away on the horizon. The time not being spent dispatching orders just means we have more time to plan. We have so many ideas about where Seabirds will take us next sometimes we don’t have time to sit back and appreciate all it has become and all it can be. When we started Seabirds we had an idea of what it would look like but it grew in some directions we hadn’t planned and halted in the places we thought would be more successful. We have been reflecting since January on the changes we would like to make in tandem with growing and nurturing what we already have. And we were concerned about how we would fit it all in whilst maintaining strict work/life balance boundaries. Now, as the world slows down, we can catch up. We can still do all the things we wanted to do, it’s just the finish line is further away.

It is very much a time to batten down the hatches and learn to adapt to a new world for the foreseeable future. This is the ONLY learning I will be doing. And this is what I have learnt so far;

  • My husband is paying the mortgage and bills solo for the next few months and now he is a permanent member of the crew I just need to suck it up
  • Ditto Bosun daughter and Cabin Boy son – who I will not be attempting to home school
  • I’ve got it good – and I am grateful (Although I don’t always sound it)
  • When your access to the outdoors is threatened the entire population of the South East of England makes their way to Brighton beach
  • Britain’s favourite food is anything tinned or dried
  • Britain is also partial to a clean bottom
  • That using a delivery service for groceries (Ocado), loo rolls (Who gives a Crap) and milk (Milk and More) for years was the best decision I ever made for the environment and now my stress levels
  • You can watch the Harry Potter films an infinite amount of times and it never gets old or boring.
  • I love Matt Haig more than I ever thought I could.
  • Mother Nature has a dark sense of humour by sending us a deadly virus and then sending us constant uninterrupted sunshine.

In some aspects the world is becoming a better place. Big industry impact on the environment is paused. We are getting to know our neighbours and considering the impact of our actions on others. I hope we all organically learn from our new world and continue the good habits the nation is now adopting. Kindness in the community, a love for the outdoors, looking after ourselves physically and emotionally. There will always be room for shit telly in my life but hopefully in the future balanced with a gratitude of my freedom, access to the sea and shared tea and cake with the Salty Seabirds. Lesson over!

Author: Seabird Kath

 

Swim Wild and Free

Swimming in the outdoors is free, BUT not everyone has equal access, availability or awareness.

If your social media accounts are anything like mine, you will be bombarded on a daily basis with beautiful images of the outdoors encouraging you to spend time in nature. Many are accompanied by the hashtag #free. The outdoors is free but is it accessible?

Spending time in nature, appears on the surface, (or below the waves), to be free. But having the luxury of free time to spend anywhere is a exorbitance many cannot afford. I recently read Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s article in the Guardian about the masses of white middle class women claiming the new craze of Wild Swimming as their own when people have been doing it since time began. At first, my heckles went up. How dare she assume that I am part of the urban elite romanticising swimming in the outdoors! But the fact that I had bought and read the article in the Guardian in itself showed me to be the privileged white middle class woman that I am. And swimming in the sea on a regular basis to manage my mental health is free and accessible for me, but not everyone has equal access. Gallingly, Rhiannon has a point.

Brighton and Hove is a very bohemian place to live. It’s a very popular place for artists, writers musicians and the like to reside. We differ from the political landscape that surrounds us but like any city there are still pockets of significant social deprivation. There are a substantial number of Brightonians that have never been to the beach let alone swim in the sea. Quite a different story to the front page of the tabloids of packed beaches in the summer and historical Victorian seaside spa town built for the middle classes.

I made ‘wild’ swimming my job. I work with the other Seabird Cath, and we choose when and where we work (to a degree). My kids are teenagers and pretty self sufficient. I am financially stable thanks to a long suffering and hard working husband. I am confident in the water after a lifetime of swimming in the sea. I can swim pretty much when I want to, or at least when the sea is suitable for swimming. So it is free, to me.

But…….my circumstances are not the norm. I am privileged. That’s not to say I don’t have mental health issues, but I have access to and time to partake in activities that benefit my wellbeing. My choice is to swim in the sea. And there it is. That word. Choice. I know it is an option and I choose to do it.

wild and free

Sea swimming is free and available to all, in theory. But there are many obstacles that people face getting in the water or even considering it an option. There are many residents of Brighton and Hove who never visit the beach and swimming in the sea is not in their line of sight. This is because, whilst being on the beach and in the sea (river or lake) doesn’t cost money, not everyone has equal access, availability or awareness.

Many groups and communities face a lot of barriers to outdoor activities which include wild swimming. Outdoor fun is a privilege some cannot afford. It is easy to overlook inequality when you are part of a community that has access and benefits. It is undeniable that there is a lack of diversity and inclusion in the outdoor swimming community. Not intentionally but still undeniably.

As part of the Salty Seabird community, I know how much the cold water, connecting with others and being in nature improves my mental health. As Seabirds CIC we want others to realise this too. Last year we received National Lottery funding to run our ‘Women, Water and Wellbeing’ (WWW) programme with local mental health charity Threshold Womens’ Services, who referred participants to us.

It was a huge success, with the majority of the participants still regularly swimming with us. It was an unexpected outcome to be part of a thriving flock of fellow sea swimmers. Without intention we created an inclusive community where all are welcome. However, we remain mainly middle class white women! And we can only assume why this is the case. Is it due to our name and the female association with the word bird? Is a group of semi naked women screeching on the beach intimidating to other potential swimmers, particularly men? Is it because the times we swim are when those with more traditional occupations are working? Is it because many residents of the city do not have childhoods or backgrounds that encouraged outdoor activities?

What is clear is that Society’s hierarchies of ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, body size, and economic class do not miraculously disappear in the sea.  And what is needed is an understanding of what is preventing certain communities in our city from accessing the sea and potentially improving their wellbeing. Particularly communities that are socially and economically deprived.

Although in principle all you need to swim is a swimming costume, there are certain pieces of equipment that make wild swimming more manageable. On our famous shingle beaches only the hardy go without footwear. And if you wish to swim year round, neoprene accessories such as gloves and hats make the experience a bit more enjoyable – which is the aim after all. Not everyone can afford these.

As said, in principle all you need is a swimming costume, which most people own, but some do not have the confidence to put on, let alone in public. A negative body image can prevent people, particularly women, from taking part in activities that requires them to wear forms of sportswear. And there is no where to hide in a wet-suit. Some people simply can’t swim. They have either never learnt or have a bad relationship with swimming based on previous experience. Our group is very keen to promote the notion that paddling, dipping, sitting in the shallows and just getting wet, is in fact outdoor swimming!

Wild swimming requires a certain level of knowledge. Knowing it is an option and recognising that there are ways to improve your wellbeing. Pockets of the population have limited time to have fun and are unaware of communities residing in their local area partaking in outdoor activities. In times of austerity people are working more than one job and longer hours just to make ends meet and when they are not working have responsibilities for young children or is more common now, caring for ageing parents. Or both. These potential swimmers may be completely unaware of outdoor swimming.

There is also a certain level of skill and confidence needed to swim outdoors. Although I am the co-founder of our Salty Seabird community group I personally wouldn’t rock up on my own to meet a group of people I don’t know to swim in the sea. I, like many others who suffer from anxiety, would need a more structured first session where others were in the same boat. I do not like meeting new people and although I have the physical skills to swim outdoors I do not have the confidence to swim with strangers. Knowing where to go and how to get there is knowledge born of experience. Not everyone lives by a large body of water and if they do is it safe to swim.

The list of why swimming in the outdoors is not accessible and available to all is lengthy. And not all of the obstacles can be overcome. But some can. In 2020 the WWW programme intends to work with an increased number of vulnerable people. Additional access to structured sea swimming sessions will transition non-swimming women into wild swimmers that will have a new way of improving their mental and physical health safely and confidently. Our approach will be to work with community development groups in the city that already have trusted relationships with women for whom, wild swimming is not even on their radar.

As a Community Interest Company, Seabird’s aim to provide a way for local people to manage their wellbeing by using sea swimming and friendship. The community courses we facilitate specifically focus on people that would not otherwise be able to access the sea/beach without guidance. We can provide the equipment, transport, childcare, flexible times and a nurturing community to encourage and teach the skills to provide the confidence to women. The sessions provide support to members with a wide range of issues, including anxiety, depression, stress, low self-esteem, loneliness and long term health conditions. Our aim is to give participants the skills, confidence and self-belief they need to enjoy sea swimming, no matter what additional challenges they face. We recognise that everyone person is different and each responds to challenges differently. But we believe that with the right assistance and support they can do it!

Author: Seabird Kath

N.B We recognise that there are men in the local community who would also benefit from swimming in the sea but we do not feel we are the right organisation to facilitate courses for male groups. The same can be said for communities that have come together based on shared experiences of race, gender identity and sexual orientation. We are also aware that the middle classes can be mentally ill too, just because they have greater access to free and paid for self-care doesn’t mean it is not needed. However, our 2020 aim is to encourage women, in areas of socio-economic deprivation, who would not normally easily access sea swimming as a tool to maintain wellbeing and yet are in great need of it, to give it a go.

 

Mama and the Sea!

Guest Blog by Salty Seabird Eloise.

Why I swim in the sea in winter? Several people have asked me to write more but I never have because it feels a little vulnerable. I write Facebook posts sharing windows into my life and I get such a warm response so I thought, fuck it. Here we are.

I would take my daughter, Odetta, down to the sea every evening just to kill that awful hour at 4pm when it’s too early to feed the beast and too late to take her anywhere in public without her having an exhaustion meltdown. Just as the sun would be setting I’d put so many layers on her that she would resemble a burst couch, tufts of wild blonde hair sprouting from her thick wool hat. The hat itself was way too big and would end up resting on those big pink cheeks she inherited from me. I would stop at Costa and get us hot chocolates to warm our hands as we made our way down to that beautiful blue. Sometimes when I walk with her hand in mine I have to pause to take in the fact I created this little wildling and those hands still seem so tiny in mine.

I started this ritual of going to the beach every evening when she was about 6 months old. Why? because being a single mum sucks sometimes. Winter nights start so early and once that baby is down I was sat in a small basement flat in Hove on my own. Those moments down the beach were a haven to me. Other families would be catching the last of the sun too and there was so much laughter and joy. Sometimes my heart would ache a little as my family didn’t work out how I wanted it too and I didn’t have that person to share the joy of my girl with, but I did my best to stay present in that moment and not get lost in the “What ifs”. That was relatively easy to do as more often then not I would be wrestling stones out of Odetta’s mouth or convincing her that licking old seaweed isn’t the best idea.

One day on our way back from the beach when the little rat bag was lying on the floor refusing to move, I saw two women about to get into that freezing cold sea, dressed just in swimming costumes and bright swim caps. In that moment, when I was so engrossed in my motherhood journey, bribing my child with every snack I could find at the bottom of my bag, exhausted, close to tears, I imagined myself stepping into that water and it gave me a moment of freedom. I felt an energy burst inside of me and I made a promise to find someone who would be mad enough to swim with me.

Turns out that I didn’t have any friends crazy enough. Then someone told me of a swim group called the Salty Seabirds. I joined the Facebook group and saw posts from women all over Brighton and Hove organising different times to meet. Informal, you just show up in whatever state you are in and swim. So on the 10th of Feb I took my pale arse down to the sea, flask in my bag, wrapped in a big jumper and scarf.

The weekends are my weakness, as I hear they are for a lot of single mothers. I would message all of my friends to see who we could tag along with but they would be having family time with their partners who worked during the week (selfish bitches) Which is understandable (it’s not) so often those two days felt the loneliest. Sometimes I’d just wait and see who got sick of their partners first or wait for one of them to have a row (kind of a joke. kind of) but mostly I’d have to just get on with it. Then swimming entered my life and I could bribe a grandparent to have Odie or sometimes she would tag a long with me and moan the entire time about how much she hates everything that’s nice in the world, hence her nickname Edgar Allan O. As soon as I entered that freezing cold water, and yelped and screamed and swore at the top of my lungs, jumping over the waves, I finally felt freedom. Motherhood is beautiful, achingly so, but it’s also the hardest and loneliest journey a woman can take. The sea made me feel ok again, like I could do it, I could be a good mum and a happy woman and those two things could coexist again.

When you take that first gasp as you step into cold water, you remember why you are here. For moments like this. Swimming towards the sun or in rain or sometimes even snow. Your body adjusts and a creeping pink blushes your skin as an addictive sting starts at your toes and works its way up. I’ve laughed so hard I have filled my mouth with sea water, and I’ve washed away tears in the sea too. Children are always watching, and I feel proud my girl is watching her mama do something nourishing and wild. Without those women I swim with, without that sea, I would be a different woman and mother.

Author: Eloise

Note from Seabirds – Eloise has very strong opinions on the type of toppings that are acceptable in polite society to accompany a baked potato.

January doesn’t have to be Blue!

A guest blog by Salty Seabird Claudine – how to beat the blues whatever time of the year it is!

Guest blog by Salty Seabird Claudine

January, hey?  It gets a bad rap.  “New year, new you”, Dry January, Blue Monday.   Not much fun and joy contained in those words.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A couple of years ago when I first discovered the body positive movement, it became so much more than a transformation of how I see myself when I look in the mirror.  I did an exercise called “taking the blinkers off”, and it opened my eyes to the nonsense I’d been fed by the media for so long.  Not only the societal ideal of beauty which for the most part was airbrushed, unrealistic and certainly not what I was ever going to look like, but also to other media bias.  I mean, I had of course known about this and been somewhat mindful of what I chose to read and watch, but suddenly I saw through the lies I’d been blind to before.

One of them was about how depressing January is, and in particular the concept of Blue Monday, the third Monday of the year.  As well as being a song of my youth, it is a concept apparently made up by the travel industry to make people feel particularly low so they book a holiday to escape the grey drudgery of a British winter.  This is despite being “depressed” (obviously, some people actually suffering depression and others just feeling pretty down for a while) and having the Christmas bills coming in whilst waiting desperately for January pay day.

But it doesn’t have to be all bad, does it?  I have the joy of seeing my girl turn another year older each January, always scraping together a party for her after the madness of Christmas.  Although I haven’t made new year resolutions for years, I like to use the start of a fresh year to take stock, think about what’s happened over the last 12 months and give some thought to the 12 months ahead – how I want to be, and how I can achieve that.  And now for the second year, I’m looking forward to swimming (or at the very least dipping on the coldest of days) in some of the lowest water temperatures of the year.  It’s a pleasure to have something to look forward to through winter, and for us cold water lovers and to the confusion of the rest of the population, the colder the better.

 

At the event I curated for iSWIM, entitled Reclaim Blue Monday, we heard from a range of panellists and experts in cold water immersion and blue space.  The discussion was about why and how we benefit from this crazy (as some people see it), pastime of wild swimming, in terms of socially, physiologically, psychologically, spiritually and environmentally.  What does the sea give us; and in return, what can we give the sea?

We heard about the stimulation of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, enabling us to cope better with stress – physically and mentally.  We heard about the transformative, connective and re-orientating power of a swim, especially a chilly one.  We heard about the power of awe, and how immersion in freezing water and being in nature contribute to positive wellbeing.  We heard of the value of the beach and the sea as a therapeutic landscape, and the idea that the more we use the ocean and gain some benefit from it, the more likely we are to care about its wellbeing and take action against water pollution.  It reminded me of the short film, Nature is Speaking, with Julia Roberts voicing “mother nature”, a powerful message about how nature doesn’t depend on us but we depend on it.  Nature has existed for billions of years before us, and will exist long after us, she will evolve no matter what our actions.  But we need to evolve as well if we want to carry on as a species.

All this means much more than the things we might be encouraged to do every new year: cutting out alcohol, stopping smoking, becoming fitter, faster and slimmer, or setting ourselves goals of achievement, smashing our PBs.  It means being mindful of what is around us, of separating the truly important things from those we are told to believe are important.  And for me, this begins in the sea.  It’s a place where I can be myself, get what I need, and take nothing away (apart from plastic I find on the beach).  The sea is a place I can feel free, forget the stresses of the day, week, month, and reset.

Every swim is different and gives me something the last one or the next one may not.  It could be a purely physical refresh, a wake up, a shock to the senses by the prickling of the cold water on my skin, bit by bit as I get in.  It could be the sense of achievement of getting in a bouncy sea, assessing from the shore when and where to get in, whether the waves are too big, how often they are breaking.  Watching the waves break with such power and force, working out where the shelf of the beach is, and how likely it is I’ll get “washing machined” by the shore break.   On these swims I barely notice the cold, too busy trying not to drown.  Once I’m in, I’ll enjoy the swim, but with a little part of me feeling anxious about how difficult it will be to get out, whether I’ll time it right or get knocked over by a wave, and pummelled by stones.

Once I’m out after a swim like this, I feel like I can take on the world!  Or it might be the conversation or uplifting support of fellow swimmers.  I’ve had such a vast range of conversations with people whilst bobbing along beside them, hearing and sharing such profound and personal stories with people I’ve just met, or sometimes sharing my own struggles and letting the overwhelm and anxiety wash away, with my tears, into the salty water.  Other times, it’s the hysterics of the after-drop, the not remembering exactly how to get dressed, the giggles about a risqué comment from another swimmer, or just the fits of laughter that come out of nowhere and are about nothing.

Whatever I get from a swim, whether it’s the things I consciously feel and think, and whatever unconsciously going on in my brain and my body, I always get something good.  Even on the very rare occasion I feel like it wasn’t much fun, I didn’t really enjoy it, felt rubbish as I went in and far from ecstatic coming out, and I got battered with wind and rain trying to get dressed, I’m still convinced I come out feeling better than if I hadn’t gone in.  It’s sometimes hard to put into words what I get from it.  But every time I get in, once I get over the breathlessness of cold shock, I find myself taking a deep inhale, and as I exhale, I always find myself saying, “ahh, that’s better”.  Discovering cold water swimming and meeting the incredible community of i-swimmers and seabirds has certainly cured anything blue about January for me.

Note on the Author; The life-changing film Embrace is being screened again by BoPoFitCo – Christine Chessman and Claudine Nightingill-Rane – a body image coaching duo from Hove. For both of us, and for many more who have seen our previous screenings, it has been a catalyst for a hugely positive change in the way we see ourselves, treat ourselves and the work we do to help others do the same

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