We Came, We Swam, We Conquered

On World Mental Health Day, a reflection on our Women, Wellbeing and Water courses. We are all water warriors in our own way. Salty Seabirds swim group was set up as somewhere to signpost people that self identified as having mental health or wellbeing issues. A safe haven for them to enjoy the sea.

For as long as we have been swimming together, Catherine and I have talked of making the sea accessible to others. In the sea, where all the best ideas are borne, we came up with Women, Wellbeing and Water. A course aimed at giving women the confidence to get in the sea for respite and relaxation and to escape the day to day. 

With the help of a National Lottery grant and funding from Paddle Round the Pier Charity Festival, we have been able to turn our talk into action. We have the beaches of Brighton and Hove on our doorstep but it is still under-utilised by so many. The idea was to help women that wouldn’t normally have the confidence to don a swimsuit or wetsuit access the benefits of sea swimming that we have both experienced over the last few years. We know how much sea swimming has helped us and people around us, to get through some difficult times.

We ran a pilot session in September 2018 after funding was secured, which allowed us to try out our ideas and gain valuable feedback from participants. Then in June this year we launched our first course. All swimmers on the course were referred to us by Brighton Housing Trust’s Threshold Women’s Services. The service supports those with issues including anxiety, depression, self-harm, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, parenting issues, birth trauma and perinatal depression. The demand for the course was high and it was full within 24 hours.

We very much intended the course to be participant led, free from arbitrary goals. As part of the pre-course paperwork we asked them what they hoped to gain from the course. We knew our aims, what were theirs? Confidence was a reoccurring theme.

Greater confidence around other people and in the water particularly. More knowledge about being in the water and it’s benefits.”

“Confidence and resilience”

“Confidence and company”

“The confidence and momentum to swim regularly in the sea”

“Happiness, enjoyment, confidence”

And this aim really struck a chord as it echoed our reason for swimming in the sea!

“Positive mental and physical wellbeing and a return to who I truly am rather than the stressed version of my current self”

 

After our pilot session we were contacted by Dr Heather Massey from the University of Portsmouth. She and her colleagues are working on a research funding application to investigate the use of outdoor swimming for depression. As a result they need as much controlled quantitative data as possible relating to ‘new’ swimmers. If you ask an existing wild swimmer if they think it has a positive impact on their wellbeing they are liable to wax lyrical for what seems like forever. What Heather and her team need is data relating to swimmers that identified as having wellbeing issues and were ‘new’ to sea swimming. So our swimmers completed questionnaires before their first swim, after their first swim at at the end of the course to measure any changes in their levels of wellbeing, which we hope will provide more insight. Whilst we understand the need for this type of data collection in the world of academia, especially if you want to effect change, we were more drawn to the wonderful anecdotal comments………

How have you found outdoor swimming?

It was amazing experience, so freezing, joyful and hypnotising. Life giving and relaxing. Friendly atmosphere and felt so looked after.

Fantastic. It has been great learning about the sea, current, tides etc but the sense of a group experiencing the water together is lovely

Life affirming. It has lifted my mood and given  the confidence and encouragement to plan on making it a regular habit.

Will you swim in the outdoors again?

Definitely yes. It was life giving experience to feel nature,  waves and still feel safe as I was look after well in the water by Cathy. I loved sound and feel of the sea, which made me feel happy, relaxed and enthusiastic. I feel energetic, optimistic included and better to deal with problems and chronic pains in the future. Thank you for a great experience.

Yes. I’ve joined the seabirds and started swimming with others. Its life enhancing actually life changing. Thanks so much!

I will definitely swim outdoors again – in fact I have already ventured in a couple of times between lessons. I feel so grateful to have had the privilege of being amongst such kind and encouraging experienced swimmers and I would really like to start meeting up. I would also like to maybe learn how to do the crawl, and would like to hear of any lessons….

The reference to swimming with others, the sense of community and connection which provided the confidence to swim in the sea. This is at the heart of the Salty Seabird Sea Swimming group. So much so, that many of our group volunteered to join the new swimmers each week to swim, guide, assist, chat with them. And drink tea and eat cake with them at the end of every session of course. It is these swimmers that encouraged the new swimmers, happy to pass on their skills and experience, happy to welcome them into our flock. As the new swimmers gained confidence, the Salty Seabirds gained new members. That was our aim. And that was the new swimmers aim.

A huge thank you to Catherine, Mel, Alex, Claudine, Emma, Maria, Sam, Hannah and  Libby. And welcome to our new Salty Seabirds.

Right time to start planning the next course………..

The change of life or life changing?

Have the sea swim your dry vagina deserves!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Seabird Kath

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