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

 

 

 

 

The Anthropology of Salty Ornithology

How does community connect in the modern world? By Social Media and Swimming!

As a social introvert I am fascinated by human interaction. Envious of those that seemingly find conversation and connection easy.  Over the festive period the Salty Seabird flock grew to record numbers but I am not always able to face new faces. I observed from afar (social media screen) but was still able to share in their joy and happiness at experiencing a cold water sea swim. I still felt part of the flock.

Being part of a community is not a new thing. Nor is swimming in the sea. But doing it as a community activity arranged via social media is. But what fundamental components of being part of a community remain unchanged?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Community is; a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. The internet and social media platforms have meant that I can watch someone else’s swim live, from the comfort of my own home. Watching their face erupt into a smile, breathe in the beautiful scenery and converse with them via comments. It’s not that same as actually being there. Only two of your senses are engaged and there is no real replacement for physical presence but I do still feel part of a community, albeit virtually. We don’t necessarily live in the same place but we do live in the same space.

We also have a particular characteristic in common. The Outdoor Swimming Society have claimed the characteristic ‘stoic’ for the virtual Zeno’s Swim Club. The ability to just keep going – or in this case just keep swimming.  This is true of my local Salty Seabird community and my virtual outdoor swimming community. The impact cold water immersion has on our physical and mental health, has been researched and written about, both anecdotally and academically.  What we all seem to agree on is that in that moment, in the water, we have escaped the day to day. We know it will be there once we’ve dried off but we will be better equipped to deal with it. We are testing our resilience. Why would you enter freezing water willingly? Its takes your breath away and it burns your limbs. Because, you know, once you’ve had a swim you will feel like you can keep going.

I have talked and written at length about the sense of connection I experience from swimming with a group. In a fragmented world, and during times of austerity, the need for connection and community has never been more necessary. The Salty Seabirds have grown from a few to the many, some I have never met, some have names I don’t know, some swim in different spots, some swim long distances and some dip. But I am connected to them. Connected by the shared need for respite and rest and the ability to find it by the sea. Connected by sharing cake and tea post swim. Connected by a rediscovery of childlike joy and the ability to play in the water. For me, connection is at the heart of the community.

Recently the Salty Seabird community has demonstrated the strength of the connection at its heart.  A new Salty wanted to raise some funds for a paediatric study into treatment for Alkaptonuria, the genetic condition her son has. So she posted a call to arms for swimmers join her swimming in the sea through the 12 days of Christmas. The response was overwhelming with incredible numbers of swimmers joining her on a daily basis, donating and sharing the fundraiser. This community, didn’t know her, or her son, when she asked for support, but because a bunch of people have a sense of belonging or connection they answered her call.

Connection is prevalent throughout the virtual outdoor swimming community just as much as it is locally. ‘Tits to the Wind’ organised by 3 wild swimmers via social media was supported by swimmers the length and breadth of the country. The idea was to swim topless and raise money for Mind a mental health charity and raise awareness for Coppafeel which encourages people to check for lumps to ensure early diagnosis of breast cancer. Instagram was full of wonderful images of people exposing their “Tits to the Wind” and sharing the experience. All the topless swimmers are alike in some way, they feel a sense of belonging with each other even though they’ve never met.

Whenever Lindsey ‘Stompy’ Cole puts a shout out for people to join her for a swim or for a bed for the night she is never disappointed. In 2018 she swam the length of River Thames as  mermaid to raise awareness of plastic pollution. Since then she has cycled and swum around the UK instantly recognisable by her infectious grin. Again, via social media, she posts shout outs for swim buddies and place to stay which are answered by the supportive  community she is part of.

Lindsey is not the only one to swim with strangers. Salties join us from all over the world to experience the sea on the South Coast of England. In addition to the wild swimmers individual and group social media accounts, there is a Wild Swim Map and the Outdoor Society FB group. So many way for swimmers to connect with one another. Whenever I go on my holidays I will find a local swimmer or group to swim with. And you know that when you do eventually make it to that waterfall, lake, tarn, you will be made to feel very welcome and very much part of that local community.

The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to say; the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common. Again by wild swimming virtual connections when posted words or an image resonate you instantly feel part of a community. I frequently comment on other people’s posts and have regular dialogue with people I have never met, but I know they are my people. Some of these may be sea swimmers local to Brighton and Hove, who swim in the same spots as me yet we have not met. Some of these sea swimmers may in fact be part of the same Salty Seabird community group but we are yet to swim at the same time and place. This is the beauty of these leaderless, self-regulating communities glued together by sharing the swim love.

Watching my own community of Salty Seabirds thrive brings me joy on a daily basis. Every week new swimmers join us, entering the sea as strangers and leaving the beach as friends.. The local connection of community is incredible. We’ve had single Salties spend Christmas day together. Poorly Salties spend their birthdays on the beach with us even when they are too ill to swim. They fundraise and volunteer for Seabirds, provide lifts to Shoreham Port, swap stories, give warm welcome and advice to new swimmers…….the list goes on. They are the salt of the earth – or in this case salt of the sea.

This is what community looks like – it hasn’t changed – just the way we connect has.

 

Preserved in Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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