Swimming your way out of anxiety by Verity Westgate

20th January 2018

Every morning before work, I swim 160 lengths of a 25-metre pool — that’s 4km — and it takes me 1 hour 8 minutes. That’s been my routine for the past eight years. But I’m not off the blocks like the Olympian Adam Peaty — it’s about maintaining a low heart rate and consistency. I also run once or twice a week, but it’s harder on the body and you’re always having to look out for hazards, whereas with swimming it’s very easy to be consistent and maintain a rhythm, which I find very calming. I’ve had depression since I was 18 — I’m now 33 — and I’ve experienced suicidal thoughts. More recently, I’ve suffered from anxiety, too. In 2006, I lost a friend to suicide, so in 2009 I entered the Great North Swim, a mile-long open-water challenge, to remember her and raise money for Mind. Training for that made me realise how much I got out of swimming. Often my head is very busy with negative thoughts and worries, but after 20-40 minutes of swimming, something takes over and I suddenly notice that my brain is much calmer and my worries have disappeared. I then actually find myself problem-solving during my swim. In the pool, my senses feel heightened; the things I can feel are very immediate — the water on my skin, the loud noise of the pool. Somehow that helps me to be more present. I don’t get on with mindfulness as a practice in itself, but I find this mindful movement very helpful. Swimming sets me up for the day. Anxiety can make your breathing shallow and fast, but the rhythm of swimming and being forced to breathe in a certain pattern helps to regulate your breath. It’s like brushing your teeth, which makes your teeth clean till the evening. After my swim, I can sit down and not be too fidgety. It settles me down. I really feel it if I haven’t swum: my body is twitchy and the anxiety starts to build up. It’s hard to focus if you can’t sit still. Mostly that feeling of calm stays with me all day. I also walk for 20 minutes every day as part of my routine for managing my mind. I do a brisk walk to get my heart rate up. I am a project manager on a clinical research project for a hospital in Oxford and sit for most of the day at work, so I need to get out at lunchtime. If I miss that, it makes me quite grumpy. When I broke my wrist, when I was knocked off my bike while cycling to the pool, I couldn’t swim for five weeks, which was horrific. I was left without my main coping strategy, and it was hard to find a substitute. I was allowed to walk, but it didn’t give me enough. Even if I don’t feel like swimming, I just do it. It’s harder to swim if I’m feeling mentally unwell — I have to make myself, and I also have to be a bit kinder to myself and not swim so far. I also use a cognitive behavioural therapy technique called behavioural activation: if you don’t feel like doing anything, you try by starting small. If you don’t feel like leaving the house, start by having a shower. For swimming, I’ll pack my bag and take myself off to the pool. I’ll tell myself that if I don’t feel like it after a few lengths, I can get out. But once I’m in, I always want to continue. You have to remember you will feel better — you don’t always get the endorphins when you’re feeling bad, but you do it in case you do. I see friends at the pool, but I prefer to swim alone. I don’t think I’d get the same effect if I kept stopping for a chat. I swim in the pool all winter, but do more open-water swimming in the summer, which I also find helpful mentally. Connecting to the outdoors, getting fresh air and being surrounded by green spaces, is really beneficial. Swimming is a very important part of my toolkit and it has made life a lot more tolerable. It’s important to have a range of techniques. For me, that includes antidepressants, help from the medical profession, my husband who goes over and above, my friends, and having a job that is flexible and where they’re nice to me. It’s all those things added together. I’m not planning another big swim at the moment, but I have a few ideas such as swimming the lengths of Ullswater, Windermere and Coniston Water one after the other. The sense of achievement can be a real bright spot on the horizon

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