Swimming and mental health

Outdoor swimming has huge benefits for your mental health. But how can you make the most of those benefits?

Last week was Mental Health Awareness week. For me, it culminated in leading a group as part of the Feelgood Festival, an event organised by the wonderful We're Aware. The swim was a small part of the festival, and an even smaller part of the festival's remit. And walking past suicide prevention banners as gazebos were being erected and stalls set up made me realise how far we've come in getting the issue of mental health into the mainstream.


We're all in it together

In my life, I have dealt with chronic stress, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder and postnatal depression. And that's just me. In my extended family, we have coped with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, alcoholism and bipolar disorder. In fact, seven years ago, alcoholism claimed the life of one of my dearest and most beloved relatives, and that's still a very painful thing to cope with.


I don't think that my family is all that unusual. We all, every one of us, deal with some degree of mental health issue ourselves or within our close circle of friends and family. Life is difficult and complicated, as are human brains. We may or may not have had trauma or something chronic to deal with, but no matter how severe our issues, they are still significant for us. In other words, we all have to learn how to deal with our struggles.


In doing so, I'd say that most adults are looking for ways to make life better and more enjoyable. And this search is bringing more and more people to outdoor swimming.


Wash your troubles away

Outdoor swimming has huge benefits for your mental health and wellbeing. I have written before, and you can read this article in Outdoor Swimmer, about what happens physiologically and socially that makes swimming in cold water so beneficial.


But, read this and other articles, and you'll hear miraculous stories about people who have come off their meds, kicked addiction and found a 'cure'. While these stories are inspiring, it's worth remembering that outdoor swimming is a coping mechanism not a cure. It may help your mental health to a lesser or greater extent and you may eventually be able to reduce or stop other treatments, but that may be gradual or temporary. It's something to try in alignment with other treatments like medication and therapy, and never in haste or without guidance.


It's also worth bearing in mind that taking up outdoor swimming puts the onus on you. A one-off or occasional dip is unlikely to make a lasting impact, whereas a regular swim will be more beneficial. Equally, the swim in itself may not be enough. The social aspect of outdoor swimming is not to be underestimated!


Make outdoor swimming work for you

One of those ironies is that conditions like depression can make you hide from the world rather than jump in feet first. So getting the most from outdoor swimming is about recognising your barriers and overcoming them.


A regular swim helps lower your stress levels. As you get used to the cold water, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in taking over from the sympathetic nervous system. In plain English, that's your 'rest and digest' system that regulates sleep and appetite and conserves energy winning over your fight or flight system. Add in fresh air, being a bit childish and playing, exercise and good company and you'll find that swimming is winning, so long as you make it a regular habit.


So, how can you make it work for you?

  • Schedule a regular swim time: mark out two sessions a week in your diary that you'll devote to swimming outdoors. Alternatively, join a group. Just make sure that you set aside time dedicated to swimming.

  • Plan ahead: pack your kit, plan your route and plan where you're going to park. Make sure you've planned against anything that might stress you out or stop you going at all.

  • Overcome barriers: preempt that little voice of doubt and have your answers ready. Remember that feeling nervous is normal and one of the post-swimming highs is having done something brave.

  • Swim with friends: take a friend to swim with you or hold your towel. It's harder to pull out if you've got someone else involved.

  • Don't put yourself under pressure: five minutes or five kilometres, a swim is a swim. Thinking that you have to swim for ages is one way that people put themselves off - a five minute dip can do wonders.

  • Be wild and free: jump waves, swim on your back, jump in. Behaving like a big child is very therapeutic!


Give yourself a break

Your mental wellbeing is paramount. You should never feel guilty or think that you're skiving or slacking by going for a swim. It's not indulgent, it's necessary. There's an old adage that says 'without your health you're nothing', and that's true of mental health just as much as physical. I think we're very bad at giving ourselves time, especially when life is busy.


One of the most wonderful things about outdoor swimming is that it feels timeless. In the water you are in the moment, and whether you swim for five minutes or half an hour makes no difference. It's not about how you swim, either. You can swim front crawl, you can swim breaststroke or you can paddle around with your head out of the water. Try floating on your back: it's marvellous.


Join a group

This isn't shameless self-promotion, but the reason I set up my groups is to help people have a regular swim habit and be a part of a social group. Working for Water Babies, I learned that new mums with postnatal depression found being part of a paid group got them to leave the house and gave them a weekly focus. They also found joining a group of like-minded, non-judgemental people very supportive. That's the kind of atmosphere that I wanted to create.


Now, social prescribing is an actual thing. Working for the NHS, social prescribers find groups for people in all kinds of situations because they recognise that groups and activities not only help promote better mental health, they also help prevent mental health issues caused by feelings of loneliness or isolation.


So, whether you are stressed out, feeling edgy or you have a serious condition, take yourself for a swim. Eliminate the barriers where you can, and if you're struggling, ask for help. Ultimately, remember this: we're in this together. Whether they speak about it or not, many, even most, of the people at your outdoor swimmer venue will have some experience of mental health issues. Maybe it's why they're there too.