Swim­ming away from anx­i­ety

Stud­ies sug­gest that reg­u­lar ex­er­cise can work as well as med­i­ca­tion for some peo­ple in re­duc­ing the symp­toms of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health | Swimming - Patrick Kelle­her

Frances Quinn devel­oped se­vere is­sues with anx­i­ety in 2015 af­ter see­ing her fa­ther ex­pe­ri­ence a seizure. While she had al­ways had some is­sues with anx­i­ety, this event set off a chain re­ac­tion, and soon it be­came all con­sum­ing.

It wasn’t un­til Quinn’s coun­sel­lor sug­gested that she start ex­er­cis­ing again that she de­cided it was time to get back into swim­ming to help deal with her anx­i­ety.

“The pool is my safe place,” says Quinn. “The breath­ing calms the puls­ing feel of anx­i­ety in my chest, the con­stant rhythm and the fo­cus I have to give to my breath­ing means my mind calms from the worst dis­jointed thoughts.

“When I’m anx­ious, my body feels too small, like my skin is too tight, and my thoughts too fast and too big. The com­bi­na­tion cre­ates what I de­scribe as an elec­tri­cal cur­rent surg­ing back and forth in my chest. Swim­ming gives me a very im­me­di­ate fo­cus. It also puts me back in con­trol be­cause I can feel my body get­ting stronger, and it burns away some of the rest­less en­ergy that fires through me when I’m hav­ing an anx­i­ety at­tack.”

Quinn is not alone in find­ing that swim­ming helps al­le­vi­ate her anx­i­ety. Peo­ple across the world have em­braced swim­ming as a way of calm­ing them­selves down from the puls­ing and crush­ing feel­ings as­so­ci­ated with the con­di­tion. While it might not get rid of it com­pletely, swim­ming can al­le­vi­ate symp­toms for suf­fer­ers.

Dr Cíara Losty, lec­turer in ap­plied sport and ex­er­cise psy­chol­ogy at Water­ford In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, ex­plains that every­one has some level of anx­i­ety, but it can be­come a prob­lem for some peo­ple when trig­gered for no ap­par­ent rea­son.

“Many of the symp­toms of anx­i­ety are sim­i­lar to those of ex­cite­ment – thump­ing heart, feel­ing breathless or trem­bling,” says Dr Losty. “That’s partly be­cause sim­i­lar hor­mones – chem­i­cal mes­sen­gers pro­duced by your body, travel into the blood­stream.

“One of these is adren­a­line, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ hor­mone. This raises your heart rate, di­verts blood to your mus­cles and stim­u­lates you to breathe faster – very use­ful in evolution when our an­ces­tors needed to run away from preda­tors. This is known as state anx­i­ety, where be­ing in a par­tic­u­lar en­vi­ron­ment or sit­u­a­tion we feel ex­treme stress and worry.”

Dr Losty says that some stud­ies sug­gest that reg­u­lar ex­er­cise can work as well as med­i­ca­tion in re­duc­ing the symp­toms of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

“Like all forms of ther­apy, the ef­fect can vary. Some peo­ple may re­spond pos­i­tively, oth­ers may find it doesn’t im­prove their mood much, and some may ex­pe­ri­ence only a mod­est short-term ben­e­fit. Nonethe­less, re­searchers say that the ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects of ex­er­cise on phys­i­cal health are not in dis­pute, and peo­ple should be en­cour­aged to stay phys­i­cally ac­tive for their men­tal health.

Anx­i­ety man­age­ment “The pri­mary rea­son that ex­er­cise works as an ef­fec­tive anx­i­ety man­age­ment so­lu­tion is be­cause ex­er­cise ac­tu­ally has some of the same ef­fects as some anx­i­ety med­i­ca­tions,” she con­tin­ues.

“Ex­er­cise re­leases en­dor­phins in your brain, which are your body’s nat­u­ral painkillers. They’re tech­ni­cally re­leased to pre­vent ex­er­cise from caus­ing pain, but they also play a role in reg­u­lat­ing mood and re­lax­ing the mind.

Dr Losty says that most peo­ple liv­ing with anx­i­ety dis­or­ders more than likely have ex­cess cor­ti­sol in their bod­ies as a re­sult of the stress that anx­i­ety places on them.

“Ex­er­cise de­pletes that cor­ti­sol, pre­vent­ing many of the symp­toms that lead to fur­ther anx­i­ety, such as con­cen­tra­tion prob­lems and fa­tigue.”

She says that only peo­ple who are com­fort­able in wa­ter should ac­tu­ally at­tempt to use swim­ming as a means of deal­ing with anx­i­ety, and points out that those who are not con­fi­dent swim­mers may ac­tu­ally find that be­ing in the wa­ter in­duces anx­i­ety. How­ever, for those who are com­fort­able swim­ming, she calls it “an ex­cel­lent form of ex­er­cise to help man­age anx­i­ety”.

“Swim­ming, be­cause of its repet­i­tive na­ture, is in­cred­i­bly med­i­ta­tive . . . It’s ad­vis­able not to use swim­ming or ex­er­cise as a way to work through any is­sues or prob­lems but con­cen­trate on dif­fer­ent as­pects of body move­ments and stroke me­chan­ics, from hip ro­ta­tion and kick pat­terns, to stream­lin­ing and pulls. Reg­u­lar swim­mers prac­tise this in­tu­itively. These are all sim­ple ways to keep the swim­mer in the here and now.”

Joni Harding, ed­u­ca­tion busi­ness man­ager at Swim Ire­land, says that swim­ming can be an op­por­tu­nity for es­capism for peo­ple who suf­fer from anx­i­ety.

“You can de­tach your­self com­pletely from the norm when swim­ming,” says Harding. “The great thing about be­ing in the wa­ter is that it’s very per­sonal, and for peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness, some­times tak­ing part in an ac­tiv­ity that al­lows you to be at one with your­self is im­por­tant. Swim­ming can be ei­ther so­cial or it can be done in­de­pen­dently, and de­pend­ing on what that men­tal ill­ness is, swim­ming can al­le­vi­ate some of those neg­a­tive feel­ings.”

Harding says she would ab­so­lutely rec­om­mend swim­ming as an ex­er­cise for peo­ple who suf­fer from anx­i­ety.

Forget your prob­lems

“When I get into the pool, I can forget my prob­lems for the time that I’m in there, and fo­cus on the rhythm of swim­ming. It gives me the chance to re­ally think about the things that are hap­pen­ing in my life and make some sense of them with­out the in­ter­rup­tion of the rest of the world.”

An­gela Ami­rault, a psy­chother­a­pist with My­Mind, the Cen­tre for Men­tal Well­be­ing, says that there is some­thing “in­nately sooth­ing about float­ing in wa­ter”, which may help al­le­vi­ate anx­i­ety for some suf­fer­ers.

“It was the first sen­sa­tion we ever ex­pe­ri­enced, and maybe on a deeper level we can con­nect to those feel­ings of warmth and safety we had in the womb,” she says.

“I would rec­om­mend swim­ming if it’s what some­one is com­fort­able with. The anx­i­ety re­lief method shouldn’t come with added stress. If some­one doesn’t feel safe in the wa­ter, do­ing laps might not be their thing. But any ex­er­cise can be hugely ben­e­fi­cial.

“Do­ing things that con­nect us to our body can some­times give us a break from a busy mind. Walk­ing, gar­den­ing and cy­cling can be low im­pact ex­er­cises that al­low you some space from your wor­ries.

Ami­rault points out that be­ing in fight or flight mode most of the time can wear you down, both men­tally and phys­i­cally.

“Give your­self a break, whether that is ex­er­cise or chat­ting with a friend or a ther­a­pist,” she says. “Find­ing an out­let for your stress can make you feel much hap­pier in your­self and your life.”

This is part of se­ries on the sub­ject of burnout, which con­tin­ues this week in The Ir­ish Times and on irish­times.com

Many of the symp­toms of anx­i­ety are sim­i­lar to those of ex­cite­ment – thump­ing heart, feel­ing breathless or trem­bling. That’s partly be­cause sim­i­lar hor­mones travel into the blood­stream

“You can de­tach your­self com­pletely from the norm when swim­ming,” says Joni Harding, ed­u­ca­tion busi­ness man­ager at Swim Ire­land

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