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
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