This year, we are asking people to #DoOneThing for their mental health on World Mental Health Day. Here, Mind Cymru’s Head of Policy, Simon, blogs about how swimming has improved his mental health.
Just keep swimming…
I’ve mentally rehearsed this blog during many lengths of the pool, but I’ve always felt a bit awkward actually writing about how swimming has helped me manage my mental health. Ask me about it and I’m able to talk about the benefits, but putting it in words seems somehow more permanent. So that’s the caveat if some of what I’ve written is a little clumsy or lacking in narrative flow!
I remember the first time I decided that rather than mentally hit the wall I was going to pull the handbrake and stop just short. I’d experienced poor mental health before and tried to work through it. Spoiler, it didn’t work! I am someone who takes pride in their work and feels both the highs and the lows very acutely. It was during a particularly stressful time in a previous job that I decided rather than sitting with my low mood I’d try and do something positive for me. I’d always found that swimming had helped to just settle my mind a little, particularly if I had an issue that needed working through.
So, on a sunny May morning when all I wanted to do was to pull the duvet over my head, I emotionally dragged myself to my local pool. To be honest it took a huge amount of energy to even find a towel and swimming shorts, let alone to walk for twenty minutes to the nearest pool. However, I have never regretted drawing on those energy reserves. During those first few lengths I genuinely felt the weight begin to lift. Even now, a number of years on, I struggle to articulate the change I felt when I got out of the pool. I know it wasn’t a huge thunderbolt type realisation, more a feeling of satisfaction about doing something to help myself and not giving in to the negative feelings that willed me to not bother. I vowed to try and make it a routine. So I started blocking out time first thing in my work diary as ‘Swim’, giving me both permission and motivation to make the walk to the leisure centre.
I didn’t manage it every week. Sometimes I managed it a couple of times a week. For me it was never about fitness, trying to increase the number of lengths I swam or becoming quicker. That would have been counterproductive, a path to just beating myself up more.
It needed to be something I did for myself without expectations.
Something that enabled me to think or not think at all. Something that made me feel better about myself. On the weeks I didn’t manage it, I tried not to feel guilty but recognise that sometimes life gets in the way. It’s been important for me to focus on when I have been able to fit in a swim, rather than the weeks I have not.
During the last six months there have been so many times when I know being able to swim would have helped with the stresses and intensity of pandemic life. For a time I had to replace my walk to the pool and swim with a walk around the block or in the park, which didn’t quite have the same restorative impact. Being able to return to the pool in the last month or so has been great, providing that space to reflect and drift.
To be honest despite swimming I still experience poor mental health at times. However, on days that I do manage to get to the pool I feel a little bit better about myself and a little more able to cope with the stresses and strains of life.
I fully realise that swimming might not be for everyone and I’m grateful that I have the time to be active.
What I’ve learnt is the importance of finding the thing that allows me to drift, leave the worries of life behind and do something for myself.
In my case it’s a trip to the pool. If it can help me feel more positive about myself then I guess I need to just keep swimming…
Simon is Head of Policy at Mind Cymru and lives in Cardiff with his wife and three children. He can be found watching rugby or swimming very slow laps of his local pool!
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Blogs and stories can show that people with mental health problems are cared about, understood and listened to. We can use it to challenge the status quo and change attitudes.