I wanna see the sunshine after the rain

I’m not quite sure what to write, I’m winging it a bit. Right now I’m on my jollies, sunning it up in Devon and it really has been sunny. Okay, there’s always rain, it is Britain, but on the whole it’s been more sunshine than rain and that is a bit like my mental health.

I thought I’d been doing so well, i’d started to get a bit complacent and think it was no longer just a case of putting a sticking plaster over the wound, it was all healed up and sealed, no more bad stuff could happen.

My brain however had other ideas…

Friday was a pretty good day, amazing views, awesome company and a feeling that all is right with the world. You know, when you think you can climb mountains and you’re untouchable. Showing off to all your friends and family congratulating yourself on demonstrating you’ve overcome depression and you’re ‘fixed’. Friday was one of those days.

In the past, depression has come at me like an octopus with tentacles creeping malignantly up my spine and lodging in my brain. An insidious creeping that you know is happening (even if you’re powerless to stop it). On Friday, I went from 100% fine to extreme crippling anxiety in 0 – 60mph. One minute I felt okay and the next I was violently projectile vomiting. Now this could have been something I’d eaten or a bug, I have no idea, but my brain clearly sensed a perceived threat and my fight or flight response went into caveman mode. I spent the rest of Friday night and much of Saturday morning sweating, shivering, retching and experiencing feelings of such extreme terror I couldn’t lay still. At one point I felt so scared and weak I lay sweating on the bathroom floor unable to move, retching and crying.

By 6am I was in such a state I felt the only hope was extra medication. I took 4mg of diazepam and waited to see if it could take the edge off. After about 20 minutes it did, I managed to listen to a Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) track and started to feel in less of a heightened state of anxiety arousal. Nevertheless, I still felt intense anxiety, brain fog, extreme fatigue and stomach churning nausea. I was distraught. How could this have happened. I had finished Psychology, done all my ‘talking therapies’, continued to take all my medications and practiced gently moving forward in life. How the hell had this happened. Was this it… a nosedive in my mental health and a readmission to hospital. A whole year free of crippling anxiety or the black depths of depression. I’d clearly failed. I must have done something wrong.

Perhaps I hadn’t.

I decided to practice what my psychologist had taught me. Don’t avoid, get out and despite the nausea take small steps. Tip toe if needed.

I saw my amazing friend.

I stopped blaming myself.

Recovery is not linear, I am not to blame for a blip.

The sea continues to be my refuge. I splashed my toes in the surf, I walked in the sand. I went surfing πŸ„β€β™€οΈ I was crap, but my god it felt good to be out battling the crippling anxiety in a positive way. Clinically diagnosed anxiety is not just about ‘getting on with it’ it’s so much more than that and can dominate a life to the point where you feel it’s not worth being ‘here’ anymore.

I realised that maybe, just maybe, I will continue to have ‘blips’ or even worse, but I have help. I have support and that’s key. You can’t always have sunshine, you have to have a touch of rain too in order to gain the rainbow 🌈 I’m holding on to that analogy for now. I want to see the sunshine after the rain.

Depression Recovery: One year on

It’s been one year since my hospital admission.

August 17th 2018.

On that day I seriously thought my life was over. I didn’t want to exist as I was. It is incredibly hard to articulate exactly how I felt. I didn’t want to be alive anymore, but I was terrified of the finality of death. It was a ridiculous Catch 22.

There seemed no way out of the crippling depression and extreme anxiety. For almost a month I had been surviving each day on a cocktail of diazepam and sleeping tablets. I couldn’t eat without vomiting or diarrhoea. My body was in an almost constant state of fight or flight. The acute tiredness was all consuming, yet despite the tiredness, the sweating, shaking and palpitations meant there was no rest. I could not see a way out or an end to the daily torture.

Finally I laid on the GP’s couch sobbing, I was in such a state I couldn’t even sit up. I’d never felt so physically and mentally unwell in my life. I was desperate for it all to stop. At this point I didn’t care how.

With depression it’s like there’s a solid lump of grief in your chest. A button has turned off all the ‘good’ emotions and all you experience is bleak despair. No way forward. Feelings entirely shut off. Total and utter numbness. You’re terrified of one minute feeling ‘too much’ and then the next you feel nothing. A state of constant extreme fear and terror. Every moment seems to last forever and is agony.

I have conquered so much in the last year. Admission to hospital was the scariest thing that had happened to me, locked doors and all potential ligatures removed. I couldn’t leave the ward for 72 hours and that felt like an eternity. In the end I was actually an inpatient for 14 days and it was in essence the best thing that could have happened. My GP made the right decision to send me for admission and I am so grateful to her. I received help and support when I needed it and I am still supported now, one year on.

Over winter, cold water swimming was my therapy and I’ve continued my swims into summer. Be it in my cossie or a wetsuit I don’t really mind. I’ve swam in my local docks, I’ve swam in the sea and even in the Humber. I just love to be in water.

Last year I planned to join my fellow Water Rats on a swim across the Humber… unfortunately I missed it due to hospital admission so this year I was determined to conquer my anxiety and take part. It was a truly wonderful experience and one I never thought I would make it to, but I did. I bloody loved it and it’s given me the bug (hopefully not dysentery) for more swim events and experiences.

Posing under the Humber Bridge
Humber Rescue taking us out to the start of the swim
Mid swim with my fellow Water Rats πŸ€
Pirates Ahoy (hope they have Rum onboard)

Happy to have made it across in one piece
Shots take by East Yorkshire TV/Digital Creations

I have seen so much more, experienced so much more because of my hospital admission and the key things that I’ve learnt are this:

Don’t overstress the small things

Small Betty ❀️

Eat the damn cake

It’s okay to weigh a stone more than you did last year – it helps you stay warmer in the open water

Embrace your friends and family, even if they sometimes piss you off

I have no idea what he said to upset me πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚

Find something to care about and enjoy

Cleethorpes Tri Club – Swim Bike Run Fun πŸ™‚

Get outside

Most importantly – Ask for help

Always look on the bright side of life

Swimming for my sanity is pretty apt currently.

I’m struggling with knee pain and as such running is off the menu and cycling is limited.

So I’ve done what I’ve always struggled to do in the past; look for the positive. I may not be able to get a runners high or climb a big hill on my bike… but, I can do my physio rehab and I can swim! Thankfully swimming front crawl doesn’t have much impact on the dodgy old knee.

Before I would have bemoaned the unfairness of life and what an absolute fuckwit my knee is and why me! Why always me! Well, why not me. It is what it is and I cannot change the genetics of my body, but I can change how I react to those things outside of my control.

Not having control is a major trigger and panic enducer for me. Fear of the unknown and living with uncertainty does not sit well with me. Routine however, does work extremely well for me I have to say. As a consequence I’m practicing being more flexible in my approach to personally created ‘rules to living’ but it is hard indeed. It’s even more funny when considering that my body is so ridiculously flexible yet my mind is not.

Swimming has become my current mainstay for exercise. I was starting to find myself feeling a bit ‘flat’ with swimming, missing the buzz of extreme cold water immersion. How to get the mojo back? Well, it was surprising simple and again something new to my impatient nature… I made myself go swimming regularly, even if I didn’t really want to. Thanks to a wonderful swim buddy I was able to organise 3 swims a week of at least 2km each time. Once committed to someone else (at our club you cannot swim solo) I made the effort to go and each time I found my love for swimming returning. I’ve always loved being in the water, but I’d lost my way with my actual swimming. Several decent swims later and a good few breakfasts out as way of reward for early Saturday morning swims I felt the bug again (thankfully not typhoid or dysentery). Not every swim was technically awesome, but each swim ensured I felt like I was doing something positive to look after my physical and mental wellbeing (plus I love a post swim fry up).

Concentration on what I can control meant that I settled into a regular physiotherapy schedule and I’ve committed to trying out some supplements that are recommended to support joints.

I also chose to mix up my swims with other open water locations than just Grimsby Docks, as delicious as the water is in there πŸ€’πŸ˜‚

Activities Away (North Kesteven) is a glorious swim location and the cake there is just phenomenal. I clocked up my furthest swim so far this year and it was such a delight I could have kept on swimming, but I stuck to my plan of 4km and enjoyed well deserved coffee and cake with awesome inspiring company. One of the guys I swam with is truly inspirational in overcoming physical adversity to run marathons in spite of it seeming an impossibility in his youth and is even going on to do an Ironman, stark screaming madly bonkers if you ask me. But it’s interaction with those who inspire me that help me to see that here and now is all we have and we have to adapt to the situations we find ourselves in instead of bemoaning what it’s not.

Another opportunity to be in water without swimming arose at an extremely fun standup paddle boarding session.

I spent more time in the water than on my board but I have not laughed so much is such a long time. Making the most of water whenever and wherever I can. So here I am, looking on the bright side of life (as much as I can I’m only human) and trying to be more in the here and now. My new motto is stolen from Dort ‘Just keep swimming’.

When rain stops play

Sometimes it feels like life is just being plain shitty!

There, I’ve said it.

My blog is aiming to highlight the positive impact exercise and most importantly, cold water swimming has on wellbeing.

So aside from a selection of dodgy joints meaning running is off the menu and cycling is limited due to flooded local roads, I now have an ear infection. Is it from swimming in open water I hear you cry!!! Actually, most likely. As a rule I always swim with ear plugs to prevent the curse of swimmers ear. However, last Wednesday I got into the water and forgot my plugs… noooooooo! While swimming I really felt the cold water in my ear while bilateral breathing (breathing on each side in front crawl). Needless to say two days later cue sharp stabbing pains to right ear and ooziness (damn and blast it). A visit to the doctors saw a veto on swimming and getting my ear wet in general.

What to do when the main things you know make you feel better are off the cards.

First things first I went to take part in a local beach clean initiative. If I couldn’t swim in the sea, I could try and make sure that less plastic and general detritus found it’s way into my pool.

As I couldn’t swim Sunday at my usual Water Rats club swim I decided to join my lovely friend and her kids beach cleaning. We supported Orsted https://orsted.com/en a green energy company and also Ebb & Flo https://www.ebbandfloliving.co.uk helping to ensure we keep our blue flag beach status and also to help protect the environment. I always remember my mum warning me not to be a litterbug as a child so why stop now… I love to swim in the sea so I have to take responsibility for ‘my pool’. I wouldn’t throw rubbish in an indoor swimming pool so why the sea? Nevertheless, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the beach clean and being part of something ‘bigger’ than myself. Finding meaning and purpose in life is often discussed in psychology. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to uncover the meaning of life, but finding a goal, a passion or an interest can give us a purpose, a purpose to go on even if life throws you a curve ball.

To me, finding purpose and fulfilment in life is more about giving, be that to family, friends or to the community… even the local environment or the WORLD 🌍

By giving we can often find a purpose which can in turn lead to fulfilment and satisfaction.

I really enjoy volunteering, this is something I’ve been doing for a while now and I find it so satisfying. While helping others I’m also gaining confidence, skills and enjoying mixing with an awesome group of people. I cannot recommend volunteering enough if you experience depression or anxiety. If anyone is interested check out https://do-it.org/

I currently volunteer with NAViGO who have given me so much support and I’m so grateful to them that I want to give something back. Mental health support services are amazing and I hope one day to work in this area https://www.navigocare.co.uk

Recently I was lucky enough to attend their volunteer awards evening and even managed to bag myself an award and a free meal… winning at life!

I’m also looking to help sort out the historical archives of my Open Water Swimming Club which I’m really excited about as I’m a major history geek, hence the PhD in the History of Nursing. If I can’t physically get in the water at least I can read about it!!!

Open Water Swim Championships 1989

What does mental illness look like….

I’m not even sure who reads this blog…

I don’t look at the views or visitors…

I write really for me, as a way to put my thoughts in order and record my experiences of recovery. It’s part of my way to learn more about mental illness and also to raise my own mental health awareness, which may in turn help others.

Recently it was Mental Health Awareness week (13th – 19th May) and as such there were a number of TV programmes exploring different aspects of Mental Health.

The first I watched was ‘Nadiya: Anxiety and Me’

Nadiya: Anxiety and Me: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00053fy via @bbciplayer

David Harewood: Psychosis and Me: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00052mn via @bbciplayer

Alastair Campbell: Depression and Me: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0005btv via @bbciplayer

Nadiya who won The Great British Bake Off explored her life with anxiety and PTSD. She underwent a course of cognitive behavioural therapy to try and find ways to better understand the causes of her anxiety and ways to proactively challenge anxiety in her day to day life.

Actor David Harewood investigated the potential causes of his psychosis as a young man in the 1980s and his time being sectioned in a mental health unit. I won’t go in to great detail here as I don’t believe I could do this programme justice, but I highly recommend it.

The third programme in the series of Mental Health Awareness documentaries was by Alastair Campbell. Campbell is a journalist, political aide and author, acting in the 1990s as Tony Blair’s spokesman and campaign director. Aside from his political career he has published fifteen books and is chief interviewer for GQ magazine. Yet all of this has not stopped him from suffering with crippling depression for over thirty years.

I think what I felt in common with Alastair Campbell is that depression is as varied as the people who have it. You can have a high flying career and a loving family and that still does not make you immune. I’m no slouch… I have a PhD and have published my work in magazines and also in academic texts. I have travelled abroad to present at International conferences, taught undergraduate students and been presented with an award by the Royal College of Nurses for my research.

In my fancy pants University of Manchester Doctoral Robes
Official Doctor of Philosophy
First academic publication

Second academic publication

In the past I have described depression and panic disorder as akin to an octopus or a creeping monster and though I use a number of strategies to combat this, I also use medication.

Alastair Campbell takes Sertraline which in medical terms is an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor). Though antidepressants cannot ‘cure’ depression, they aim to help control some of the symptoms depression manifests and can help people to feel ‘well’ enough to access other aspects of recovery such as therapy and exercise.

Antidepressants are drugs that aim to relieve the symptoms of depression rather than cure. Developed in the 1950s they have since been used alongside a range of other treatment methods. Today there are up to 30 different types of antidepressants available and the main types are:

MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors)

SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors)

SNRIs (Serotonin and Noradrenalive Reuptake Inhibitors

Tricyclics

Antidepressants are thought to work by increasing the activity of certain chemicals in our brains called neurotransmitters which pass signals from one brain cell to another. The main chemicals involved in depression are believed to be Serotonin and Noradrenalin.

Neurotransmitters

In his documentary, Campbell explored a variety of treatments, but felt he was more confident staying on his antidepressants and attendance of regular therapy sessions. He also advocated exercise as key to maintaining balance in his life.

I take a variety of medication. Last year I was prescribed three new medications (new to me) during my hospital admission.

Currently I take a medication combination of an SSRI, an anti-anxiety tablet and an anti-psychotic.

People tend to look awry if you say you take anti-psychotic medication… I think they expect I’ll suddenly start talking to imaginary people or run around the room screaming about seeing little goblins and their tiny feet (click the link for the Blackadder clip)

Many medications can be used for more than one specific illness or symptom. Anti-psychotics can also be used for severe anxiety or depression, not just for those experiencing psychotic episodes.

For me, I utilise a combination of medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help me understand and accept depression. Not run from it. This has happened and it is time to move on.

Like Campbell, exercise is key for me. Alongside a dodgy brain I have dodgy joints. I am hyper mobile so my joints take a battering on a daily basis, but I can gross people out with my clicky joints and double jointed thumbs so that’s always fun. Hyper mobility means that I can move some or all of my joints more than most people. With the hyper mobility I sometimes struggle with some symptoms of joint hyper mobility syndrome.

https://www.arthritisresearchuk.org/~/media/Files/Arthritis-information/Conditions/2019%20Joint%20Hypermobility%2015-1.ashx

Hence why swimming is so good for my sanity. Swimming ensures that no extra pressure is placed on my joints as it is a non weight bearing sport. As the temperature starts to pick up the buzz I get from cold water swimming is not as prominent so sometimes, if I want a slightly longer swim, I will wear a wetsuit. It is about the mental health benefit, whether that is a lovely cool dip during a sunny day or bashing out a couple of kilometres in a wetsuit, it really doesn’t matter. Open Water swimming is one of my main happy places. This is true for many people and I’d also recommend watching a fabulous documentary on swimmers at Hampstead Heath who swim throughout all the seasons. The main theme to me was the exploration of how open water swimming positively impacts on physical and mental wellbeing.

Swimming through the Seasons: The Hampstead Ponds: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000599z via @bbciplayer

So what does mental illness look like… Does it look like me?

Does it look like you? Does it look like the person stood next to you at the checkout? The professor of mathematics, the political aide? What is the ‘face’ of depression?

Most importantly, does it matter what it looks like at all? Mental illness is as prevalent as physical illness and can be caused by genetic predisposition, environmental factors, life trauma and many more. Whatever mental illness looks like, we are all learning to be more aware of our mental health and that can only be a good thing.

Help! I need somebody, help it could be anybody…

The last couple of weeks I found myself wracking my brain for something to write about as I’d decided there was only so much people could hack of me advocating the wonders of cold water therapy and open water swimming (though I really do advocate it πŸ˜‚). I told a very wonderful friend that I was struggling for something to pontificate on and she gave me the excellent advice of writing about when my mojo is crap and what drives me to eventually get out there.

This turned out to be a bit of a doozy for me because in reality, depression is really not as simple as that. I read once about how when Winston Churchill was consumed with depression he could be so paralysed by it that he lost all interests, his appetite; he struggled to get out of bed, had no energy and couldn’t concentrate on anything. These acute episodes happened a number of times during his lifetime and he termed depression as his ‘black dog’.

When your ‘mojo’ is flat and as limpid as a pancake then are are two possibilities… you are going to slip into the extreme episodes of depression as suffered by Churchill, an episode which I know far too well, or you are in a position to utilise strategies to elevate your mood. To continue to crawl to the surface and find a way out of the abyss. All, I have to say, is easier said than done. Mind over matter and all that jazz.

In the past I bought numerous self help books which in essence often said very similar things in subtly different ways. But when you’re feeling really really low, someone suggesting you pick up a 600 page manual on ‘Managing Depression’ usually results with the words ‘Fuck’ and ‘Off’. At these times everything can seem too big, too much, too hard, too pointless, just too tough and when things are too tough it’s finding the most easily accessible strategy to start that climb back from the edge of the abyss. Part of the game is about learning to deal with distress.

So, if I’m not ‘well’ enough to dive in a body of cold water to make me feel better then I have to find alternative ways.

The key thing I’ve learnt is to take it one ‘thing’ at a time. That’s the same as one step at a time, one second, minute or hour at a time. Don’t think in days, weeks and months; just sit in the moment and only concentrate on the here and now. Making life too ‘big’ will inevitably make you feel even more overwhelmed.

A healthy life is about balance. To me, relaxation has always had to be ‘earn’t’ or ‘deserved’. Now I’ll admit, I’m aware this isn’t a healthy way to view relaxation, but it is how my brain is programmed and something I am working on. Relaxation is key to wellbeing, it is as essential as oxygen. I’m not saying you have to sit cross legged, light incense and chant, but I believe it’s about finding what it is that helps you relax.

When we feel anxious or stressed our breathing rate increases, as does our blood pressure and heart rate, our muscles tense up, we start to sweat, become alert to danger and adrenaline begins to course through our bodies. Relaxations helps to decrease these sensations and bodily actions. Progressive muscle relaxation is awesome and I’ve used this method in the cold water when I’ve felt a bit panicked and overwhelmed, relaxing the muscles and slowing down the breath is a really effective skill in cold water swimming.

For me, getting outside is a huge help. If I’m alone walking then I’ll look at the houses or buildings around me, listen to the birds or count how many dogs I’ve seen, anything to distract from the negative thoughts swirling round in my head. Even better is if I can walk with a friend and talk about good times, or all the stupid things I’ve done (there are a lot, I mean I regularly swim in Grimsby Docks…).

Grimsby Water Rats

Sunday morning splash with Grimsby Water Rats

So how can we address our emotions?

In my case I recognise certain behaviour patterns. If I’m feeling low then I tend to experience the urge to withdraw, to hide and avoid life. Yet in reality what I should be doing is the opposite action, to be around others and to increase activity. If this isn’t possible then an opposite action could be to watch a funny film. To try and see things from a new angle. Instead of concentrating the old brain on all that has gone wrong and how utterly poo you feel, try and move the mind to something else. Perhaps make a list of all the positive stuff in your life, not just now, but in the past and maybe in the future. Writing down things you’re grateful for is a cracking task – you’ve had croissants for breakfast, the cherry blossom looks epic in spring, the sea is awesome to swim in…

It’s getting up, it’s doing something, anything, when you really just want to crawl into a hole and scream and scream and scream. Doing something, anything when you feel awful is key, it fills time and aids the creation of good feelings. Exercise is also really helpful when you’re feeling low – walking the dog, swimming, table tennis, it doesn’t really matter as long as you get a bit out of breath and use up some of the adrenaline that is surging around your body.

At really bad times that’s just not possible and it’s when I use an emergency box. This includes a special cosy blanket to snuggle under, Vanilla Sugar Donut hand cream (I kid you not it truly exists), lavender oil, distracting puzzle books and the entire box set of Downton Abbey or Disney films (obviously it’s The Little Mermaid or Brave).

Positive self talk, now I find this incredibly cringe worthy and embarrassing. Talking positively to myself is just not in my nature and well, not very British. Nevertheless it does help and there are loads of books and mobile phone apps that you can use out and about without anyone having a clue.

I like to follow positive Instagram accounts, border terrier dogs, wild swimming photos, epic scenery.

Betty the Border Terrier
Cuddling Maisie the Maltichon πŸ’œ
Lake Vyrnwy Wales 🏴󠁧󠁒󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿

Baylings Barn Cottage

Another friend recently sent me information on Surf therapy for children suffering with poor mental health. I love to hear about all the different initiatives that are progressing and thriving. These are initiatives I’d love to see happening all over the country, especially where I live. Mental health awareness is so important and needs to be addressed. Reading about these things motivate me.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-48141728/surf-therapy-for-children-in-the-uk

Accepting it is as it is and not fighting it. That is incredibly hard when panic overwhelms and you’re teetering on the abyss. I don’t know if I’ll always manage this, but the aim is to try. Right now I’m not finding it easy, but I know there is support out there. In my local area Navigo are the go to for support and guidance on mental health. They have been a lifesaver for me and I am incredibly grateful to them. But all localities have their own mental health services and it’s imperative to be brave enough to ask for help, it is out there.

If we could all have a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down then we’d all be ticketyboo. Alas Mary Poppins is not always at hand. However, there is help out there if you are willing to ask for it.

Most importantly, don’t stop talking.

Talking will get you the support you need.

Vitamin Sea Therapy

I cannot advocate the sea enough. Not only for swimming (which is absolutely lush), but for walking in the shallows, floating, paddling or just simply to listen to.

Who can resist the sound of the waves.

For me, swimming means the feeling of weightlessness and a sense of freedom. Of course, if you’re not a very confident swimmer or not actually able to swim then I suppose what I’m saying doesn’t make complete sense. An unconfident swimmer would not feel relaxed and weightless, they would most likely feel tense, anxious and probably worried about drowning.

I’ve often imagined that drowning is somewhat akin to a panic attack. Before anyone leaps down my throat, I am not actively comparing someone drowning to a panic attack. What I am comparing is the feeling of a loss of control; sinking, unable to claw back to the surface.

Panic disorder occurs when the anxiety centre in the brain (the amygdala) is switched on and then the button gets stuck. If anyone has experienced moments of sheer panic, spare a thought for those of us who have gone through periods when we are in heightened states of panic for hours, even days. Though most people experience varying levels of anxiety, panic disorder means that feelings of anxiety and panic can occur at any time and usually for no apparent reason. That in itself is terrifying. To have no ‘reason’ for the chest pain, chills, hot flushes, ringing in your ears, trembling (among many others) is a huge torment.

When I was in hospital and first told about panic disorder I felt a lot of relief, relief that I wasn’t going mad and relief that the various symptoms I was suffering with were real. Depression, anxiety and panic disorder go hand in hand, not in the nice snuggly way, but in crippling alternate bouts of clinical depression triggered by a lovely period of extreme anxiety and panic attacks. A veritable mix indeed.

There are numerous strategies to help combat this and no one single method works for all. If someone could market a cure all pill for anxiety (or depression… or both) then they’d be a very rich person and my absolute best friend. The key strategies today are psychological talking therapies and medication (see NHS website for more information, it really is fabulous and it’s not often I have cause to say the NHS is fabulous so trust me on this).

I recently chatted with someone who was worried about taking medication for depression in case people would view them as weak…

Let me tell you, I have been on a variety of medications since 14th February 2007… happy Valentine’s Day to me indeed.

This year is my 12th anniversary… does that make me weak?

Maybe…

What makes me strong is admitting that I require help.

Stolen from Matt Haig (sorry!) just too awesome. You have to read β€˜Reasons for Staying Alive’

So this brings me onto swimming. With ongoing research into the benefits of cold water dipping/immersion/swimming I find my interest growing and growing. It’s unbelievably fascinating and though it is hard to quantify, there is a growing body of supportive evidence, all you have to do is google!

One way to tackle anxiety is exposure therapy and that is based on gradual exposure to those things/places/events that provoke anxiety. Now I find cold water swimming to be not dissimilar. To assimilate to cold water you have to undergo gradual exposure. You can’t expect to just jump in and swim a mile in your cossie. As you become more comfortable with the cold you find that you go from managing 30 seconds to 2 minutes, then 5 minutes… before you know it the water seems less ‘cold’, it’s not of course, you’re just beginning to be more acclimatised.

I recently read an interesting article on the mental health benefits of wild swimming. Now I’ve always found swimming rather meditative, before I even knew what meditation was. In the dark ages, prior to the invention of GPS watches or fitness trackers you had to actually count your own laps (shock horror I know). As a very forgetful youth I had difficulty counting my lengths when training. I trained A LOT. As such I used to count the lengths aloud in my head, after each stroke I would repeat that particular lap number so ‘one, one, one, one’, turn at the wall and then ‘two, two, two’ you get the drift. It kept you very much in the here and now while feeling almost mantra like.

Another benefit is the reduction of Uric acid which can also aid tolerance of stress, plus cold water swimming helps reduce the hormone cortisol which is the hormone responsible for alerting the body to fight or flight.

When you immerse in cold water it initiates vasoconstriction (tightening), resulting in blood moving towards the core to conserve heat to vital organs. This, in essence, can bring nutrients to the organs as well as oxygen. It also boosts dopamine, the neurotransmitter (body’s chemical messenger) of pleasure, as well as serotonin. If you’ve heard of serotonin you’ll maybe know that it is the chemical linked to wellbeing and happiness, so you won’t be surprised to know that many antidepressants are SSRI’s Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. As well there are beta-endorphins, a chemical that can have a morphine like effect. It really is fascinating. Nevertheless, this is a very simplistic overview of the article, but the internet provides an array of information and articles on the benefits of cold water swimming. See https://www.wildandwell.org/the-mental-health-benefits-of-wild-swimming/ accessed on 22/04/19.

Recently I went on holiday. What is an exciting event for most, was somewhat of a challenge for me. There would be 16 adults, 1 toddler and 4 dogs and there wouldn’t be many places to hide!

I prepared (with help from my psychologist) identifying ways in which to try and manage any panic attacks/episodes should they occur. I brought with me an emergency pack including audio stories, reading books, knitting, a sudoku book… small methods of distraction should I need it. I’m also a massive advocate of progressive muscle relaxation and other relaxation techniques. Most importantly, I had a swimming costume in my pack.

Water is my refuge.

Thankfully there was a pool!!!

I ventured out to Hafren Forest to visit Blaenhafren Falls. Alas there was nowhere to fully submerge, but the sounds of the waterfalls were balm to the soul.

The boys clambering up the waterfall
The sounds of water trickling down over rocks… just heaven
Betty living her best life!

I visited Aberdovey and dabbled my toes in the sea.

I paddled through the icy streams at Lake Vyrnwy, just drooling over the Lake, desperate to dive in… however it is a no swim zone 😭

Only toes allowed 😭😭

I swam in the pool EVERY day, sometimes even twice a day.

The week was a revelation, I employed all of my strategies from psychology and used water as my refuge.

Coming home I made preparations to return to the sea. The tides were promising and around 7 metre depth. Perfect!!

Easter Sunday the plan was an 07.30 meet and dip. It was chuffing cold and the water hit my chest like a vice. I don’t mind telling you I hyperventilated.

I slowed down my breathing and worked on remaining relaxed in the body as I knew if I tensed I’d begin to panic. Slowly but surely my breathing steadied and I fully submerged my head breathing out slowly through my nose. Gently acclimatising.

It was glorious. I restrained myself to 13 minutes and got out and went for a jog on the beach (I really am mentally ill πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚). I felt a warm glow and on a high for the rest of the day.

Easter Monday was an 08.00 meet and the water was busy with fishermen, paddle boarders, jet ski thingymajigs and a lot of intrepid swimmers from a local triathlon club. I was prepared and ready to feel the cold. But that extreme cold hit never came. The water was no different in temperature, but I was different, I was prepared. I felt strong and confident.

I kicked off in frontcrawl and just swam. My brain switched into the moment, all I could think about was breathing, my arms rotating and the view to my left of the sand and the sea to my right. I was weightless, timeless even. I wanted to stay in forever. Naturally that was impossible, but if I had fins and gills I’d have been a rather happy bunny.

Sunday and Monday were a tale of two swims.

A tale of how one day you can feel panicked, anxious and the next you can feel invincible.

I’m as yet a work in progress.

A bit battered and a bit bruised.

I’ve missed out on so much in my childhood, teens, twenties and, well, onwards. I’m learning to find better ways to general wellness and not mourning the past or lost opportunities. It’s not easy but with a combination of talking therapies, medication and regular Vitamin Sea, I feel more hopeful for the future.

Happy Easter and Happy Dipping