Swimming For Mental Health Part 2
By Clinical & Health Psychologist and swimmer Dr Megan de Souza
In the previous post we explained how swimming can help soothe the nervous system here. In this part we look at 3 other ways in which swimming can enhance psychological wellbeing.
Swimming promotes mindfulness
Most of us are now aware that learning to be more mindful – or engaged in the present moment - can be a powerful means of preventing and reducing mental health issues like depression and anxiety. However, formal mindful meditation practices (also known as sitting meditation) are not for everyone and some people prefer engaging in mindfulness in a more active way. Swimming is great for this because it engages all of our senses, which really helps us to be present in our body. Counting laps and strokes, watching out for other swimmers, and focusing on stroke technique leaves little space for other thoughts and worries, all of which can help to reduce anxiety and improve mood.
Another way in which swimming encourages us to stay grounded in the present is that when swimming we have to let go of some of the usual things (i.e., screens and devices) that have become a feature of modern life. We can’t look at our phones, and most people don’t swim with headphones, which means we aren’t distracted by music, podcasts, or audiobooks. If you think about it, there are very few environments which force us to be present, in the way that swimming in a pool or at the beach does. This allows the brain and the nervous system time to calm down, as it provides a respite from the high level of stimulation we’re faced with in our day to day lives.
Being mindful also creates space for creativity and problem solving. So, if you have a task or problem you’re trying to solve, swimming can provide time for new ideas and perspectives to surface!
Swimming can help create a sense of belonging
Humans are by nature social creatures, and even the most introverted person needs to feel a sense of belonging and connection in their life for good psychological wellbeing. Many people enjoy the fact that swimming can be a solitary activity, but that it is also something we might do alongside other people, without ever having to speak a word to anyone else. This can help us to feel part of a community and connected to others through doing the same activity, but individually.
For the more extroverted souls, you’ll find that whether you chose to swim at your local pool, or down at the beach, there is a real sense of community amongst swimmers. If you like the idea of meeting people, there are plenty of opportunities to become part of a group, by joining a squad, swimming club, or group lessons.
Swimming can build a sense of confidence
Setting goals and working towards them is a great way of creating a sense of purpose and confidence. Swimming provides a great opportunity to set goals, as anyone can make a goal – whether they’re an advanced, competitive swimmer, or someone who’s never swum a lap! There are also swim challenges (usually over summer) and charity swims (such as the Starlight Super Swim) that can turn swimming into something even more meaningful.
Many people avoid team sports or other types of exercise (e.g., group classes) because they’re worried about competing with or comparing themselves to other people. Swimming allows each individual to set their own goals, and work towards them at their own pace. Having said this, swimming is also something that can be done purely for pleasure – no goals required!
Some people are put off swimming because they are anxious about how their bodies look. Despite this, it is well recognised that when people exercise, this helps to improve their body confidence. Like other exercise, swimming promotes positive body image by encouraging us to value our bodies for what they do, and not what they look like. Building strength in our bodies can also help us to feel stronger in mind.
If concerns about how you look are making you reluctant to swim, it’s important to understand that while many people are anxious about how they look, what you find at the pool or beach is that people of all shapes and sizes and ages swim. For the most part, everyone there is focused on what they’re doing and not the people around them. Especially if you’re a bleary eyed early morning swimmer! There are also many more options for swimwear now, with different suits offering different levels of coverage and modesty.
In conclusion, you might find that some of the benefits of swimming I’ve listed above resonate with your experience, and you might also have others in mind that aren’t mentioned in this article. The most important thing is for you to understand how swimming personally benefits you so you can stay motivated to keep swimming! It should be noted that some people with more significant mental health issues may need to add other things – such as medication, dietary changes, or psychological therapy – to their toolkit for managing mental health. If you are concerned about your mental health, a great place to start is to discuss it with a GP you feel comfortable with or contact a service such as Beyond Blue beyondblue.org.au for support and advice.
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