By Lucy Watson
I’ve always experienced stress as a physical thing.
It’s as though my brain, so frazzled and frantic from thinking about the million things I have to do (and have to do perfectly), doesn’t have the space to think about how stressed I am, and what I need to do to calm down, so my body comes up with an ailment to get my attention: ‘HEY! I CAN’T HANDLE THIS! YOU’RE DOING TOO MUCH!’
Headaches, ulcers, digestive problems, even shingles. My body works really hard to remind my brain to put the brakes on sometimes.
If stress manifests in my body, it’s not surprising that I need to relieve it physically, too. I’ve never been able to meditate. When I’m frazzled, my brain is like a TV show on fast forward and I can’t find the remote. It just won’t stop, no matter how many times you tell me: Imagine you’re a tree. I also hate being told to imagine I’m a tree. I’m a human being with a million things to do, okay?!
But when I was in high school, completing my HSC, I found a kind of meditation that actually worked for me: swimming.
I needed to get away from study and move my body. Swimming got me out of the house and into the water for some much-needed vitamin D. It also gave me the chance to stretch out my neck and back, which were strained from craning over my textbooks.
And while I was swimming laps, I began meditating, too. My brain would shut off: nothing to think about except the black line at the bottom of the pool and stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Without planning to, I’d given myself 20 minutes every day to turn off my brain and think of nothing but my breathing.
And my headaches went away.
Years later, I was writing my Honours thesis and dealing with some trauma-related anxiety. Mindfulness was all the rage with my therapist at the time, and a few other friends swore by it. But I struggled to find five whole minutes a day when I could do nothing but be mindful.
So, in classic frazzled-and-on-fast-forward-me fashion, I turned again to swimming, realising that I could gain its meditative effects while also exercising. Two birds with one stone? Yes, please!
As I stared at that black line, stroke, stroke, breathe, my brain would empty. Stroke, stroke, breathe.
And then, it would fill again. But this time, there was clarity. Someone had pressed play on the show, and it was at regular speed. I could focus on the plot.
And I came up with the concluding paragraph of my thesis in the pool, between laps 16 and 24.
I got out, dried off and typed it up. Two months later, when I was doing final edits to my thesis and my supervisor was reading it, that paragraph was the only place in the concluding chapter where she didn’t suggest any changes!
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that exercise reduces stress, so I probably shouldn’t have found this as surprising as I did. But other forms of exercise don’t work for me in quite the same way. When I’m swimming, I’m not distracted by outside stimuli like music, cars and people, like I am when running or cycling.
Swimming has been proven to be especially good for stress and other mental health problems. In my case, it helped by making me focus on my breathing, by getting me outside and away from my desk (rather than meditating in the office), and by strengthening my body and my cardiovascular system. But it’s not just me: in the UK, almost half a million adults have said their mental health related visits to medical professionals have reduced since they started swimming.
You can do whatever stroke you want, at whatever pace; it’s easy on your joints; and if you’re struggling, there’s always flippers! The hardest part about swimming is finding the time to do it, and building it into your routine.
Which is why signing up to Laps for Life is such an excellent idea. What better way to develop a swimming routine than by committing to swim to support young people in Australia living with mental health difficulties?!
Trust me: your brain – and your body – will thank you (and maybe also your thesis).