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Swimming For Mental Health

We have recently stumbled upon this fantastic article featured on the Australian Speedo website, by Clinical & Health Psychologist and swimmer Dr Megan de Souza.

Dr. de Souza illustrates a variety of health and wellbeing benefits swimming offers, and in particular, discusses the positive effects on mental health.

We wanted to share her words as the information resonates so well with the basis of our teaching and therapy at Aquanat.

These understandings are grounded in our baby and parent swim classes, our swimming lessons, and our aquatic therapy sessions.

Without any further ado:

Dr. Megan de Souza

women diving underwater in a pool

"We all know that exercise, including swimming, is good for our physical health in many ways. However, in recent years there has been greater focus on how exercise might also help prevent and treat problems with mental health, or more broadly, enhance psychological wellbeing.

The benefits to mental health associated with swimming are similar to those provided by other types of exercise.

For example, regular swimming can:

  • Stimulate the release of endorphins – naturally occurring chemicals in the body – that help in the management of mood, stress, and pain;

  • Regulate sleeping patterns and contribute to good quality sleep;

  • Contribute to healthy brain development and reduce the impact of stress on our brains, which is essential for good cognitive functioning (including learning and memory), and the prevention of mental illness;

  • Become part of a daily or weekly routine that helps give structure and a sense of purpose to our days.

In addition to these benefits, research and anecdotal evidence supports the idea that there may be some additional positive impacts on mental health associated with a regular swim.

Swimming helps soothe the nervous system

It is well recognised that being in nature, and particularly being immersed in water, helps to invoke a feeling of calm. This is because of the impact on our nervous system, which regulates all our bodily systems and our stress (or fight-flight) response.

Ocean swimming may be particularly good in this regard, but even just swimming in a pool is positive due to our natural affinity for water.

Swimming also helps to soothe our nervous system due to its capacity to help regulate our breathing. When we are stressed or anxious, we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths (hyper-ventilate).

a quote by dr. megan de souza about swimming and the nervous system

This sends a signal to our nervous system that there is something wrong and can trigger a stress response in our bodies, leading to physical symptoms such as racing heart, shakiness, breathlessness, and a sense of panic.

An important aspect of managing these symptoms is to learn how to regulate breathing, so that the breath is slowed down, deep, and controlled. This helps to “down-regulate” the nervous system so we can feel calm again.

When you swim you have to regulate your in and out breath, and focus on taking deep, slow breaths. This is the opposite of what happens when we hyper-ventilate and sends the signal to the nervous system that everything is okay. This encourages a sense of calm, and releases tension in the body. When we are calm, we can also think more clearly which helps us to problem solve (rather than just worry) about the things making us feel stressed.

It’s important to note that, especially when you’re starting out, the exertion of swimming might make you feel breathless which can feel similar to a panic attack.

Try not to start out at too quick a pace, especially when the water is cold, so that you can control your breathing and stay calm.

If you feel panicked, then just pause, take a few deep calming breaths, then resume your swimming at a slower pace.

Remind yourself that it’s normal to feel a little out of breath when exercising, and that you can stop and get your breathing under control at any time".

Dr. Megan de Souza

a group of four young man jumping into a pool

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.

a quote by dr. megan de souza about swimming and mindfulness

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.

a quote by dr. megan de souza about swimming and a sense of belonginess

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 for support and advice."

A white neon sign on a light blue background that reads hello in a speech bubble

Our new specialised hydrotherapy pool facility in Alfred Cove is about to be completed.

We are working at creating a calming space to support our teaching and therapy approach.


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