Swimming For Mental Health Part 1

By Clinical & Health Psychologist and swimmer Dr Megan de Souza

swimming for mental health

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). 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.

In the next post Megan looks at 3 more benefits of swimming for mental health which you may not have considered, have a look at part 2.

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