About seven weeks ago I finally got around to taking swimming lessons. It’s something that I had been planning to do ever since moving to live near the beach 18 months ago.
There are a number of reasons for this: Firstly, I don’t feel safe in the ocean when I’m out of my depth. Deep down I know that I’m not a good swimmer and whenever I’m in deep water my body responds with a lot of anxiety. I figured that if I knew I could swim confidently I wouldn’t get so anxious about not being able to touch the bottom. I go body boarding a lot and I feel relatively safe with the body board strapped to my arm, but I get caught in rips all the time and I know that if the strap was to break or I lost the board somehow, I’d be in real trouble.
The other big reason for learning to swim is that I think it’s probably the perfect exercise for someone recovering from CFS. The full immersion in the water gives gentle stimulation to our nervous system, and it’s also a relatively low impact exercise. So long as you don’t drown, that is.
I also suspect that the arm movement involved in swimming could be particularly beneficial. I have a friend who I met through this blog who had such severe nervous system problems that she was physically unable to lift her arms above her head. She was in a wheelchair and wore her arms in a sling when we first met. As she recovers, her ability to use her arms has returned. I also suspect that the migraines I suffered before I got CFS, and the headaches that have had since are related to muscle tension in the back of my neck and shoulders.
We generally use our arms to do things; to take action. I believe that taking action is the antidote to the anxiety that we feel about being powerless over feeling fatigued all the time. Hopefully getting some motion in my shoulders and neck will help release tension and give me the feeling that I’m moving forward under my own power.
I felt somewhat embarrassed about the idea of turning up to adult swim classes, given that it’s something many people learn to do as a child. I had a look on YouTube for videos teaching how to swim and came across one where other adult learners talked about their experience of taking swimming classes. One of the things that they mentioned was the feeling of shame at not being able to swim and the fear of drowning. I could relate. Australia is an island nation with an epic coastline and Aussies traditionally love going to the beach; but it’s not so much fun when I feel frightened actually being in the deep water. One of my uncles died as a result of an accident diving into a sandbank at a beach near where I live now, and I suspect that this could unconsciously cause me even more anxiety about it.
Something interesting happened for me while watching the instructional videos though. I found myself feeling sad, and started to cry. I remembered my experience of having swimming lessons in primary school: a freezing unheated pool during spring time where I could never really relax because the water was just so cold. I never learned to breathe properly because I couldn’t handle having my face under the water. As a result, I adopted a swimming style where my head is always out of the water, which causes your body to sink. Sinking is scary. Watching the videos, I realised that the whole experience of learning to swim had been traumatic for me. And that fear-based trauma resurfaces in my body every time I go in the water.
The instructional videos were all very well, but I realised what I really needed was encouragement and feedback from a teacher who knew what he was doing. So I checked the local community college brochure and signed up for some lessons.
The approach taught by my swimming teacher is called “total immersion swimming“. It starts off with the very basics of just being in the water, learning to blow bubbles and to do “superman glides”. Then you gradually move onto taking strokes correctly, breathing out under water, rolling your body to each side, turning your head and eventually breathing mid-stroke.
The teacher said that the purpose of this technique is to “retrain the way that your brain responds to the water”. Hmm… Brain retraining. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
I noticed that when I get in water up to my shoulder level, my whole body feels anxious. I start to tense up. Part of the process involves the teacher gently holding my head while I’m face down in the water and getting me to relax my neck. It’s all about relaxing. Learning that it’s safe to be floating face down in the water without panicking.
The eight week course is nearly over, and I can’t say that I have fully got the hang of the whole breathing thing yet. But I have noticed that when I’m in the ocean I don’t tense up when the waves go over me now. I used to take a big gulp of air through my mouth when I saw a wave coming, and that just tenses you up. My teacher told me to breathe in calmly through my nose instead since that relaxes your nervous system. Seems like everyone is an expert on the fight or flight response these days!
I had a go in a heated pool the other day, and felt so anxious with my face in the water that I couldn’t turn my head and breathe effectively. I had to keep stopping every few strokes to calm my nerves and take a decent breath. One of the other guys at the pool that day was wearing a snorkel and mask, and maybe that would be a good starting point for me too.
I have had panic attacks snorkelling in the past, and if I can get my body to relax with the sensation of floating in the water face down, I think swimming will get a lot easier. And it’s certainly more fun than all those boring brain re-training programs. Just make sure that you stay down the shallow end near the lifeguards!