One of the most common pieces of advice with anything mental health or mental illness related is to exercise. And while that’s not bad advice, it’s not necessarily good advice in the practical sense. It’s about as helpful as saying, ‘eat healthy’ or ‘get enough sleep.’ It’s something that has to be tailored to you. Specific types of exercise will help where others may make you feel worse. So you need to find the one for you.
For example, I hate running. I would love to love it but I hate it. I find it at best uncomfortable and at worst painful: it’s like my bones are rattling inside my body. I’ve heard this from others with Autism but I don’t know if it’s specific to that or whether it’s a coincidence. But anyway, running is not the thing for me. Swimming however…
I have always loved to swim. I love the feeling of moving through water and when I was a kid, I loved the silence that comes from being underwater. I would’ve given anything to be able to breathe underwater so that I could stay in that silence. That’s pretty ironic given that I would grow up to develop anxiety that is triggered by a lack of noise and distraction.
I got back into swimming a couple of months ago. At the beginning, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even swim: the lack of stimulation for my brain meant that I just spiralled and my anxiety became completely overwhelming. So me and my Mum would walk and talk, planning the day or talking through whatever thing was on my mind that morning. Eventually my anxiety mutated into a different state and I was able to swim. It’s had such an impact on my life so I really wanted to write about it.
Swimming pools have the potential to be very difficult for me, from a sensory perspective. When it’s busy, the sound bounces around and around, making it one big fog of noise, which makes me very anxious. And the fact that I’m so short sighted I can barely see without my glasses makes that anxiety even worse: I can’t see anything and the sound feels like it’s coming from everywhere and that causes me paralyzing anxiety. It’s how I imagine it would feel to be on a carousel but if the carousel was going at ten times the normal speed. It’s scary. The best times to get in a quiet swim seem to be first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve been sticking to the morning; it makes for a more productive day for me.
Knowing that this is the time that allows for the best swimming experience, I’ve been getting up early and getting to the gym for about seven forty five (sometimes I even get the pool to myself, which is glorious). And knowing that I have to get up that early, I’m going to bed at a sensible time, rather than accidentally staying up until three in the morning. So a routine sort of formed by accident and that has been so good for me. My relationship with sleep has never been so good.
Exercise has always been difficult for me given my historic struggle with energy but also because ‘weight bearing’ exercise often feels very jarring. As I’ve already said, it makes me feel like my bones are rattling inside my body and each impact makes it worse. Sometimes it’s not that bad and I can be distracted by whatever I’m doing but sometimes it can actually be painful. So swimming is perfect. It takes that whole aspect out of the equation and makes exercise actually enjoyable. It reminds me of my arthritic dog: he goes for hydrotherapy and as soon as he’s in the water, chasing tennis balls, he’s like a puppy again. He loves it and I can totally relate.
The best thing about swimming is that it’s something that makes sense and that’s something I really need at the moment. The world feels hard and unfair and this is something that I can control. The more I swim, the stronger I get. I can see the results. I’ve been swimming most days for the last three months and I see my own progress: I’m swimming further; I’m swimming faster; I can see my body changing. It makes sense. That grounds me.
The one thing I do have to be careful of is my tendency to obsess: about the number of laps, getting to the next ten, getting to a hundred… Once it’s in my head that I ‘have’ to get to a particular number, there’s not much I can do to change my own mind and it causes me serious anxiety if I don’t reach the number I’ve ‘decided on.’ So I have to be aware of that. Sometimes I can avoid it by distracting myself or by deciding on exactly how long I’m going to spend in the pool but sometimes I just have to manage it. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
But overall, rediscovering swimming has been one of the major highlights of this year. It’s helped my physical health and my mental health, as well as my day to day life. So I feel very grateful to have found it again.
And since I can’t take my phone into the pool with me, here’s a photo of my dog, enjoying his fortnightly swim.