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Swimming, sleep, conquering fear and letting go.


Swimming is a low impact exercise that utilises every single muscle in the body and is a great physical workout.  Yet, it can be a great emotional workout too, and is great for sleep and insomnia.  It can be relaxing, challenging, rewarding, empowering.

I love swimming and can honestly say it’s the one thing that keeps my sleep in check – but it’s not always been like this, as up until 2 years ago I was terrified of it – the extent of my swimming being to float about with a lilo in the shallow end if on holiday.  I now aim to go at least twice a week and do up to 2km a swim.  Walking back from the pool today, I thought about what a journey it’s been getting to this point, and so I thought I’d share my experience.

I initially turned to swimming as I was desperate for something to help me sleep better after trying practically everything else.  I don’t have many fears but deep water was one of them, so in order to swim I had to finally conquer my fear of it.  I thought of the counselling training I’d recently completed and told myself I knew how to do it, I had all the courage I needed, I just needed to try.  I hadn’t been to a public swimming pool since school and wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to remember how to swim.  I checked out the pool first, to see how deep it was, stood looking over the water wishing I could just jump in carefree but I couldn’t even imagine being able to do it, I felt anxious just looking at the deep end signs.  I went home and a few days later went along with my swim kit, got into the shallow end and hovered there for a while.  Then I swam half way along the pool and back again, staying at the edge and trying to go a meter further each time.  I had been so concerned about what others may think of this but soon realised that actually, no one cared.  I stayed for 20 mins and went home, feeling mildly brave and resolving to try again the next week.

I went again, aware I was more confident in my ability to actually be able to swim at least, and aimed to go to the deep end and back.  I stayed by the edge of the pool and told myself I could hold onto the ridge if I needed to stop.  It was terrifying and I was shaking, focusing on my breathing, keeping the panic at bay.  I did it.  I swam back.  I swam back into the deep end again.  I thought, what was all the fuss about?  I soon realised that the more relaxed I felt, the more I was able to float and before I knew it I had done 15 lengths and couldn’t believe it.  I got home and felt so liberated and quite emotional, it was very cathartic.  I was surprised by how emotive it had been, how much tension I’d held onto and just connected with – and let go of.  I slept that night for a solid 10 hour deep amazing sleep.  After a few weeks, I was feeling great and thoroughly enjoying the feeling of swimming, was whizzing along in the pool and getting home feeling really connected with my body, and strong.  My sleep was vastly improved.  I began to use swimming as a way to notice any underlying tensions and stress in my body.

I didn’t expect it to have such a big change on my life, for it to become a regular need, or for it to be such a personal journey.  Swimming helped me with rebuilding my self-esteem and after conquering my fears I felt liberated; I still feel empowered each time.  Swimming turned out to be the one thing that helped me to sort out my troublesome sleep, and lets me keep it under control.  It also helps me to be able to work as a counsellor, it is something I use as an emotional outlet – allowing me space to let go of anything emotional that may be with me, and to really connect with what is happening for me emotionally in my body.

There’s nothing quite like swimming along through the water, every muscle in your body being held aloft by the comfort of the water, to feel every bit of tension dissipate away bit by bit, to notice the worries literally wash away with each breath out.  It’s extremely difficult to swim if tense, so it’s easier to feel exactly where in the body any tension is being held, to have to relax that area and feel it let go.  It’s amazing how we can physically hold onto any worries, feelings and stresses in our bodies, sometimes we hold onto things for years.  It can be quite an emotive experience letting go of these tensions and the arising feelings, sometimes I’ve held back tears in the pool but mostly it just feels liberating, and it never fails to amaze me just how much I may have held onto and what can come up that I maybe had overlooked.

And, if there’s anything I can’t seem to let go of, a thought or feeling or situation, if it keeps floating on back to me as I swim, I know that this is something I need to prioritise to deal with once out of the pool.  Then there may be the times that I use swimming precisely just to deal with any emotional stuff, as a way to try to start letting go of it.  These are the days I crave swimming the most, and often correlates with when my sleep is at its worst.  Often we struggle to sleep because of all the stresses we are holding onto, and swimming helps – it may not fix everything in itself but it’s a great way to feel empowered and ready to take that next step towards dealing with anything challenging; and to get a good sleep in the process.



For reading about research into how the body can hold onto emotions: ‘The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma’ by Bessel Van Der Kolk