I am not saying anything new or ground-breaking when I say that swimming is good for overall wellbeing. We have been told many times of the benefits of swimming, but here is a little reminder:
Swimming releases endorphins, those feel-good hormones.
Movement through water creates a soothing sensation that just feels good.
Being in water increases blood flow to the brain and promotes growth of brain cells (that break down during periods of chronic stress).
The colour blue has an active calming effect on the body.
I have been reading more and more about polyvagal theory (*Deb Dana) and the power of the vagus nerve and come to understand why my regular swimming sessions help me recover from life’s twists and turns.
Here’s what I can now add to the list of reasons to take to the water…
Movement activates the autonomic nervous system and swimming helps to activate the energy produced when the system is in the sympathetic (fight/flight) state in an organised and safe way.
Swimming involves attending to the breath and is a direct route to influencing autonomic state – adding arm movements adds strength to the practice.
Water provides an environment that offers an automatic regulating and restorative experience.
Swimming strokes that involve an extended exhalation strengthen vagal tone.
Theory aside, my personal experience is that some days I have to drag myself out of bed, in no mood to see another human being, let alone exercise - my mind can be a noisy jumbled mess of stresses, ruminations, inner critic rants, maybe traces of resentment and anger from the day before, a list of tasks that need completing or decisions that need to be made and a rumbling anxiety that I will be overwhelmed by the day ahead.
When I arrive at the pool, I am met by the receptionist who greets me with a smile and immediately that connection with a friendly face calms my system a little. Regulars, who swim at the same time as me each day, also say hello and I feel a sense of belonging and community which calms me further still. As I begin to swim, I notice the rhythm of my breath, the sight of my arms as they push through the water, the sound and sight of the water bubbles as they give visual and auditory evidence of my breath and my movement, and it soon begins to feel like a meditation practice. Soon the noise in my mind quietens, the stresses and worries ease away, and I begin to gain such clarity that ideas and answers to problems seem to appear out of nowhere (if only I had waterproof pen and paper!)
Polyvagal theory understands this state as being in Ventral Vagal. The state where we feel capable, connected, curious, open, engaged and at ease. We see the world as welcoming and filled with opportunity.
The aim is to notice when we feel like this, be curious about what has happened to get us there and make a conscious effort to do things that help us stay there (or bring us back there).
Swimming isn’t for everyone. Other ways you can move out of the sympathetic (fight/flight) state into ventral vagal could be:
Going for a walk or a run
The aim is to do this mindfully, with attention to breath and rhythm, movement, and connection – notice whether there is a shift towards calm and clarity and celebrate this “glimmer” (Deb Dana) moment.
Good luck in finding ways to regulate your nervous system that work for you.
*Deb Dana – “Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection”