I first started contributing to SwimSwam Magazine–a publication about all things swimming- in December 2017. My first article explains how swimming helps with anxiety management, the second describes how I changed my training routine, and the third shares how I succeed as a lifeguard with an anxiety disorder.
How Swimming Helps with Anxiety Management
December 28, 2017
10 words from a doctor completely suffocated me in the deep end: I want you to give up swimming for a while. No, I said. What do you mean, give up swimming? I thought I would become insane. I weighed only 94 pounds at this time, so even though I went to the pool almost every day, my doctor made me prioritize health over joy.
Sacrificing swimming improved my physical condition at the time, but it also wreaked havoc on my emotional well-being because I lost my primary source of stress-relief. As a result, my anxiety skyrocketed and I suffered from panic attacks every other day for a couple months.
Albeit I’ve never swam competitively, swimming became a huge part of my life as a high school freshman when my family moved to a house with a 15-yard lap pool. I knew I wanted to eventually become a lifeguard, so I trained hard each day. By 2:30 p.m. after school, I sported an ultramarine and cobalt-striped silicone TYR swimming cap, charcoal mirrored Speedo goggles, and a navy blue Dolfin swimsuit. My parents would disagree, but swimming came before chores in my mind. Swimming eventually became another world and an escape from horrible things that happened each day.
According to Calm Clinic, anxiety activates the fight or flight system––also known as the endocrine system––which releases adrenaline into the body. Although the body uses this as a natural defense mechanism, anxiety triggers the endocrine system because the mind perceives danger. As a result, heart rate increases and blood vessels constrict. The body later goes into the resistance phase, where it releases cortisol that can devastate the immune system.
Any of my family members and friends that know me well say I always leave the pool with a smile on my face. A cloud of doom can hover over my head as I walk across the pool deck, lay my gear down, and stretch. However, an instant surge of energy and drive arises the minute I jump in a pool––a complete 180-degree shift.
Distance swimming particularly helps me overcome anxiety because I carve out a significant chunk of time each workout for a multiple-lap set, which can range anywhere from 800-yards to 4,800-yards. This is the equivalent of a half-mile to a three-mile stretch. Even though I may start my workout with an anxious mind, I eventually slip into a rhythm where my body takes over and I don’t even think about what I’m doing anymore. All the day’s worries slip away and my mind falls into a peaceful state.
In addition, distance swimming helps tremendously with breathing. Anxiety often causes shallow breathing and chest pain, according to a University Hospital Southampton factsheet. Both of these symptoms alter my swims at times. My worst workouts occur when I breathe too shallowly or fast, but my best ones happen when I breathe slowly and fully. Sometimes, I’ll incorporate more stroke drills with my pull buoy just so I can focus on breathing. After swimming, my lungs always feel fuller and my normal breathing pattern returns.
I finally dove back into the pool in June after reaching an acceptable weight level. Since this return, my anxiety has decreased and I’ve managed it much more effectively than I did during the four months I spent outside the water.
Pull. Catch. Stroke. Breathe. Repeat for 50×50 yards. The average person may consider this everyday routine monotonous, yet it’s my escape from everyday life. Distance swimming has considerably decreased my anxiety in a way other stress-management techniques have not.
Why I Stopped Counting Yards and Sets
July 27, 2018
I’m a distance swimmer who once became great at counting every last lap in my 1,600-yard warmup––but now I stopped counting. Pretty much every swimmer out there builds their workouts around total yards, sets of yards, etc;. Counting yards is useful in some areas––such as interval training––but what if swimmers tried something different and just completely forgot about yards for a bit?
As a distance swimmer, I generally use two or three different workout sets each week: one distance, one sprint, and one drill. For each set, I start with a 300-yard warmup, and then I begin the real workout. My distance workouts usually range from 4,000-5,000 yards––a 3,200 distance swim, 5×100 kick, 4×100 breaststroke, and 800 choice.
Next, not having a set plan allows me to work on what I feel like that day. For instance, I really didn’t feel like swimming a sprint set after a long day at work some days, but I still stuck with it. However, doing my workouts by time allows me to swim whatever I feel like. The other day, I jumped in the water and spontaneously decided I wanted to work on flip turns and kick drills. I did that for 20 minutes, swam freestyle for another 20, and then felt like swimming breaststroke during the last 20 minutes. I was one happy swimmer after that workout.
Lastly, swimming is a stress reliever for me, so not counting yards allows me to adequately relieve stress. Honestly, counting yards sometimes can just add to the stress, especially if I can’t focus. However, not counting yards allows my brain to roam and contemplate the day’s worries as I stroke through the water.
My sprint set has many intervals: 10×50 freestyle and, 6×50 breaststroke sprints, plus a pyramid set, starting at 100 and going up to 500. On a good day, I’ll also do the reverse pyramid. My drill set generally includes a 500 yards of pull buoy, another 300 with
resistance paddles, 500 choice kick, and 800 freestyle with fins.
Clearly, I my workouts are carefully thought out by yards––so why did I suddenly abandon that approach?
First, I noticed my routine slowly became monotonous, even though I’m a creature of habit, so I stopped looking forward to my morning workouts. I’ve stuck to this pattern for a year, so that’s expected. Second, I became plain tired of counting yards and sets––wait, did I actually swim 64 laps, or did I miss a few in there? Third, on days I was tired, I had no desire to keep counting: I simply wanted to get in the water and swim to my heart’s content.
So, if I’m not counting yards or sets, what new approach do I take?
I started completing my workouts by time. I usually swim an hour or two a day, depending on how much time I have, but on busier days, I’ll sometimes only swim a half hour. I’ve found that, depending on my energy and stress levels, I’ll swim slower or faster on specific days. Therefore, I’ll blaze through a workout too early, or I won’t finish it and become disappointed in myself. Setting an allotted swim time gives room for change and will help you leave the pool (or ocean, if you’re an open-water swimmer) satisfied.
Now, not everyone may agree with me. Some swimmers may love counting yards and need sets, especially if they’re training for an event like a marathon. However, I encourage you to at least try this for a week and see what happens. You never know: changing the norm might actually not be so bad, after all.
How I Succeed as a Lifeguard with Panic Disorder
August 17, 2018
“You can’t possibly save someone’s life if you have emotional breakdowns,” someone once told me. I see the reasoning behind their viewpoint, yet I still disagree with their statement and feel that my anxiety disorder does not hinder my abilities in any way.
It seems counterintuitive, but those who have truly suffered from any sort of anxiety disorder know that anxiety is different for each person––different triggers yield different reactions. My specific triggers all relate to atelophobia, which is the fear of never being good enough or never doing things well enough to please anyone. I received comments about my work, which made me feel like people only saw the mistakes I made over my hard work. I’m open to feedback that’s given in a respectful, supportive manner, but I become uneasy when I receive feedback that seems overly critical. Therefore, I had a couple of panic attacks after receiving the latter this summer.
However, after talking with a close friends, I realized that I reacted the way I did because I’m human. If other hard workers received the same comments, they would probably feel the same way. Now, they wouldn’t have panic attacks, but they would probably feel the same emotions: upset and devastated. I do acknowledge that I still struggle with being too hard on myself, but these emotions have not affected my work performance while I’m in front of others in my actual workplace. If anything, receiving these corrections creates a burning drive to prove to other people that they’re wrong––I really am a hard worker and can perform tasks I’m trained to do.
With that in mind, even though lifeguarding is a stressful job, I believe I can lifeguard successfully because I am confident in my abilities. I’ve been recertified three times––with another coming up soon––and have completed multiple staff trainings. As a result, my mind and body have internalized this knowledge. If I see someone who’s injured or drowning, I know for a fact I can make the proper rescue and provide the proper method of care without hesitating.
Actually, I responded to a call at the beginning of the summer season, in June, for a severely torn shoulder and twisted ankle without even feeling unsure of myself. After I reached the injured girls that day, I immediately defaulted to my training and asked the proper questions: “How did this happen?” “On a scale of one to 10, how severe is your pain?” “What are you currently feeling?” “Can you feel anything in this part of your shoulder?”
Even though I do suffer from anxiety, I also am a kinesthetic learner––meaning that I learn by practicing skills repeatedly––and have outperformed my coworkers in certain areas at other jobs, despite having less experience, because I practiced those skills over and over. For instance, I worked for the student newspaper during my undergraduate education, and within my first semester, I became a more skilled writer than some of the second year students. Therefore, I do not become anxious as a lifeguard because I know for a fact that I will default on my training––after all, there’s nothing to become anxious about if I know what to do.
In my three years of lifeguarding, I have made a couple assists successfully. In addition, I also completed two emergency simulations when I worked at a camp called Forest Home, where the fire department and RNs were called in. During these situations, we activated our Emergency Action Plan and rescued two different victims: one with a neck injury at the lake and a seizure victim in the deep end of the pool.
Some people with anxiety would instantly become distraught or overwhelmed due to overwhelming emotions and fear. This is typical for those who struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder because they’re usually anxious all the time. On the other hand, I struggle with panic disorder and have very specific triggers, so I don’t have anxiety or panic attacks too often. However, I didn’t panic: instead, I relied on my training. After these simulations, my boss said I completed these scenarios successfully and that he was confident in my abilities.
Yes, it’s possible I could become a little nervous during an emergency situation––and who wouldn’t? After all, someone’s life is on the line, and you have to sort through a memory bank full of rescue training. However, I have always proved myself a competent lifeguard, and if I never told my supervisors about my anxiety disorder, I do not believe they would doubt my abilities.
I would not still be lifeguarding after three years if I wasn’t steadfastly sure I could handle the stresses the job comes with. Although I felt a bit anxious about certain things during my first year of lifeguarding––such as rescuing a submerged victim––I immediately dealt with those fears and found strategies to manage them if they ever came up again. The best cure for anxiety in any job is complete confidence, whether that’s through encouragement from coworkers, asking clarifying questions if you’re unsure about something, or just practicing the same skills over and over again so your body can take over your mind during anxiety-inducing situations.
Anxiety does not have to become a permanent disability––ultimately, confidence overrules worry in any job. If your boss, managers, or supervisors believe it is an issue, then prove to them that you can perform the necessary tasks. If they see everything through a filter of mental illness, then explain to them how your anxiety disorder works and tell them about the strategies you’ve developed for specific situations that could make you anxious. Let them know how they can help you. However, do not let them put you down because of your anxiety––everyone has weaknesses, and if you’ve proven yourself a great employee, your employer has no excuse to hold that against you, as I have been learning this month.
Anxiety disorders are not cookie-cutter conditions; even some of my friends who have panic disorder have completely different triggers. Use your best judgment––if you try lifeguarding and it’s too stressful, maybe it’s not for you. However, with perseverance and stress management, those who really love the job will thrive.
People who have suffered through anxiety are some of the most courageous people alive––take that courage and show everyone that you can truly be successful. Never lower yourself to someone else’s standards. Go for your goals if you know you can achieve them, even if the world says you can’t.