Anxiety disorders are the most ubiquitous mental illnesses in America, affecting 40 million adults aged 18 or older, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). But even people who do not have a diagnosable disorder often suffer from anxiety and stress. From the changing political landscape to the ever-volatile economy, there are many reasons for people to develop anxiety throughout their lives. It's more common than you think.
Yet people who suffer from anxiety disorders are also more likely to develop other health problems, including depression, diabetes, heart disease, and more. It's obvious that anxiety needs to be dealt with, but how?
One way is to simply go for a swim.
How does swimming help people deal with anxiety?
Swimming can be a relaxing form of exercise. Imagine floating on your back, with your eyes closed, the soft, silky water streaming through your fingers. Already feeling calmer, aren't you? The coolness of the water and sensation of weightless floating is often therapeutic in itself. And while floating calmly can be a great way to relieve stress, so too can vigorous, active swimming.
Often when people are stressed, their body temperature rises, their heart rate increases, and they start to take short, shallow breaths. These physical manifestations of stress cause your muscles to tighten and your body and brain to receive less oxygen while building up carbon dioxide. As a result, your body falls into a vicious cycle that can actually ramp up your anxiety levels.
When you swim, you are forced to stretch and use your muscles. You are forced to breathe deeply and exhale deeply, allowing your brain to receive helpful oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. As you propel yourself through the water, you are using up your nervous energy, and turning it into focused, purposeful activity.
Anxiety is exacerbated by excessive rumination over distressing thoughts, and the physical movement involved in swimming is a great way to get your thoughts off your worries and onto something else--such as, say, your butterfly technique. Swimming can help your mind to let go of whatever stressor is aggravating your anxiety, and focus instead on your movements, your body, your breathing. In other words, swimming is a form of moving meditation. And you don't even have to pay for a yoga instructor in order to get the benefits from this form of meditation!
Moreover, exercise has been proven to relieve stress. Physical activity increases the body's production of endorphins, the brain's "feel good" chemicals, and regular participation in aerobic exercise helps people ease tension, improve sleep, and stabilize mood. According to the ADAA, even five minutes of aerobic activity can produce anti-anxiety effects.
The best part is, even if you have other physical aches and conditions, swimming is a wonderful exercise for you. Whereas other physical activity such as running, yoga, or ball sports, may be too much for someone suffering from arthritis or other physical ailments, swimming is a non-weight bearing exercise that will give you all the anti-anxiety benefits without increasing your physical pain and discomfort.
When you are anxious, one solid swimming session can help you to shake off the pressure and reset your mind and mood. Whether you have an anxiety disorder or simply are more anxious than you want to be, swimming can help you gain relief from symptoms and even prevent future episodes of stress and anxiety. So the next time you feel overly stressed, take a break and get into your pool--swim a few laps, or lay back and allow the water to support you, and imagine your worries slipping off of you, into the water, and away. When you emerge, you will feel like (and be) an entirely new, healthier person.