Dive in: How one man calms his anxiety by taking to the water

Caomhan Keane, right, gets ready to take the plunge at Portmarknock, Co Dublin, for his final swimming lesson with Peter Conway. Pictures: Moya Nolan

Swimming every day for 30 days helped Caomhan Keane fight off anxiety and feel better about himself 

‘You’re at 50%. We need to work on getting you up to an honour grade.”

So says Peter Conway, a Swim Ireland director, as my gasping, flapping torso is washed ashore at Low Rock beach in Malahide drained of energy, oxygen and ego.

I am approaching the end of a personal commitment to swim every day for 30 days, the latest in a series of physical challenges I have set myself in an attempt to grow from couch potato to fit fiddle… before losing a leg to inactivity.

But as I emerge from the surf, I look and feel like the Little Mermaid after a run in with an oil slick, not someone who has spent the best part of a month taking instruction on how to get the best out of my daily dip.

Caomhan Keane back on dry land in Portmarknock after a swim.

Everything I have learned in the pool is washed away as the freezing temperature attempts to change my gender and the sea salt stings the exposed wound where once my confidence lay.

“Swimming in the sea has the benefit of being a wide-open experience that will help you develop a greater sense of wellbeing than beating up and down a lane in a pool,” Peter tells me, as I shriek paddle back into the ocean.

You’re out in the open, exposed to more stimuli and cold water. And there are also no lane ropes, which can be disconcerting.

But the more I swim, the more my body adapts. My heart rate and blood pressure settle, my breathing becomes controlled and my sense of achievement far outweighs anything I experienced in the pool.

The euphoria charges through me, and soon I’m bombing about the beach like that creature from The Shape of Water.

Is it any wonder cold- water swimmers have improved libido, are less likely to overreact to stress, and suffer less from ailments like the common cold?

While many of my previous challenges were undertaken with the express desire to lose weight, I returned to swimming for one reason: To improve my mental health.

Work worries and the demands of a new college course plagued my daily thoughts, jolting any happy spells like a nervous player of the board game Operation.

Anxiety had forced me to miss a much longed for college reunion, as I couldn’t get out of bed on the day.

While my stressed mind kept me up at night as I fretted over attending social events I had once lived for, I couldn’t start the simplest of tasks without being berated by my internal tannoy.

Since exercise previously revived me from similar slumps, I decide to baptise my worries in chlorine. But to get the full benefit of swimming you are supposed to get into the pool two to three times a week, for at least 40 minutes.

I haven’t swum properly since my palms were greased for my Confirmation, so I ask Bethany Carson of Swim Ireland what common mistakes are made when adults make their prodigal return to the pool.

“One of the big mistakes is in their body position. Most adults swim with their head too high up, which causes your hips to drop. You want your body on top of the water.

“Adults can also often breathe to just one side, which can put stress on the shoulders and neck, can increase one lungs capacity over the other or can make one arm stronger, while a lot of adults returning to swimming tend to push out to the side. Every action has an opposite and equal reaction, so you’re actually just snaking rather than pushing yourself forward.”

She suggests I take a few lessons with Peter Conway, who is also a coach at the Aer Lingus Masters Swimming club. I decide to like him when I sink halfway through my first attempt to complete a full lap of a 25m pool, as it is likely he’ll have to Hasselhoff my ass at some point during this challenge.

Thankfully, his coaching style is stroke perfect. He points out whatever little thing you get right in every stroke and adds a new nugget after each lap, so I learn how the core elements of swimming-kicking, breathing, hip-rotation and hand position combine to contribute to the movement. He then breaks each stroke into a number of exercises I work on during my solo swims.

Alone, I regularly forget to breathe, exploding out of the water like I’m mid-tango with Jaws halfway through a lap.

My “funny-shaped head”, a product of my forceps birth, makes positioning my goggles difficult so they regularly leak, blinding me and causing me to swim out of my lane, directly into the path of other swimmers, while I also develop the annoying habit of crashing full force into the wall when doing back-stroke, risking, in my mind only, concussion.

But, as Peter breaks things down into their basic components, his repeated mantra “look how far you’ve come” starts to sound less and less like a forgotten Supreme’s track.

By looking down my body for my togs, I keep my head in the water and my body straight. By learning to breathe after every three strokes — “emptying the tank” (by exhaling all the air out on the second breath), I establish a breathing rhythm that’s more Michael Phelps, less Michael Hutchence.

He counters my tendency to breathe more to my left, by having me do a couple of laps with that hand straight ahead of me, and breathing, only to my right. And he insists I not only indulge my boy-racer instincts, but take a time-lapse approach to my strokes in the same session.

By slowing things right down I can see how my breathing affects to the arms, legs, head and torso.

As my 30 days draws to a close the impact is obvious. Aside from sleeping better, the “set in stone” times of the pool put a structure on my wily freelancer days, which is one less thing to worry about.

Plunging into lukewarm aqua every day is an amniotic homecoming, an immersion in weightlessness that eases the tension in my body. As I stretch and relax my muscles while focusing on my breath, this attention to technique shuts off the part of my brain that likes to whip me with thoughts of an uncertain future, as the long muscle movements stimulates serotonin, a stress-reducing hormone which counteracts the negative effects of my fight-or-flight system.

Breathing becomes easier, which relaxes my muscles and creates new brain cells in an area that becomes mortified by chronic stress.

And, while I still feel the ticking-tock of seeming insurmountable tasks, my daily dip — be it in the sea, or in the pool — now awakens my belief in my own abilities.

The average cost of a Level 2 Swimming Coach accredited by Swim Ireland is between €20-€25 for a 30-minute lesson.

Thanks to pool manager Deepaak Kemai and his team at ALSAA pool in Dublin airport for providing lane space and encouragement.

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