I spend much of my working life talking and training on wellbeing, both for adults and children. Several years ago I realised that outdoor swimming was an essential part of supporting my wellbeing. At the beginning of 2019, I decided I wanted to do more outdoor swimming. I love swimming and I swim every early morning Monday-Friday in my local pool, that time is precious and an important part of my routine, also it has given me a lovely swimming community to be part of. However, outdoor swimming brings a different joy, the joy of being in nature, the amazing feel of cold water on my skin. It’s hard to explain but it is wonderful.
At the start of 2019 I wrote a list of outdoor places I hoped to swim, it was a mix of lidos, and sea swims, and rivers. I hoped that I would be able to swim outdoors at least once a month from around April/ May. I decided to keep a list of all the outdoor swims so that I could see over the year the different places I had swum. I managed to swim outdoors every month from February-December, some of these were cooler lidos but mostly they were rivers, sea, lakes, ponds and tidal pools. I have swum outdoors 43 times this year.
Swimming outdoors is about pure pleasure for me, it’s not about the distance or the length of time in the water, it’s about the joy of the experience. I feel so alive when I swim outside and it makes me feel so happy. Swimming outside has also become something that I do with my husband, our children have now left home ( mostly!) when our youngest left for uni in 2018 I knew we needed to find something that we could do together, a way of reconnecting. Outdoor swimming has become that thing.
In my wellbeing training, the final point I put to the group is an encouragement for people to discover what makes them happy, the thing that makes them smile when they think about it and brings them joy. So much of our lives can be busy and hard, often taken up with meeting the needs of others, putting in place something that brings us joy is a good start for wellbeing.
I am currently writing my list of ideas for outdoors swims in 2020, starting on January 1st!.
Life can be stressful, but sometimes when we work with vulnerable people we take on their stress. An important question to ask is whether the stress you’re feeling is your own or someones else stress. I first heard this idea from Louise Bomber in her book Inside I’m hurting, an excellent book about working with children with attachment difficulties, she talks about how easy it is for staff to take on the stress and trauma of the child they are working with and encourages us to ask the question is this my stress or someone else’s.
Over the last few days, I have been feeling increasingly agitated, at first, I thought it was down to the persistent rain and the grey sky, but over the weekend I have realised it’s the stress and worry I have taken on from a school and 2 children. It’s not my stress, but it feels like mine, it has been impacting my sleep, leaving my jaw feeling tight and causing me to feel doubt about what I am doing. This morning I realised this isn’t my stress, these are not my feelings, I have taken these on from somewhere else. Having that moment of realisation was really helpful but I also knew I needed to act on it.
We all have different strategies to deal with the impact of stress on our body, but I know for me the main way is to swim and if possible outside in cold water. Over the last 6 months, I have been cold water swimming regularly and it has helped me feel so good. Particularly as the water gets cooler, the shock to skin, the way it makes your heart race, cold water swimming forces you to be in the moment, to be mindful, to forget what is on your mind, to forget any tightness in your body, and once you have started swimming and began to adjust to the cold you feel so alive and so happy ( that’s my experience). This afternoon I went to a new spot to swim, Clevedon marine lake ( a tidal pool) It was a fantastic swim, it was cold, but not too cold yet ( around 13 degrees), it was seawater, which I love, but in a tidal pool, I really enjoyed the feeling of being in the safety of a pool but in seawater. The endorphins kicked in and I felt fantastic when I got out, eating whiskey cake and a warm drink afterward also really added to the after experience!. I now feel ready to go into the new week, I feel calmer, happier, more relaxed and prepared for the new week.
These last few weeks have been an opportunity for me to slow down, in term time I spend half my working week supporting 4 yr olds with social, emotional and mental health needs, the other half of my week is for writing and training. I have learned over the years that as the term moves on and as the school year progresses I feel less creative, I have less energy or headspace to think and dream.
Over the last few years, I have created a pattern over the summer holidays which works for me. I have worked out what I need to recover and relax; this starts with a family holiday for a week, usually somewhere remote where there are very few people, big open spaces and water to swim in. During the first weeks of the summer break, I spend time resting, reading, I will do small pieces of writing work in a gentle un-rushed way. Then usually by week 3, I start to dream and imagine, to have creative ideas about possible side projects. Then towards the end of the summer holiday, I will start to plan and prepare for the new children. I am not yet in the stage of being ready to think about the new term, I am still in the stage of needing to be gentle to myself, allowing myself to dream, think, and try out creative ideas. I have learned to love this stage, I never used to think I was a creative person, but being married to an artist for 27 years has shown me and encouraged me to be creative. I used to be afraid of trying out something new, especially if it was something public, but I have learned to be brave, to try things and it’s ok for them to not work.
Over the last couple of years, I have also realised that I need to spend the summer holiday intentionally taking care of myself, and I have learned the key ways to do that are by wild or outdoor swimming and spending time outside. These are intentional acts, knowing that I will need to feel relaxed and rested at the start of a new school year, but I have also learned that wild swimming and being outdoors is often the time when I have more creative ideas. If I have an idea for a new book I will often go for a walk to sort it though in my head or swim to help me clarify something that has been buzzing about in my mind.
I have three weeks left until term, still time to creatively think and gently try new things, and plenty of time for more swimming!
This is my last week of the school year in my nurture role. The last few weeks I have been writing the end of year reports for the children and reflecting on the year. The joy of writing the reports is the opportunity to notice and remember the distance traveled with the child and school. The stories we hear in term 6 when we pick up our new nursery children before we start work with them, can often lead us to a feeling of uncertainty and slight nervousness of the year ahead. We need to be able to put that to one side and have faith that we can make a difference and see change. Then we look back over their first year in school and realise that we have all survived and often thrived and they are a different child to the one we first heard about a year ago.
This last week one of our team was reflecting on our role as being the job of building up confidence in others and giving faith and hope in challenging situations to enable staff and children to flourish and fly. I love this statement, for me, it is filled with hope and opportunity. As I look back over the last year there have been moments of pain and sadness and sometimes despair, but there have been many more moments of delight and laughter and joy, of flourishing and thriving.
I started term 6 anticipating it to be challenging due to workload, my aim for the term was to thrive it rather than survive it, and I was going to do this by wild swimming each week. The term has ended up being far more stressful than I could have anticipated, it has been incredibly busy but there have also been some huge and emotional family stressors. Outdoor swimming has been my oasis and has given me moments of joy to hold onto, I have managed 7 outdoor swims over the term. The highlight came this week when I swam with my team at Vobster quarry, it was a wonderful way to end our year, swimming together in a beautiful, peaceful location. There was a vulnerability with one another with some of the team feeling very nervous about the swim, but there was also a huge sense of joy and a feeling of flourishing at the end.
At the start of last week, I spent a team day with my team. We did an exercise thinking about how we wanted to develop this year, how we wanted the team to develop and what we were going to do this year for our wellbeing. I spend lots of time thinking about wellbeing, it’s an essential part of my job, it’s what I write about!. But I really appreciated the act of taking time to stop, think and commit to paper and publicly say to my team, this is how I want to support my wellbeing. By sharing this with the team I felt that we were making ourselves accountable to one another. I love that I work for a manager who prioritises this at the start of the year, that as a team we were saying to one another this is important, as individuals we need to take care of ourselves but also as a team, we need to look out for one another.
My plan for the year to support my wellbeing is to find opportunities to swim outdoors. I have spent the summer engaging in lots of outdoor swimming and I have written about this on numerous occasions, but during this summer I realised just how important outdoor swimming is for me, I feel calmer, I feel alive and I often feel such joy. There was an article in the Guardian yesterday about cold water swimming helping with mental health and depression, I don’t suffer from depression, although anxiety is something I often have lurking in my head and chest. I have certainly found the outdoor swimming has become a very mindful practice and one which stills my mind and helps my anxiety.
As we enter a new work year ( school year in my case) I think it is really helpful to set out, write down our intentions for how we will support our wellbeing throughout the year. I know there will be times in the coming months when I will feel very stressed, and to have thought ahead about what will help is a good exercise. I am not sure yet how much outdoor swimming I will manage throughout the winter!, I have a colleague who swims weekly in a local river, throughout the year, I am planning on swimming with her sometimes, hoping that I can cope with the cold. But realistically I realise I may not manage it in December – February! and that’s’ ok, this is not an exercise about setting goals and then feeling guilty if I can’t achieve them, this is an exercise about thinking, recognising what helps in those times I feel very stressed. This weekend I started as I hope to continue, I swam in a beuatiful spot near to us, in a local river. It was cold, but I felt so wonderfully alive and joyful during and after the swim.
For more thoughts and ideas on supporting your wellbeing, I have a book called Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff.
We are entering the last week of the school holidays, I started this holiday feeling incredibly worn down and tired and I wasn’t sure I could see myself starting a new term. Thankfully now, I feel ready. I have mostly spent my holidays with a rhythm of swimming, writing, reading and a summer of spending time with friends and family, an opportunity to reconnect with myself, activities and people that I love.
Looking back over my summer, I have mostly been writing and thinking about silence practice, contemplative and meditative practice and how we support children in this, with a particular focus on how the church can do this. Alongside this I have been swimming lots, I love swimming and it is part of my daily routine, but this summer I have been finding as many opportunities as I can to swim outside. I have swum in lidos, sea lochs, the sea and rivers. I have swum in Scotland, England and next weekend I am planning on swimming in Wales, on a final weekend away before the term starts back, for my wedding anniversary. For me, the time I often feel most calm, still and peaceful is when I am swimming outside. There is something particularly meditative and mindful about swimming outside. When I swim outside I generally swim breaststroke, so that I can really notice the environment around me. Having great goggles enables me to really see what is under the water, being aware of the colours and patterns, watching the beauty of the sun rippling through the water. As my head rises above the water, paying attention to the small details of the ripples on the water, flies over the water and sometimes swallows diving to catch the flies; once a seal watching me. When I am swimming outside I feel incredibly peaceful. I have become really aware this year, how the act of swimming outside is a meditative act for me. I will, of course, continue to swim every weekday morning in my local pool, this is my routine and the people there are part of my community and I love it. But as we enter the new term and the autumn I am aware that as I enter back into the nurture role, with all its stresses and fullness, I am going to need to put in place some more chances to swim outside. I am currently looking for lidos that open all year round and wondering if somehow I can find an outdoor swim at least each month over the autumn and winter.
In my nurture work, it’s the start of a new term, after a badly needed Easter break. The nurture consultant role can be an emotionally challenging job and one in which you need to be fully present to the children and staff. Holidays are a vital time to take some time to replenish. Over the last two weeks, I decided to spend a lot of my time reading. The books I have read have all been around wild swimming, perseverance, finding silence and the joy of nature ( Find a way, one untamed and courageous life:Diana Nyad, The Salt Path, Raynor Winn, The Moth snowstorm: Nature and joy -Michael McCarthy and Silence in the age of noise- Erling Kagge).
At the start of the holiday, I was feeling fraught, stressed and edgy, I was aware I was catastrophising more than I usually do. The term hadn’t been particularly challenging but I was feeling less able to deal with the usual challenges. Looking back on my choice of books I can see how my body and soul were craving to read and experience things that I know are good for me. I have spent two years writing about wellbeing for children and adults. I know the things that help my wellbeing, but looking back over the last term I can see I hadn’t been doing them enough.
Going into this new term I am planning ways I can incorporate more time outside and exploring nature with the children, using mindful and listening walks with them. I have been thinking again about how I best experience silence, which I know I need every day; being outside, gardening and swimming are the best ways for me. For this I am thinking about how I can increase these opportunities, I am hoping to do some gardening each week; I already swim ever Monday-Friday, but I am also thinking of ways I can fit in open-air swimming into some weekends and end of the days. In the holidays I did my first open air swim of the year in the Cornish sea, I felt so alive and full of joy, it reminded me of how good I feel when I am combining two loves, swimming and being outside.