Vitamin Sea for PTSD

Vitamin Sea for PTSD - Guest Blog

We’ve written before about the huge health benefits that wild swimming, ‘cold therapy’ and being in nature can bring to people affected by PTSD and C-PTSD, but in this latest guest blog, Wendy Fry talks about her incredibly inspiring experience with sea swimming, and her ‘vitamin sea’ and how it’s helped support her with her PTSD diagnosis. 

Wendy Fry – Photo courtesy of Kristian Coburn taken from the film ‘Just Add Water.’

“I was diagnosed with PTSD in March 2021. To be honest, it didn’t come as a surprise after going through repeated personal trauma leading up to this time.  The biggest shock was accepting I’d had a nervous breakdown.  I felt embarrassed and ashamed when I realised, I wasn’t the strong and invincible person I believed myself to be.  How was I going to tell people I have a mental health condition? How was I going to find my way through? I had so many unanswered questions and didn’t know what to do.  I couldn’t foresee how much PTSD would change my life and how debilitating it would be.

With all my years working as a professional in the natural health and wellbeing industry, I found myself signed off from working. I felt floored to suddenly be the person who needed to be helped rather than the helper. Despite this dramatic role change I knew I seriously needed to take stock of my life and put on hold my career as a coach and author. Little did I know at the time of the diagnosis swimming in the sea would be a key feature in my daily healing regime.

Having never been too keen on short dark days or getting cold and wet at the same time, with the help of a friend Tabitha, I dipped my tired and painful body in the choppy North Sea at 9:30 am on Friday 9th November 2021.  You’re right, it was freezing!

You might wonder how I can be so specific on the date and time of what some sea swimmers call ‘Cold Water Dipping,’ or ‘Open Water Swimming,’ but this memory stands out clearly in my mind as it was such a bleak day in the middle of Winter. I’d barley slept a wink the night before due to PTSD nightmares and the thought of going out in almost freezing temperatures seemed a little crazy. You guessed it, I did it anyway!

Barefoot, hobbling over sharp pebbles and entering the water in nothing but a swimsuit a borrowed swim hat and gloves on this windy, murky morning I thought I was going to die from a combination of wind burn and cold-water shock. Gasping for air between screams of delight and fear, my friend Tabs, encouraged me to purse my lips and pretend I was drinking air in and out through a straw and just keep breathing. (Do you remember breathing!)

Not being the strongest of swimmers, how I managed to keep myself afloat was surprising. Once I acclimatised to the cold and the rain which started the moment we entered the water, I relaxed and began to enjoy myself bobbing about letting the sea hold me.

My body stayed buoyant, and my skin started tingling, quickly turning to red which I’m told by open water swimmers is what they call in the trade ‘lobstered.’  Despite the cold and biting wind I instantly felt the sensation and rocking movements of the sea calming me. It was blissful.

Back and forth, I was carried by the sea and with the help of the waters motion and natural nature sounds around me the trauma held deep inside me gradually start ease. I allowed myself to unashamedly cry. The bottled-up emotion came out in the form of screaming and tears which seemed unending. There I was floating and flapping about in between cries of abandon filling my lungs full of much needed air and laughter. It was so joyful to laugh and cry out after months and months of deep personal anguish. It didn’t matter how long I cried for or how loudly I sobbed, I knew I could release all the pent-up emotion into the sea, and I wouldn’t be judged.  It was so liberating and freeing.

Euphoria took over just a few minutes into the swim when I realised, I had survived the massive challenge of getting into the freezing choppy sea and not going under. There I was, fifty five year old ‘little ole me,’ five feet two inches bobbing about on the ocean on that cold November day. It was exhilarating, I felt re-energised, spirited, excited and for the first time in a long time, I truly felt alive!

At last, I could feel what I needed to feel. I could release my pain and I could allow my body to experience positive sensation even if I did feel freezing and my fingers and toes felt as though they would drop off from the cold.

Easing my way back to shore being mindful not to stay in the sea too long in low temperatures, I hurriedly doing a did my famous sideways crab walk in an attempt not to get bowled over from the thrashing waves and driving rain. As I rushed to towel myself dry and put on warm and cosy clothing, I realised for the first time in a long time I felt truly connected to something bigger than myself.

Looking out at the vast ocean, sea birds passing by high overhead and grey clouds floating by something inside me said ‘’you can do this, you will get through,’ and that is how I discovered the wonderful healing benefits of what I call ‘Vitamin Sea.’

I wasn’t as alone in the world as I believed myself to be and with the help of the sea and my swimming buddies my problems somehow seemed smaller.  I knew I’d find a way through and for me, cold-water dipping is helping to improve my day-to-day well-being. Whether I paddle, dunk, immerse myself fully and swim several widths, I feel proud of myself. Every day I get into the sea I feel a spark of joy, a glimmer of hope and a sense of aliveness that’s difficult to compare to anything else I’ve ever experienced.  For however long I stay in the sea I’m totally in the present moment and my worries seem smaller. 

 

Wendy Fry – Open Water Swimming Worthing, West Sussex. Photo shared with kind permission of Sherry Hill.

Getting into and out of the sea can sometimes be challenging and doing so not only supports me with mental well-being and stamina but also increases physical strength and personal endurance. I’m gradually beginning to feel mentally tougher and physically stronger. Recovery from PTSD isn’t an overnight job and I’m now more patient with myself and my healing journey. It’s great to have the goal each day to get up, get out and go swimming.

I’m a member of a wonderful local open water swimming group who are tremendously supportive of each other.  I know if myself or other members can’t physically get in or out of the sea alone other people in the swim group will help each other and can raise a call for help if anyone of us has difficulty in the water.  We are all helping each other overcome a range of personal challenges and I’m proud to say this group are like a new extended family to me, we all genuinely care about each other and working collectively to look out for each other and support each other’s wellbeing.

If you are considering open water swimming in an open-air pool, lake or the sea, safety must always come first. I always swim with a friend or swimming buddy if no lifeguards are present at group swims.

There are naturally some risks when open water swimming and it’s true to say I’ve drunk more than my fair share of salty sea water. I’ve fallen down a couple of times on entry to or exit from the sea and despite the unpredictability of the waves, wind and weather, I feel safe. The sea isn’t personal, it’s not doing anything to intentionally harm me.  The sea is just the sea and it’s different every day. I have learnt to respect the sea and as a positive side effect of taking part in open water swimming I have learned to respect myself and recognise my limitations while also building inner strength and resilience at the same time.

Having lived through trauma, during it and afterward, I felt nothing. I was numb. I was numb to what was happening to me. My emotions were numb, I had stopped feeling any sort of joy and seemed to only experience deep physical and emotional pain and grief. I didn’t know how to get out the situation I was in, but I got some help from PTSD UK and other support agencies and I’m taking things day by day and still finding my way through with specialist help.

Thinking specifically about how walking in the great outdoors and daily open water swimming in the sea has benefitted me, both activities have helped me massively to manage PTSD symptoms hyper and hypo arousal and dissociation. Dipping in cold water is helping me get back into my body and to feel connected to something greater than myself.  A huge additional bonus is connecting with a group of likeminded people and knowing I have the support of growing friendships and no longer isolated or alone in my plight.

Daily swimming in the sea is helping me feel alive, it’s helping me remember myself, it’s helping me remember the resilient person that I have been and I’m getting back to, and it’s massively helping me rebuild my confidence in my ability to just get up every day and get out. 

You can read more about the health benefits of open and cold water swimming here and here.

I was fortunate to be featured in a short film called Just Add Water and talk a little about my experience of PTSD and open water swimming.  Just Add Water is currently being created by filmmaker Kristain Coburn and will be completed later this year.

Just Add Water includes an array of different voices from the diverse community of sea swimmers based in Adur & Worthing: both those who’ve been doing it for years and those who’ve only recently discovered the joys of sea swimming, like Kristian who is creating a heart centred film which clearly shows his compassion for the wide range of sea swimmers overcoming personal challenges.

Here’s the trailer for Just Add Water – It’s my hope I can share the completed film and an updated blog post with PTSD UK when the film reaches completion.

So, for anyone with a PTSD diagnosis or anyone who needs to regain a sense of self I totally recommend cold water dipping.  Even if you’re not a swimmer have a paddle or sit on the edge of the shore at low tide and ‘Pilchard,’ it’s great fun. The only swim I regret is the swim I’ve missed if I can’t get in!

IMPORTANT:

  • Please be mindful of your personal ability and physical or mental health condition check with your GP if you have any concerns before you start open water swimming.
  • Always swim with someone or join a local swimming group.
  • Wear a tow float, brightly coloured swim hat and check tide times and weather conditions.
  • Pack warm clothes and a hot drink for post swim.
  • Take your phone and call 999 and ask for the Coastguard if you have an emergency.
  • If you are unsure if sea swimming is right for you, please do your research first. Perhaps visit your local swim group for a chat and get to know people, the rules of the group and how it all works.

Remember as far as possible enjoy yourself, have fun and immerse yourself in oceans of Vitamin Sea!”


Find out more about the benefits of wild swimming for PTSD and C-PTSD here, and for more safe swimming hints and tips please visit RNLI and Swim England Open Water

 

It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD or C-PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

 

Wendy Fry – Photo courtesy of Kristian Coburn taken from the film ‘Just Add Water.’
Wendy Fry – Photo courtesy of Kristian Coburn taken from the film ‘Just Add Water.’
Wendy Fry – Open Water Swimming Worthing, West Sussex. Photo shared with kind permission of Rebekah O’Carroll
Wendy Fry – Open Water Swimming Worthing, West Sussex. Photo shared with kind permission of Roz Nash
Wendy also proudly features in our Broken Crayons Still Colour: Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Through Art book - available in our Supporters Store now
Wendy Fry – Photo courtesy of Kristian Coburn taken from the film ‘Just Add Water.’

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