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  • Writer's picturePatrick Ireland

My secret to beating depression: swim for your life

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

This article was originally published by Shout Out UK on 24/03/2017.

Depression is almost as common now as the common cold. It is said that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year — with depression being among the most likely of candidates. 

What’s even more worrying is that fact that our collective mental health is only getting worse. By 2030, depression and mental illness is expected to be the largest contributor to the ‘global disease burden’. Now, we can go back and forth on why this is the case. I’d wager that the slow decline (or death) of Western capitalism; characterised by economic stagnation, low wages, precarious work and higher levels of personal debt among other things, plays some kind of role in the rapid escalation of our ongoing ‘mental health crisis’.

But I am not here to talk about the why … instead, I want to turn to how I combat — or ‘manage’ — my own depression.

To begin with, I was first diagnosed with depression when I was 19. 2010 was fast-approaching and I had just finished my first term as a fresher at university. It wasn’t a particularly fun time for me, as I am sure you can imagine, and I was in a lot of denial at first. Indeed, this wasn’t the first time I went into denial about my depression; and as late as 2013, I was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that I was vulnerable to it. I was embarrassed, even ashamed, that a prim and proper middle-class boy like me could even get depressed...

From my own experience, depression can be brought on by external circumstances (a girlfriend breaking up with you, some dramatic change in your life, grief, etc.) but quickly develops a life of its own — almost totally separate to the initial circumstances that might have triggered a depressive episode. This is not always the case however, and sometimes you can just get depressed; regardless of circumstance.

Essentially, what I am trying to say is that if your girlfriend breaking up with you triggered a depressive episode, it is unlikely, in my opinion, that trying to solve or come to terms with that will effectively combat your depression.

Depression is an illness and should be dealt with as such. It can only be treated through an understanding that it is depression you are treating — not the woes of your love life or some other external factor. You can’t treat cancer with paracetamol, catch my drift?

And certainly, unlike some people, I am completely supportive of medications such as Prozac or Citalopram to help manage one’s own depression. They are NOT permanent solutions by any means and long-term abuse can be problematic, even serious. But in the short term: yes, by all means use them as a crutch. As for things like CBT and other forms of therapy, in all honesty... I’ve never really found them that helpful.

Recently though, I have been using something else to help manage my depression: swimming.

The natural endorphins physical exercise produces is second to none when it comes to managing depression. This is well-documented. Moreover, it can also be an effective way of building self-esteem and confidence — something that many people with depression are often in need of — as you lose weight and become happier with the tone and general health of your body.

Swimming though, for me, is by far the most effective form of exercise in depression management. I would go as far as to say that all medical professionals should recommend swimming to anyone diagnosed with depression. The feeling of the water engulfing your body, and the instinctual need to gasp for breath and continue moving, is why I think swimming is so effective for those with depression. Why? Because it forces you to focus solely on the act of swimming: on, to put it bluntly, not drowning. This means that your brain becomes naturally less noisy, which is also helped by the somewhat soothing sensation of sound once under water.

In addition, swimming is an all-body exercise that works every muscle group: your heart, the muscles in your legs, arms, torso and hips. It requires every part of you, body and mind, to be working towards the same goal; and this sense of cohesion, of simultaneous collective labour, goes some way, I think, to mending the somewhat fractured and disjointed internal landscape depression ultimately creates within yourself.

Without trying to sound too poetic or pretentious: it brings the broken parts of your self into one, complete whole. At least for the duration of that swim.

Ultimately, I think people struggling with depression should be looking to swim and exercise at least three times per week — if not more. In the immortal words of Dory from Finding Nemo: ‘just keep swimming’. It has certainly worked for me.

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