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Kelsey: Swimming Toward Mental Health

Barbara Hummel
Elizabeth Kelsey drinks coffee poolside before a 6:30 a.m. Masters practice, with her swimming gear and waterproof notebook by her side.

I took up swimming to get my body in shape, and only later discovered that it would also exercise my mind. I struggle with anxiety and depression, and exercise is known to lift moods by releasing endorphins in the body. Whether I'm ruminating over an issue in my family, puzzling through a conundrum with work, or worrying about the past, a swim almost always helps.I didn't start swimming for fitness until I was 30. I missed the experience of training on a team and competing in events when I was young, but I have it now as a member of U.S. Masters swimming, a national organization for those 18 and over, with teams scattered throughout the country. I swim with the UV Rays at the Upper Valley Aquatic Center in Hartford five days a week.

I've also been a long-distance runner, and I'm used to the powerful feeling of calm after an intense 5K. But there's something different about swimming.

When I immerse myself in the pool, I find thoughts racing through my head are often stilled. The shock of the cold water focuses my attention on how my body is feeling, effectively blocking whatever turmoil may be raging in my mind. And once I'm in the water, below the surface and starting to swim, I feel cut off from the cares of the world. In the silence, the timed breathing and the repetitive movement comforts and regulates, leaving me feeling weightless.

Swimming allows me to experience solitude without feeling alone because I'm part of a team. When I swim with others and follow a workout, I have to keep track of my breathing and my level of exertion. I keep track of my pace by means of a large clock on the wall, and to a degree, I also keep track of my teammates. The need to think about so many things at once gives my mind a break from other matters. And when I exit the pool, I often find I've solved whatever problems I jumped in with.

Swimming may not offer this kind of unexpected health for everyone, but I'm certainly grateful for the peace and renewal it brings to me.