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Column: A simple thank you goes a long way

A column on mental health self-care.
Woman at the swimming pool relaxing with eyes closed.

I started swimming about four years ago. With its ups and downs, the pool has been a part of my life ever since. And even though it started as a simple workout, it definitely became more than that over time. 

First, swimming was a challenge. A challenge to accept a change in my life. A challenge to get up in the mornings. A challenge to stick to a routine. A challenge to get through my brain's resistance to getting in the water when it was cold outside. A challenge to enjoy a workout when physically it was on the harder side. A challenge to stay engaged and not get bored while swimming.

Soon, with the help of a talented local instructor, I got a handle on the technical part of swimming and, boy, did it make a difference. Once I didn't need to think about the "how" of swimming, I started falling in love with it. However, that didn't happen instantly and was rather a journey.

After some further training, I got to a point where my body could automatically do the job and my brain was all to myself – a rare condition in today's world of information overload. So, the first few times I wasn't sure what to do with myself, because, unlike most other circumstances, when in the pool, you can't do anything except for swimming.

You can't scroll through the phone; you can't listen to anything (of course, unless you go the extra mile for special equipment, but it wasn't something I wanted to do); you can't watch TV; and even talking with a fellow swimmer is a not going to work without detriment to the workout itself (which I indeed enjoyed and didn't want to ruin for myself).

For the first time since my first smartphone, every day or every other day I was left alone with myself for about half an hour. It sounds like nothing but try it. I feel that we have forgotten how to be bored, how to just think without a problem-solving component, how to do nothing; we never have time for it. So, when I stepped into these long-forgotten waters, anxiety that just naturally existed inside me as a response to life came up and filled the void.

So, when swimming, I was also trying to calm my brain, which screamed that it was "missing out", "forgetting" and whatever else it could come up with trying to get me out of the pool and into a more traditional, information-loaded routine, seeking an alternative solution. And I did.

One day, a thought about gratitude dairies crossed my mind. I've never tried keeping one (no time, right?), and I felt that it might provide a bit of a structure for my raging brain. So, as I was swimming, I started listing different things I could be grateful for, small or big, from the previous day, along with general ones.

After the first few tries, that gratefulness started turning into a habit. Once I hit the water, my brain right away would turn towards the good things in life, leaving worries, problems and anxiety behind.

When I was done with gratitude, if I was still swimming, my mind remained clear and calm. It didn't need to find "something to do" anymore. I was rather happy to be bored and enjoy the existence with all its nuances.

That was the time when swimming got established in my life and the pool or any body of water turned into my happy place. That little habit helped me to calm down, let go, focus on the positive sides and also spread that attitude.

I don't know about you, but for me, it seems that the wheels are turning faster and faster as life goes on. The centrifugal force often feels enormous and strengthening in its attempt to kick off the passengers. So, when I find a moment of peace, a state of balance, where I don't need to resist, not only do I get a break from the daily craziness, which keeps me in a better condition at the moment, but I also recharge for any upcoming battles.

A bit of a gentle physical activity, combined with gratitude to the world, people around and myself works well, helping to slow down at the time of acceleration.

A clear state of mind nowadays requires constant effort. It's hard to stay mentally healthy, not only because of today's environment but also because of the stigma, prejudice and stereotypes around mental health that keep us away from doing something to help ourselves or reaching out for help.

A little self-care and a little thank you to others and the self go a long way in keeping yourself in a better place. Sharing your experiments and routine stories with others also helps to deconstruct the stigma and inspire people to pay more attention to their inner needs.

I found it beautiful that this year Mental Health Awareness Week, marked on Oct. 1-7, concludes with Thanksgiving. Perfect timing to try the trick. Enjoy your time with friends, family or just yourself, and indeed think of something in your life and in every day to be grateful for. It does change a lot.