Water: Swimming, Relaxing, Moving

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of On The Level.

By Karen R. Mizrach

If you used to love to be in the water, but don’t venture in now because of vestibular challenges, it may be time to consider trying again. With a few modifications, precautions, and mindset shifts, water activities can become an option – not only as exercise and recreation, but vestibular therapy.

Benefits Of Being In The Water

Being in water can have many benefits. You can float and move without fear of falling. Swimming, walking in water, or doing exercises while holding onto the side of the pool are good core, arm, and leg strengtheners. The soothing effects of water are well known, so even being still in water can help with anxiety. There is also some evidence that putting the body into cold water stimulates the Vagus Nerve, which is a key player in our nervous system. And not insignificantly, water just feels good.

Where To Go

Where you swim will largely depend on what’s available in your area. Pools, lakes, the ocean, indoors, outdoors, swim clubs, fitness facilities are all options. Even endless treadmill pools can be an option. Start by researching what is available in your area.

There are pros and cons to different kinds of swimming facilities. If your vestibular symptoms are triggered by light, noise, motion or temperature be aware of which locations are likely to cause you problems. If you are sensitive to chlorine try to find a lake, a salt treated pool, or calm part of a river. Note what places have fewer triggers – less crowded, indoors with no sunlight, pools with sides offering a place to hold onto and rest. Your location won’t be perfect but just being aware of any triggers can be empowering and allow you to prepare.

Check In With Your Mindset

What are your hopes, expectations, and fears? Try to approach being in water with the intention of adapting. Prepare to be kind to yourself if things progress slowly. Your goals will be different than the last time you swam, but they can be exactly what you need now. Avoid comparing your past abilities to your current limitations. Instead, try to remember the joy you used to feel being in water. There are many benefits to being in water, but they won’t matter if you don’t feel excited about the idea.

Tips

  • When getting started, go slow. Start in shallow water. Keep your feet on the ground and head above water. Hold on to something stable like the edge, another person, or a dock.
  • Have help ready. It would be smart to have someone with you for a sense of security and for help if you need it. Also, consider letting any lifeguards know you would like them to keep an eye on you.
  • Once you feel comfortable, push yourself a little more. Try letting go of the edge and experiment with a pool noodle, kick board, or other flotation device. This may take several sessions.
  • Relax. Breathe and use relaxation techniques if you feel anxious. Focus your eyes on something stationary like a chair or building.
  • Limit head movement. If you are going to swim, try using goggles and a snorkel to limit head motion.
  • Don’t focus on the waves. Avoid focusing on the top of the water as it moves. This can be triggering.
  • Be careful getting in and out. Transitioning between the water and land may cause temporary disequilibrium. This isn’t a deal breaker, but may take some practice.
  • Quit while you are still feeling ok. Mild symptoms are fine, but don’t get too uncomfortable. Start with just a few minutes. Your brain will adapt.
  • Protect yourself from the elements. You might want to try earplugs if you plan to put your head underwater. If you are outdoors, use a hat and sunglasses to limit lightsensitivity triggers.
  • Rest afterwards. Have a chair available for when you are done in the water. Let your body relax and readjust to stillness.
  • Smile! You will be ok.

Conclusion

Many of us have avoided the water because it can trigger unsteadiness. This sensation can lessen with exposure and practice. Water naturally moves. Our bodies will feel this motion and our eyes can see the water moving. But, if you are willing to try the experience it could be therapeutic and help with your tolerance of this type of motion. It’s important to assess your own situation and capabilities, but challenging your brain to be in the water could be an added “can do” in your ever growing list!