In at the Deep End: Cold Water Swimming


Jan 26, 2022

The psychological benefits of cold water swimming by Victoria Leeson (Therapist at Head Agenda)

Last year, I accidentally took up cold water swimming. I say accidentally; I obviously made proactive choices to engage in these icy swims, it’s just my intention at the start of my wild swimming journey in the Spring of 2017 wasn’t to continue all year round. One GB Ice Swimming Championships later (it was the fun 50 m relay, but still), a mini triathlon entered and a whole heap of wonderfully embracing fellow swimmers befriended and I am suitably addicted.
Cold water swimming has massively increased in popularity over the past ten years. The experience of my very first cold water swim was a revelation; the immediacy of the cold, fresh water on bare skin and the chilling impact on my body, the change in viewpoint – immersed in water and not on dry land -, the connection to nature and the elements along with the camaraderie of my fellow swimmers (strangers first meeting with hugs, hot flasks and an excited anticipation of the forthcoming swim) felt magical, maddening and majestic all at the same time. What rational individual would immerse themselves in fresh water with a current Autumnal temperature of 13 degrees from a muddy lakeside with a bunch of people they have never met? Er, I guess that would be me! What followed over the year after that first swim would be a full immersion into the world of cold water swimming and an abundance of life enhancing, connecting experiences. If you are struggling to understand why myself and my fellow dippers would want to lower ourselves into the murky depths of our natural water courses, lakes and rivers let me enlighten you.

Effects of cold water swimming
The positive effects of cold water immersion, and therefore cold water swimming, have been widely reported both anecdotally and scientifically, though the latter is still in the early stages of study. In this era of water loving writers, the likes of Joe Minihane (author of “Floating”), Jenny Landreth (author of “Swell”) and Alexandra Heminsley (journalist and author of “Leap In”) all extoll the virtues of an icy dip, particularly from a mental health perspective. An article in The Stylist magazine in 2017, written by Anna Brech states, “cold water immersion triggers a series of beneficial responses in the body and brain, while the act of swimming itself is therapeutic too”. For me, the impact of the cold water means I can think of nothing else but what is happening to my body – the numbing of the fingers, the icy feel of the water itself, the sense of needing to gulp air but attempting to slow myself down, to regulate my breathing. “Are you mad? Why would you want to put yourself through that?” you may ask (reader nods head vigorously). In being so connected to my body the perpetual to-do list running around my brain disappears, the sense of foreboding that I woke up with that morning reduces, the cyclical thoughts and worries dispel and a sense of wonder and madness as I immerse in the elements in a such a pure way emerges. As Doctor Mark Harper, the cold water swimming expert for the Outdoor Swimming Society reports, “You are not only immersing yourself in the water but in the moment”. It certainly feels that way.

Impact on the body
But what are the processes happening to my body that I am less conscious of as I go for a cold water swim? Harper is a big exponent of cold water swimming after first starting his journey some fourteen years ago and has much to say about these effects. In a Telegraph article last year written by cold water swimming advocate Jenny Landreth, Harper states, “Repeated immersion helps train our fight of flight response”. The icy temperature of the water activates the body’s stress response – our evolutionary sense of coping with potential threats – physically releasing cortisol, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure and causing us to hyperventilate. The same physiological response to the physical stress that we experience in cold water can also be triggered many times over as we experience the psychological stresses which are in such abundance in our day to day lives – our bodies certainly don’t differentiate between where our stress is coming from. However, repeated immersions in cold water can reduce this chronic stress response as the body becomes used to the cold water in a process known as cold water adaption. Harper and fellow cold water swimming advocates believe that the potential effect of cold water adaption potentially then leaves us not overreacting to stressful situations in our day to day lives. I started cold water swimming during a particular stressful time at work and, although my evidence here is anecdotal, I firmly believe if I hadn’t had the resource of cold water swimming the experience of that stress would have been magnified. In effect, my cold water swims provide me with a much needed coping mechanism for my day to day stress both in terms of their therapeutic and social benefit but also physiological benefit too.

Possible treatment for depression
Harper has just co-authored a case report published in the British Medical Journal, along with a team at The University of Portsmouth headed by Mike Tipton, about cold water adaptation and the theory that it could also be used as a treatment for depression. The basis of this case report looks into the effects of cold water swimming as an anti-inflammatory effect and therefore potential treatment for depression – depression being synonymous with high levels of inflammation in the brain. How does this work? In very basic terms: as our bodies react to the cold and enter survival mode blood is generated to our core organs. This then causes a potent effect on our circulation – our extremities become colder and the cold receptors in our skin are activated sending electrical impulses from our nerve endings to our brain. At the same time that blood is directed to our core organs, “fresh blood is reflexively directed to our brain gently detoxifying the area bringing nutrition and oxygen” ( Subsequently, the electrical impulses sent to our brain can have an anti-depressive effect whilst the circulation of fresh blood can result in a lower brain temperature which relieves inflammation.

Post swim euphoria
In short, cold water swimming activates a number of responses that can prove beneficial to anyone but particularly those experiencing chronic stress, anxiety and depression. That’s not to discount those that also believe that the effects of cold water swimming can also alleviate chronic pain conditions. Studies have shown that cold water immersion can also increase levels of dopamine, serotonin and beta-endorphins – the latter chemicals being central to pain management. Many swimmers, including the lovely bunch I have befriended over the last year, will talk of the “post swim high” or the “post swim glow” – a feeling of euphoria which isn’t just attributed to the possible act of dissent of leaving dry land and immersing in the watery elements or the amount of cake we are consuming post swim. Couple that with the opportunity to connect to nature, the sense of achievement of doing something a little out of my comfort zone and the interaction with a community of like-minded folk and it’s a hobby I have no intention of stopping. As Mike Tipton says, “Cold water swimming is a holistic therapy. Exercise, being in nature, community – the cold water is an additional effect”. And you get to wear a daft hat!

If you have heard about cold water swimming, thought it is something you might like to try and/or wondered if it is for you, The Outdoor Swimming Society has a wealth of information on local swimming spots, swimming clubs and health and safety considerations
In my experience the time to start is now, especially before the water temperature drops too low. Look out for local groups for that all important knowledge on local swim spots, camaraderie and, of course, a supply of post swim cake. Take plenty of warm clothes, a hat (some of us wear these whilst swimming) and a hot drink for afterwards (drink whilst eating cake). Be mindful of how your body responds to the cold water, that you always swim at your own risk, never swim alone and breathe out!

Disclaimer: This article has been designed for entertainment and informational purposes; it is not personalised medical advice. This guide may be a useful read to generate some ideas, however, please take advice from a medical professional.

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