The thought of cold open-water swimming might be enough to set your goosebumps off, but after a deep dive into the why, the benefits certainly outweigh the initial chill
Floating, weightlessness, resilience, and total freedom – that’s what swimming means to me. So imagine those feelings combined with the sun on your back, the scent of grass and earth in the air, and gentle waves carrying you forward.
In this case, I’m talking about open-water swimming – in fact, cold open-water swimming. Now this isn’t a new concept – it’s actually been around for centuries – but it only seems to be in the past few years, and poignantly during 2020, that the practice of swimming in wild locations is really being acknowledged for its physical and mental health benefits.
From seas, to lakes and rivers, perhaps the most notable thing is the colder the water the better! Often hailed as an elixir for good health, cold open-water swimming has been linked to pain relief, and a reduction in inflammation, increased concentration and libido, improved circulation, and has significant positive impacts on chronic low-mood and stress, to name just a few benefits. And, science is backing it.
A pioneering study published in the British Medical Journal details how a weekly programme of cold open-water swimming prescribed to a 24-year-old woman struggling with depression and anxiety, actually led to an immediate and significant improvement in her conditions, enabling her to live medication-free.
But how does it work, you might be asking? Well it’s all to do with training the body to induce the natural cycle of stress to prompt self-regulation and relief, building resilience, and staying grounded. Not to mention the sense of accomplishment, camaraderie with fellow swimmers, a boost of endorphins, and the meditative state nature can induce. So, let’s dive a little deeper...
Riding the wave
A key power of cold water swimming is its ability to induce the stress response in our bodies, as psychotherapist and counsellor Greg Savva explains.
“The human ‘stress response’ is designed to act as the body’s instinctive survival mechanism when you’ve been triggered by stress or environmental threats,” says Greg. “For example, sudden changes in your metabolic rate will trigger a stress response – changes in temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate, extreme thirst or hunger, injury etc.
“The brain automatically floods the body with stress hormones, which throw us into a ‘state of shock’, and later stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate our metabolism – bringing physiological sensations and emotions back into equilibrium.”
Cold water swimming can induce this biological process, training you to build resilience in the face of adversity, which can be particularly helpful for those with anxiety and panic attacks.
What’s been discovered is that immersing your face in cold water is key. This stimulates the vagus nerve – your body’s communication highway and part of the parasympathetic nervous system – which helps to slow the heart rate, relax the body, and activate metabolism.
Greg explains that utilising this practice triggers a ‘mammalian response’, effective in calming anxiety. “The mammalian dive response in humans is located in the somatic nerves of the facial muscles, so when ice cold water is applied to the face it rapidly reduces your heart rate, and stimulates the muscle tissue to store more oxygen.”
But it’s not just your mental state that can benefit from this activity. Often, common physical ailments can be linked to chronic low-grade inflammation, with many of us living with constant aches and pains. When cold water is applied to specific areas of the body, the blood vessels constrict, restricting the blood flow to reduce inflammation.
Tide to the moment
Beyond the physical sensations, nature can induce mindfulness, as person-centred counsellor and keen outdoor swimmer Naomi Wright explains. In fact, it’s for this very reason she keeps going back to the tarns in the Lake District.
“There is a good reason why those of us who continue to seek out the cold water do so,” Naomi says. “When you’re in the water, you have to remain focused on moving and breathing, so for that time you’re free from stress or anxiety. You’re completely present.
“Swimming in cold water takes courage and bravery, and every cold swim reminds you of those things within you. From there, you can realise your own power and resilience. It awakens a mindfulness in me. Because I swim in lakes and tarns, the connection to nature has a powerful impact – it offers perspective.”
Take the plunge
If jumping into a cold lake at the get go doesn’t sound all that appealing, we’re with you, and we wouldn’t recommend it for complete beginners either!
Psychotherapist and counsellor Greg recommends starting small, and a little closer to home. “You can begin to improve your wellbeing by gradually reducing the temperature of your morning showers. As you stagger your immersion into cold water, try not to tense up the muscles. Breathe in deep and slow, to regulate your thermo-generative ability, and relax.
“Very soon, often after just 10 days or so, you should find that the brown adipose tissue (known as the brown fat) in your neck generates enough body heat to enjoy a deep sense of calm.”
Another great option Greg suggests is spending time outside on a frosty morning in just a T-shirt, as this can trigger the same bodily response. But if you are keen to explore wild open waters, a good starting point would be to join others who can show you the ropes. You can find swim groups across the UK at outdoorswimmingsociety.com.
While writing this, something struck me. There came a point where I couldn’t put pen to paper until I had moved to a new location – writer’s block was in full force. But this time, the only place that truly stimulated my brain was the garden – being present in nature. I might have felt cold, but my brain was awash with creativity. Go figure.
Don’t go chasing waterfalls
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to give cold open-water swimming a try, be sure to stay safe. Here are a few reminders:
- Enter the water slowly to allow your body to acclimatise.
- Ideally swim with other people who are familiar with the body of water you’re visiting.
- Make sure people know where you are and what you’re doing.
- Be aware of your surroundings – entry and exit points.
- Wear a bright swimming cap or something to ensure you are visible in the water.
Greg Savva is an experienced counsellor, psychotherapist, and counselling supervisor specialising in anxiety, trauma, and couples counselling.
Naomi Wright is a person-centred counsellor, with a special interest in mental health in agriculture and the rural community.
For more information and to get in touch with Greg or Naomi, visit counselling-directory.org.uk