Cold Water Swimming and Mental Wellbeing

Hello, my name is Hannah and I am an Assistant Psychologist at the Keeping Well NCL Hub. Today I am going to talk about cold water swimming – otherwise known as wild swimming – and the positive impact it’s had on my wellbeing. I’m also going to share some tips on how to get started if cold water swimming isn’t something you’ve ever done before.

I began cold water swimming in January of 2018 after a friend recommended it to me. She told me it had helped her to cope with her anxiety and she had built it in to her weekly routine as a way of taking care of her mental health. Instantly, I was drawn to it – what would make someone trek (often in the cold and the rain) to a pool or a pond and plunge themselves into icy water during the depths of winter? The seeming insanity of it intrigued me. At the time, I was struggling with my own feelings of anxiety and felt willing to try anything that was recommended to me, so I packed my swimming costume and naively set off to the ponds on Hampstead Heath.

The easiest way to describe the feeling of entering water below 10 degrees is that it takes your breath away – literally. This initial response – gasping or hyperventilating – happens as an initial reaction to the shock of the cold water and it is an example of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. This happens as a result of the body being flooded with cortisol. It sounds scary and still sometimes it can take me by surprise but when I start to feel this shortness of breath as I enter the water. I remind myself to take slow deep breaths and not to panic and slowly my body starts to adjust to the temperature. As cold exposure expert, the ‘Iceman’ himself, Wim Hof, explains – breathing is the key to any cold-water exposure.

As well as the fast release of cortisol, the shock of cold water prompts the pituitary gland to release what are known as beta-endorphin hormones which provide pain relief and give a sense of euphoria. This explains why the cold water stops feeling so cold after a few moments and also why you get a post-swim high or buzz – a feeling of bliss that so many swimmers describe.

There is growing research that shows that repeated exposure to cold water can decrease a person’s overall stress response and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by boosting dopamine levels and increasing the release of endorphins. Being outdoors also allows us to connect with nature which has a proven positive impact on our wellbeing. Being out in green or blue spaces can also help to combat the effect of Seasonal Affective Disorder, something many people struggle with during the winter months. I have also found that cold water swimming encourages me to be more mindful. When I enter the water, my only focus is on my breath and the way my body feels in the cold. In a time of great uncertainty when many things in the world feel precarious or unknown, it can be hard to find these mindful moments. I have long wanted to build meditation into my daily routine but have always struggled setting aside the time or being consistent. I consider cold water swimming a form of meditation, a time when I feel present and experience a real connection with my body. Like anything, cold water swimming isn’t a magic cure. There are still times when I am in the water and my mind won’t stop racing and it feels like maybe the cold hasn’t worked its normal magic but on these days I remind myself that just by getting into the water I have done something to be proud of. It really does feel like a huge sense of achievement and it’s given me the confidence to try other things that feel impossible or scary at first too.

For anyone considering trying cold water swimming for the first time, here are some tips to help you get started.

  • First and foremost, swim where it is safe. Somewhere like a lido or pond where there are lifeguards and other people around. There are a number of places in and around London – from lidos to lakes – that have lifeguards to ensure your safety.
  • In the lead up to your first swim or between swims, turn your shower to run cold for a bit to acclimatise your body. Start with turning on the cold tap for a few seconds at the end of your shower and build it up over time to a minute or two. Just remember to breathe.
  • After your swim, dress quickly and warmly. Often you don’t feel the cold immediately after you leave the water so there’s a temptation to take your time with getting out of your swimwear. Try and get dressed as quickly as possible as it’s much harder to do this once you start shivering. Wear lots of layers, including a scarf, hat and gloves so that you can naturally raise your body temperature once you leave the water. You’ll often see regulars to cold water spots wearing big fleece lined jackets called Dry Robes which help you get changed discretely after your swim and keep you warm as they have a thick fleecy layer. I’ve managed many years without one as they’re pricey but I always remember to bring more layers than I think I’ll need. It’s also a good idea to have a hot drink and a snack afterwards to keep your body warm and your energy levels up.
  • Resist the urge to jump into a hot shower. When you have a hot shower straight away the blood can run from your core (where it’s working hard to maintain your core temperature and keep you alive) to your skin and actually make your temperature drop along with your blood pressure – potentially making you feel faint and ‘stinging’ your skin.
  • Invest in some neoprene gloves and socks. I discovered these a few years in and I wish I had found them earlier. These are made of the same material as wetsuits and they work by trapping a thin layer of water between the feet and hands and the sock or gloves which is then kept warm by body heat. I am always surprised at how much of a difference they make.
  • In colder temperatures, stick to the guidance of only staying in the water for the number of minutes equal to the temperature. So when the water is 6 degrees, don’t stay in for longer than 6 minutes

Last but not least – enjoy it! The feeling of immersing yourself in cold water is truly exhilarating and I would recommend it to anyone, at least once. I hope this podcast has encouraged your curiosity and provided some helpful ideas to get started. Thank you for listening.

Hannah is an Assistant Psychologist within The Keeping Well NCL Hub. In this podcast, Hannah shares her experience of cold water swimming and talks about the ways it has benefitted her mental wellbeing. She also shares some tips on how to get started if cold water swimming is something you’d like to try.