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 10 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 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. 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 Dr 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 14 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 adaptation. Harper and fellow cold water swimming advocates believe that the potential effect of cold water adaptation 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” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inner-source/201407/cold-splash-hydrotherapy-depression-and-anxiety). 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.
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!
This article is dedicated to the many members of FLOWS who have made my cold water swimming journey a big lake of joy.
Photo by Lance Sagar
What does cold water do for your brain? ›
The cold water sends many electrical impulses to your brain. They jolt your system to increase alertness, clarity, and energy levels. Endorphins, which are sometimes called happiness hormones, are also released. This effect leads to feelings of well-being and optimism.Why is cold water swimming so addictive? ›
Ever heard of endorphins? Cold water swimming is so addictive because it guarantees them, every time. While the exercise alone stimulates endorphins, the cold water also shocks the body, increasing the feeling of adrenaline. This means that you essentially get two for one when it comes to the exercise high.Does cold water swimming increase serotonin? ›
An increase in stress hormone is another possibility, caused by the cold shock response and leads to increases in dopamine and serotonin levels. These are commonly considered to be part of what's called the 'post-swim high'.Does cold water give you dopamine? ›
The bracing effects of cold water may offer a quick mood boost. Past research reveals that submerging your body in cold water increases dopamine concentrations by 250 percent. Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” hormone because of the key role it plays in regulating mood, per the Cleveland Clinic.How does cold water reduce anxiety? ›
A chilly zap from cold water signals to your brain to release endorphins, the feel-good hormone. This may create: A decrease in depression symptoms and anxiety. Improvement in stress levels.What are two mental benefits of swimming? ›
Alongside the fun, feel-good factor, swimming is great for the mind, with the act of simply being in water linked to a host of mental pluses such as relaxation and lowered stress. That's especially true if you're swimming in the ocean because exercising in natural environments is great for mental health.Is swimming good for anxiety and depression? ›
Studies show that swimming can be a powerful tool to manage depression symptoms. In a 2020 study , a 10-week swim program helps participants reduce fatigue, anger, and symptoms of depression. It also improved mood and a sense of well-being.How does swimming boost self-esteem? ›
Learning to swim can increase a child's confidence by improving social skills, developing their interests and inspiring them to try new things. Swim England's research has stated that seven to 16-year-olds who swim rated a higher feeling of life being worthwhile compared to those who don't.Why does cold water make me happy? ›
Research shows that the cold water can also help boost your mood by activating the sympathetic nervous system, increasing the availability of endorphins and norepinephrine — a neurotransmitter that's typically secreted by the body in response to stress.How long do you have to stay in cold water for benefits? ›
There are a few different methods you can choose from to receive benefits — including ice baths, brisk showers, outdoor swims, and cold plunges. Whichever method you choose, you'll need to stay in cold water, that's below 58 degrees, for three to eight minutes.
Is it good to swim in cold water everyday? ›
While short-term exposure in cold water can certainly improve the activity of the immune system, repeated exposure without sufficient recovery may actually lead to a reduced immune function.Can cold water swimming treat depression? ›
The study found cold-water swimming “led to an immediate improvement in mood following each swim and a sustained and gradual reduction in symptoms of depression, and consequently a reduction in, and then cessation of, medication.Is cold water an antidepressant? ›
The cold temperatures changes the way the body's nervous system communicates with the brain, thus helping to improve your health. Cold water immersion is a powerful therapeutic tool to help treat people with depression and other mental conditions. Depression affects a large majority of people around the world.Why do I feel so happy after swimming? ›
Swimming Releases Endorphins
As with any form of exercise, when we swim, our brain is prompted to release feel-good chemicals into our system called endorphins. These endorphins can help our body deal with pain and stress not only in that moment but also in the hours following.
Instead of drinking caffeine when you need a jolt of energy to keep you awake, try a glass of cold water instead. Cold water helps your body to produce adrenaline, a hormone that makes you more alert, and it doesn't have the side effects that caffeine can cause.How long does dopamine stay in cold water? ›
One study showed significant and prolonged increases in dopamine when people were in cool (60°F) water for about an hour up to their neck, with their head above water.Is cold water good for your face? ›
Lukewarm water is advisable to wash your face with, but cold water has its benefits, too. Cold water tightens the appearance of your skin, so it may make you look renewed and refreshed. It also helps boost your circulation, which can help give your skin a healthier appearance, albeit temporarily.Why does cold water calm me down? ›
Cold water as anxiety treatment
Anxiety often comes with an increased heart rate and high blood pressure. Exposure to cold water lowers the heart rate, which makes you feel calmer and thus less anxious.
Splashing cold water on your face repeatedly or putting an ice pack on your forehead can reduce anxiety. This process activates the divers reflex which lowers heart rate and breathing when exposed to cold water.Does cold water therapy work? ›
Cold water therapy has been reported to benefit the body in many ways, including: reducing muscle pain and stiffness after exercise, by reducing swelling and inflammation. improving risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
How swimming helped my depression? ›
In addition to creating new nerve cells, swimming also causes the release of endorphins, which are considered feel-good hormones that ease feelings of anxiety or stress. For those dealing with depression, swimming can work wonders on your brain and promote the growth of new brain cells.How many times a week should I swim to tone up? ›
The frequency of swimming for weight loss is the same as other cardiovascular exercises, so aim for four to five days a week for the best results, according to Jamie Hickey, a certified personal trainer and nutritionist with Truism Fitness.Is swimming good for PTSD? ›
Many medical studies have shown that aerobic activity like swimming can play a pivotal role in a post-traumatic stress disorder therapy program by helping those who suffer from PTSD battle depression and anxiety so they can achieve a healthy mind and body.What effects does swimming have on the brain? ›
Swimming supports the creation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a compound that helps repair brain cells and supports the growth of new ones. BDNF improves your brain's neuroplasticity, which can improve your cognitive function, including learning and memory.What are the 5 attitudes of a good swimmer? ›
They show commitment, perseverance, courage, humility, accountability and integrity. After pulling aside a couple of swimmers, it was interesting to see how they thought these qualities contributed to their training and overall performance.How does swimming develop your personality? ›
But as children develop a proficiency and eventual mastery of swimming skills, they grow in confidence, self-respect, and optimism. Exercise has been shown to be a great stress reliever, so they'll experience these benefits too, even at a young age.Does swimming increase IQ? ›
His research shows that swimming underwater for just three weeks is enough to see a marked improvement in IQ, attention span, verbal ability, and cognitive reasoning. With professional guidance and proper adult supervision, young children and babies can hold their breath and swim underwater for many seconds at a time.Does swimming give you a nice body? ›
Yes, swimming definitely changes your body shape. The more you swim the more will your body become unrecognizable, even to yourself. Swimming creates a slightly elongated, broad-shouldered, thin, and fit body shape, which many of us covet.How often should you cold water swim? ›
'The secret to acclimatising to cold water is just to swim in it, often – at least once a week, and preferably two or three, gradually extending the time that you stay in the water,' says Dr Heather Massey a swimmer and a researcher at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth.Why do I crave for cold water? ›
Craving or chewing ice or drinking iced beverages is the most common symptom of pagophagia. In the short term, wanting to chew or eat lots of ice may not mean you have an issue. If your cravings last longer than a month , though, you may be diagnosed with pica. Pagophagia is related to iron deficiency anemia.
What happens to your body after cold water swimming? ›
Afterdrop is the phenomenon of your body temperature continue to drop even after you get out of cold water and into a warmer environment – so that you feel colder 10 or 40 minutes after you exit than you did in the water. When you swim, your body shuts down circulation to your skin, pooling warm blood in your core.What time of day is cold water therapy best? ›
The best time to reap the benefits of cold water therapy is right after doing an intense exercise. You will get the maximum benefits if you jump into the cold shower or ice bath quickly after your workout session.What time of day is best for cold immersion? ›
Some people prefer first thing in the morning or midday. You could go at night, just remember that cold plunging has a stimulating effect. We dig it first thing in the morning, it's the perfect coffee jolt!What are the disadvantages of bathing with cold water? ›
The cons of cold showers:
It could actually make you even colder and increase the amount of time it will take for your body to warm back up. They may not be a good idea if you're sick, either. Initially, the cold temperature might be too hard on your immune system, so it's best to ease into the cooler temperatures.
Even when swimming hard, after a length of time in a cold pool, your core temperature will be slightly lowered. In addition, your body is expending more energy to maintain that temperature, which leads to greater fatigue than normal.Is cold water swimming good for stress? ›
The more you immerse yourself in cold water, it allows your brain to become used to the cold and lowers the levels of stress hormones. This will not only help you adapt to the water but can also help you respond to other stressors in your life and help reduce stress and anxiety.Is cold water swimming good for your heart? ›
Are my cold-water swims okay for my heart? A. Swimming is an excellent exercise for the heart, arteries, lungs, and muscles. If you enjoy swimming in cold water and have been doing it for some time with no ill effects, it's probably fine for you.How do you dunk your face in ice water for mental health? ›
Try the Ice Diver's Technique
When you feel panicky, flushed, or emotionally overwhelmed, take a large bowl or sink and fill it with ice cubes and water. Take a deep breath. Submerge your face (particularly your forehead, eyes, temples, nose, and upper cheeks) for fifteen seconds.
Leaving chlorine and other pool chemicals on your skin after you swim is a bad idea. They can dry out your skin, removing its natural protective oils., especially if you sleep with chlorine on your body. This can irritate it and leave it vulnerable to infections. If you're itchy after you swim, this may be why.What happens to your body if you swim everyday? ›
Health benefits of swimming
keeps your heart rate up but takes some of the impact stress off your body. builds endurance, muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness. helps you maintain a healthy weight, healthy heart and lungs. tones muscles and builds strength.
Why is water so therapeutic? ›
Water triggers our parasympathetic nervous system
Water has a powerful physiological effect on your body – so much so that even drinking a glass of water can calm your nerves. This is because water triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's 'rest and digest' response.
Additionally, cold showers can improve clarity and focus when we are experiencing brain fog. Dr. Talib explains this increase of oxygen levels acts as a “natural dose of energy,” which is why we feel so invigorated after a good plunge at the spa.Do cold showers rewire your brain? ›
Cold Therapy Exposure to cold increases norepinephrine levels by up to 500%. Norepinephrine enables brain plasticity and cell metabolism. It can help you enhance: • Mood • Focus • Attention • Vigilance A 3-minute cold shower provides huge returns.Does cold water cause Brainfreeze? ›
This sensation, which can cause a short-term headache lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes, may happen when you eat or drink something cold, like ice cream or ice water. The medical term for brain freeze is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. You may also hear this sensation referred to as cold-induced headache.Does cold water increase blood flow to the brain? ›
As mentioned above, exposure to cold water causes your noradrenaline levels to skyrocket and also triggers a rush of blood into your brain. This gives you an instant sense of vigilance, focus and improved attention.Why does cold water make me feel better? ›
The Physical Sensation of Drinking Cold Water Tells Your Brain that You're Rehydrating. Studies also suggest that the immediate relief we get from drinking ice water is purely psychological. Think back to the last time you were thirsty and couldn't wait to chug a glass of water.Does cold water increase anxiety? ›
Anxiety often comes with an increased heart rate and high blood pressure. Exposure to cold water lowers the heart rate, which makes you feel calmer and thus less anxious.Why do cold showers increase dopamine? ›
The release of norepinephrine from our adrenal glands when prompted by the cold activates the brain's energizing dopamine system. Cold showers and ice baths reduce anxiety, boost energy and immunity, improve mood, and foster longevity.How long should a cold shower be? ›
A person can start by taking a warm shower and then switching the water to cold for a brief time. This could be anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Some people prefer to take just a brief cold shower of around 5–10 minutes. This may also be a practical approach to cold water therapy.How long to take cold shower for anxiety? ›
Participants were noted to experience an improvement in their symptoms after several weeks of hydrotherapy. This consisted of 2- to 3-minute sessions of cold water showers at 68°F (20°C), one to two times per day. Anxiety often leads to an increased heart rate.
How cold should a cold shower be? ›
Cold Shower Benefits
Showering in 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit water is considered a cold shower.
But how does ice work on headaches or migraines? Elliott says the cold can constrict blood vessels and help reduce the neurotransmission of pain to the brain. Instead of registering pain, it registers “oh, that's cold.”Are brain freezes healthy? ›
Unlike other types of headaches, which last longer and usually require medication or other remedies, treating a brain freeze is as easy as warming back up. In addition, while painful, a brain freeze is actually harmless and isn't anything to alert your doctor about.Can cold water cause stroke? ›
Cold water can cause a sudden spike in heart rate and blood pressure. This increase can cause heart failure and stroke for vulnerable people.