The popularity of dipping into icy cold waters has soared this winter. With many singing their praises of this endorphin-releasing activity. OB Ambassador, Bethan is no stranger to that! We caught up with Bethan earlier in the week to hear her take on cold water swimming as a strategy to have more energy for life. Hear more from Bethan below.
Hi! I’m Bethan and I’m all about strategies to have more energy for life and live well in the world.
I’ve struggled with my wellbeing and mental health for most of my life. Over the years I’ve found things that have helped make things more manageable and I’m passionate about sharing what I’ve learnt to help other people ‘Live Well In The World’.
How it all started...
One of the strategies I use to help me live well in the world - and which has had a huge impact on my wellbeing - has been cold water swimming.
Last summer, just as pools were reopening after the first lockdown, I was really struggling with low mood and generally feeling very bleak. After a few really rough days my husband made a suggestion - why didn’t I go for a swim? I didn’t have to stay long, I didn’t have to swim more than I was comfortable with, but maybe it would help me feel a little more me? It was a brave suggestion, I’m generally pretty dismissive of other people’s ideas when I’m in the pit of depression, but for some reason the idea resonated. The idea of submerging myself in cold water had a lure I can’t quite explain so I figured it would be worth a go. It was amazing, for the first time in a long time I felt like myself. My mind was clear, my body felt alive and although my form was terrible and my endurance shocking I loved my 200 metres of awkward breaststroke. Swimming was a game changer.
Photo from the Guardian
Cold water swimming and mental health
Cold water swimming can have an amazing effect on your mental health because it helps you learn to tolerate stress more effectively, boosts your self-esteem and connects you with nature. Plus it’ll leave you feeling smug as hell!
1) An increased tolerance to stress: Stress is something we’ve accepted as inherently negative, and it can be if we don’t understand it and manage it well. But if you take control of it, well then stress can be your best mate. One of the ways you can take control of stress is to get familiar with how our bodies react to stress, and cold water swimming is a great way to do this. Submerging yourself in cold water creates a stress reaction similar to the one you experience when you’re in a scary situation, in response to this stress the body releases cortisol and cases both your breathing rate and heart rate to increase and the body’s fight of flight mechanism to kick in, at first this might make you want to leap out of the water but over time the stress reaction will reduce as you adjust to the temperature. Over time your body learns that it doesn’t need to have such an extreme reaction to stress and what’s really cool is that this applies to other stressful situations in life.
2) Improved self esteem: I’ve often found that during periods of intense depression I feel totally incapable of doing anything. I know what will help me feel more myself, but I just don’t have the strength to do it. Although cold water swimming can’t help with this in the immediacy over time the process of forcing myself to endure the cold has contributed to improvements in my mental strength. Getting out of your comfort zone helps to build your confidence and courage, both things that you need to draw on during episodes of depression. What’s more by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable you’re increasing your resilience and tolerance to stress in other areas of your life.
3) Spending time in nature: Research suggests that spending time in nature can help with mild to moderate depression possibly due to combining movement, social contact and being outside. What’s more, being outside in natural light can be helpful if you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and anecdotally could help with a myriad of other mental health problems. Isabel Hardman has written a great book on the impact being outdoors can have on your mind called The Natural Health Service if you’re keen to find out quite how amazing nature can be.
4) The post swim high: The unique mixture of exercise and the sting of cold water releases a hit of dopamine, the body’s feel good hormone which leaves you feeling pretty invincible. Although this high is short lived it is addictive and will motivate you to get back to the pool for another hit, helping you build some good habits along the way.
Plus nothing beats the look on people’s faces when you say you swim in freezing water for giggles!
Since sharing my love for cold water swimming I’ve had a few people tell me that they’d like to give it a go but the thought of getting into cold water scares them - so if you feel a bit nervous know you’re not alone!
So much of cold water swimming is down to mindset, if you’re scared or have hyped yourself up about how cold the water will be, then you’re going to find it so much harder to take the plunge. Luckily there are few tricks you can try to help you shift your mindset and jump on in:
1) Flip The Narrative: Sometimes the way to fight negative thoughts about an experience is to flip the narrative. Instead of telling yourself how cold the water is going to be flip the narrative to how fresh the water will feel.
2) Remind Yourself of Your Why: There has to be a reason why you want to try out cold water swimming, so when you’re feeling scared or nervous remind yourself of that why. Whether it’s curiosity or because you want to improve your wellbeing, remembering why you’re doing something can carry your through difficult moments.
3) Mind Over Matter: Sometimes you just need to boss up and get on with the task in hand, and cold water swimming is one of those times. There aren’t many ways around the fact it is going to be cold and you just need to accept that and get on with it (with the help of the tips below).
If you’re going to take the plunge you need to make sure you do it safely.
1) Swim somewhere safe: It sounds obvious, but you really need to make sure you’re swimming somewhere safe. If you’re a newbie try searching our either a local unheated pool with lifeguards or search out a local wild swimming group that hosts organised sessions in safe swimming spots. Never ever wild swim alone.
2) Acclimatise: The initial shock of stepping into cold water can, quite literally, take your breath away so it’s important to take things slowly. As you enter the water I generally wet my face and the back of my neck to prime these very sensitive areas for the cold, and as I lower myself in further I’ll exhale so that my ribcage contracts and it’s a bit easier to breath without gasping!
3) Don’t over do it: Now isn’t the time to show off! When it comes to cold water you really don’t need to spend ages in the water to see the benefits, studies on cold water immersion suggests there’s not a great deal of benefit to staying in the water for more than two minutes.
4) Warm up the right way: The risks when it comes to cold water swimming aren’t just when you’re in the water, once you get out you’ve got to be careful too. When you get out dry off your swimming hat and pop on a woolly hat to keep the warmth in (you lose a lot of your body heat through your head) and then dry your feet and pop on some socks before layering up (I usually throw on thermals, a wool jumper and then my DryRobe or a down jacket). I also always have a warm drink in my Ocean Bottle and something sugary on hand to help raise my body temperature too!
Thank you, Bethan for sharing your top tips with us! If you want to hear more from Bethan, we strongly encourage you to go and check out her blog.