6 Ways Wild Swimming Can Improve Your Mental Wellbeing
Lydia Paleschi is the co-founder of Wild Swimming Cornwall, a group which promotes finding community, self care and an affinity with nature through cold water immersion
Here she shares the six ways that wild swimming can boost mental health
I’ve been wild swimming for a few years now and it’s had a transformational impact on my mental health. For myself and many others the benefits have led to a marked change in lifestyle, where finding the time to immerse yourself in the cold has become a priority because of its ability to reset the mind, make you feel more confident and more connected to the natural world.
Wild swimming is the act of swimming outdoors, whilst immersing yourself in nature. This can be in rivers, lakes, lidos, the ocean and even disused quarries. It has grown significantly in popularity over the past five years, with a huge reported increase in participants this year in particular!
Whilst the mental health benefits of wild swimming up until this point are largely anecdotal, there is a growing body of evidence which explains just how good it is for us. I outline them below.
1. Increased release of dopamine
Sometimes known as a ‘happy hormone’, the release of dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. The brain releases it when we eat food that we crave or while we have sex, contributing to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as part of the reward system.
A case study undertaken by Srámek et al in 2000 showed that cold water immersion can boost dopamine levels by 530 per cent, whilst further studies have shown that it also increases the release of endorphins.
2. Improved stress response
Immersion in cold water involves the voluntary decision to initiate the body’s stress response. This stress response, which includes increased heart rate, blood pressure and the release of stress hormones, is an evolutionary development formed over millions of years to help us to deal with threats. By putting the body in this situation just a few times over the course of two weeks, we become better prepared to deal with the stress and anxieties we experience throughout life in general for up to 14 months. Long term, this can improve symptoms of both depression and anxiety.
Van Tulleken et al’s 2018 study Open Water Swimming as a Treatment for Major Depressive Disorder documents how Sarah, a young woman in her twenties, was able to stop taking antidepressants as a result of weekly cold water swimming over a sustained period of time.
3. More mindfulness
Many of us are familiar with the concept of mindfulness – a method which often includes breathing and positive mental framing to bring us into the present moment and reduce levels of anxiety. However, achieving a state of mindfulness is much easier said than done.
The shock of entering cold water, the element of risk and the feeling of connection to nature combine, to provide us with the ability to become present whilst wild swimming. Entering the cold forces us to focus on the breath, which unifies the body and mind, allowing us to overcome in those moments the dissociative qualities associated with depression, anxiety and PTSD – amongst other mental health conditions.
4. Experience the benefits of eco-therapy
There are a growing number of studies into ‘eco-therapy’ (such as Summers and Vivian’s 2018 journal Ecotherapy – A Forgotten Ecosystem Service: A Review) and the positive impact this has on both physical and psychological wellbeing.
GPs are even beginning to prescribe it as a means to combating mild to moderate depression and other mental health conditions. For example, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a type of depression which is influenced by certain seasons and/or types of weather.
Spending time outdoors both whilst wild swimming and travelling to a wild swimming location provides us with the opportunity to experience the benefits of ecotherapy. Furthermore, by removing ourselves from the physical space in which we experience everyday stresses our minds are provided with the space to process them.
5. Tap into your ‘Blue Mind’
A concept coined by Dr Wallace J Nichols in his book Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, Blue Mind can be described as “the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on or under water.” It has been identified as “the antidote to what we refer to as ‘red mind,’ which is the anxious, over-connected and over-stimulated state that defines the new normal of modern life.” Wild swimming provides us with the opportunity to access our “blue mind”, take a break from the anxieties and stresses of everyday life and improve our chances of experiencing an elevated mood. .
6. Confidence, resilience and bravery
Swimming in cold water makes us both physically and mentally stronger, by making our bodies and minds more resilient. We experience resistance when heading into the cold, therefore by overcoming this resilience and getting into the water we train our minds to overcome the little voice in our mind that says we can’t do something. This is then applicable to other aspects of our lives and enables us to push ourselves out of our comfort zone regularly. Over time this helps us to grow stronger, braver and more confident.
Other things you should know
There is also a significant amount of research into the physical health benefits of wild swimming, including but not limited to: improved fitness, improved immunity, increased metabolism, lower inflammatory response, improved circulation, improved sleep and recovery, and better skin.
I believe so strongly in the wellbeing benefits of wild swimming that this year I teamed up with two of my friends to co-found Wild Swimming Cornwall. Our aim is to educate as many people as possible about these benefits both in county and further afield. We believe that by getting more people in the water we can play a small part in creating a healthier and happier community.
Please remember, it is important to do risk assessments each and every time before entering the water to make it as safe as possible. You can learn more about the risks via the Wild Swimming Cornwall and RNLI websites.