• Wild swimming has a host of mental and physical benefits that can reduce anxiety and stress

  • Laura Silverman, author of The Little Book for Wild Swimmers, explores why this is

In 2018, the British Medical Journal published a paper that suggested cold-water swimming could have significant benefits for mental health. The case study was a 24-year-old woman called Sarah, who had suffered from depression and anxiety for years. Antidepressants had left her in a “chemical fog”. She longed for an alternative. The treatment, devised by Dr Chris van Tulleken, a medical doctor and researcher at University College London, was a weekly dose of cold-water swimming. Within four months, Sarah was drug- and depression-free.

Many wild swimmers attest to the mood-boosting effects of a plunge in cold water, anything below 15C (59F). Evidence may still be largely anecdotal, but it is growing louder – and there is science to support some of the claims. 

Swimmers often say a plunge makes them feel alive: lethargy disappears and sluggishness scurries away. This is because cold water activates our sympathetic nervous system, our fight-or-flight response, flooding us with the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Within the first minute of a dip, we feel a gush of energy.

Cold water boosts our levels of dopamine, too – the brain chemical behind our drive, motivation and feelings of reward by a staggering 500 per cent. This natural high lasts for up to four hours. The cold also causes a release of beta-endorphins and serotonin, our happy hormones, further improving our mood. In one UK study, 61 people who learned to swim in cold water over ten weeks reported a greater sense of well-being than friends and relatives who watched them from the shore.

The benefits of mindfulness are well-documented, but many people find it difficult to practise it on dry land. Wild swimming offers an ideal environment. The bracing cold makes us pay attention to the moment, and we become hyperaware of our tingling limbs and frozen noses. If everyday concerns intrude, the cold brings us back to the here and now.

Cold water could also help our body deal with stress. The shock of the cold makes us take short, sharp breaths and our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. We can counter this by deep breathing, taking deep, deliberate breaths from our diaphragm. This slows down our heart rate and lowers or stabilises our blood pressure. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system. By focusing on breathing deeply and rhythmically, wild swimming becomes much like meditation on the move.

The watery environment provides all the benefits of eco-therapy (spending time in nature), while potentially maximising the restorative effects. Submerging ourselves in the water enables us to experience the natural world on its own terms. We engage with it completely as we surrender to the elements. We might feel at one with the landscape, surrounded by water as far as the eye can see. Opening our minds, we may experience the “oceanic feeling” described by the French writer Romain Rolland in a letter to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in the nineteenth century. Rolland used the phrase to describe “a sensation of eternity” or “being one with the external world”. In the water, we realise that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.

“Blue mind theory”, developed by marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, might have a part to play, too. This suggests that being around water encourages a gentle meditative state. Watching the ocean increases alpha waves in our brain, those produced when we’re calm. Listening to the crash of waves or lapping water switches on our parasympathetic nervous system.

Wild swimming offers an enormous sense of satisfaction and can boost our self-esteem when we emerge – especially if we’ve overcome the cold or challenged ourselves to meet new people. 

Experts think that swimming in cold water can make us more emotionally resilient, too, because of “cross-stress adaptation”. This is because our body experiences the cold as a form of stress. While long-term stress can be damaging, an acute bout of stress (like that caused by cold water) might be useful. By subjecting ourselves to a little stress in the water, we are training ourselves to deal with stress in other forms in our lives. We will be better able to face work deadlines or cope with family arguments, as well as approaching challenges more calmly and recovering more quickly.

How to get started with wild swimming

Before taking the plunge, find a swim buddy – swimming with others is usually safer as you can keep an eye on each other. Search for your local group on Facebook or Meetup. Wild swimmers are a welcoming bunch. 

You don’t need to splash out on expensive gear, but you might like to invest in a wetsuit and swim gloves and boots for warmth. Goggles with UV lenses are useful, too, to protect your eyes from ultraviolet radiation from the sun, while a whistle could help you attract attention, should you get into trouble. The essentials are a brightly coloured swim cap and tow float for visibility.

Always listen to your body – and never stay in too long. Cold water can come as a shock on your first few wild swims. As a “cold-water taster”, try having cold showers. Then make the initial few dips short. As few as six plunges in relatively quick success help our bodies adjust. There’s no guarantee wild swimming will transform your life overnight, but it might give you a boost – and it might give you a support network and new hobby to boot.

Laura Silverman is the author of The Little Book for Wild Swimmers 

Further reading

Earthing: The benefits of being barefoot

6 ways wild swimming can boost your mental wellbeing

Connecting with nature helped me overcome OCD and anxiety

Why we swim: The benefits to mind and body