Cold Comfort – How Cold Water Swims Can Make Us Happier

For me it started when I was living in London: this love of – let’s call it an addiction to – cold water swims. I was working in a glamorous job I was supposed to love but which left me feeling hollow, and I’d spend weekends failing to follow through with plans for fear of missing out on something better. I told myself I was happy, but I was disengaged and dull: hours spent in an artificially-lit gym keeping me artificially healthy. And then, on a Friday afternoon after a day spent fielding passive aggressive emails from my manager who sat silently tapping her manicured nails on the keyboard across from me, I discovered Kenwood Ladies Bathing Pond in the woodland of Hampstead Heath, and fell gratefully into it’s bone-chilling, life-affirming embrace. After that, as the slow British spring began to warm the air but not yet the water, I started swimming most mornings: up before dawn and out of the high-spec, sterile flat I shared with two physics students I never saw. The calm would hit me as I opened the wooden gate that leads to the pond, and after I’d submerged in the icy water – alongside ducks and grey-haired Highgate creatives who had swim there for decades – it would stay with me all day, reigniting the enchanted engagement that I’d had with the world as a child. This is perhaps a romantic and exaggerated depiction of the power of cold water swims: I was meeting new people and adapting to my new London life – but I maintain that the pond played a pivotal role in my newfound happiness. Through heartbreak and hangovers, PMS and existential dread, through the fear that overtook the city when terrorists attacked our innocent streets – submerging my body in the cold of the pond kept me sane. And now as winter approaches Australia and the ocean turns icy, and yet my daily dip is still a non-negotiable, I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by and convinced of the life-changing power of cold water swimming. It turns out, I’m not alone.

Spearheaded by Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, the interest in the science and psychology of cold water swimming is growing. In an article published by Vice in March 2019, a regular cold water swimmer explains how cold conditions allow you to process and manage negative thoughts, with an awareness that thoughts and feelings are fleeting: that our brains can be trained to focus, for instance, on the beauty of the sky rather than the discomfort in the cold [1]. The article references a number of dedicated cold water swimmers, all of whom use cold water immersion to manage mental health challenges – from depression to alcoholism to OCD. While much of the support for the mental health benefits of cold water swimming is anecdotal, science backing up the claims is growing. A study published in the British Medical Journal describes the case of a woman who had suffered from depression since the age of seventeen, who was able to happily replace antidepressant medication with regular cold water swims [2]. This peer-reviewed article added legitimacy to the reported life changing power of cold water swimming, and research suggests that the practice of frequent cold water swims can have the following effects:


Improved stress response

This effect is perhaps the most obvious: when we frequently expose ourselves to conditions which put the body under stress, and reap the rewards once we have endured the discomfort, we internalise the understanding that stress can be overcome. This understanding can be applied throughout our days: when we’re stuck in traffic, when we’re running late for a deadline at work, when (fill in the blank).  At a more scientific level, frequently prompting the fight or flight response to release cortisol and endorphins prevents this reactive response to be triggered through the encounters in our lives which may have previously sent us into an adrenaline-driven state [3]. The wonderful thing about the body and brain, is that they do all of this learning themselves. Continuously allowing the release of adrenaline in an ultimately rewarding practice over which you have control (such as a voluntary cold water swim) facilitates a rewiring of the neural pathways, instantly activating the parasympathetic nervous system rather than triggering an adrenaline-driven sympathetic nervous response.


Reduced anxiety

The reasoning behind this is similar to the above: regularly exposing ourselves to stressful conditions which ultimately leave us feeling adrenaline-fuelled, alive and accomplished reminds us that our perception in the moment is not always accurate: that the lens through which we view our experience is important. While the science backing up this statement is less sound than that related to the nervous system, anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly asserts that frequent cold water swims help people to cope with anxiety by putting their everyday stresses into perspective. 


Higher levels of happiness

Along with the basic psychological reward of tackling a challenge, there are neurological theories for why swimming in cold water makes us happier. One of these is based on the inflammatory effect that cold water has on the brain: research suggests that regular exposure to cold water can reduce inflammation of the brain’s neural pathways, thus allowing the release of feel-good chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine [4]


While submerging your body in ice for an hour and fifty two minutes a la WIm Hof (aka @Iceman_Hof) is arguably a little extreme, there is mounting evidence to support the Iceman’s argument that “the cold is righteous”. A naturally calm response to rush hour traffic might be enough to tempt you, but the joy-bringing, eye-opening, anxiety-eliminating effect will keep you coming back for more. See you in the water.

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