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Cold comfort: How sea swimming boosts my mental health

Thursday, 22 November 2018 Rhiannon

Rhiannon reveals how taking the plunge has helped with her PTSD and depression.

Rhiannon is passionate about her family, mental health awareness, writing and teaching.

Swimming in the North Sea in winter hurts. With an average water temperature of six degrees celsius, every step forward brings pain and numbness to a new, reluctant part of my body. It takes a number of minutes to fully submerge myself before the pain passes. The time I spend in the water is short and warming up again takes hours. So why on earth would I promise myself to swim in the sea every week throughout the coming winter?

In short, despite that agonising cold, I discovered, by accident, that it does me an enormous amount of good. During an intensely difficult time, while I was fighting severe depression and PTSD for the first time in my life, I felt compelled to spend as much time at the beach as possible.

Having nearly always lived the sea, its familiarity at a time when I hardly knew myself, brought me great comfort. Talking to a new friend one day over coffee, I randomly mentioned I was tempted to swim but, as it was the heart of winter, expected her to dismiss the idea. To my surprise, her face lit up as she’d frequently swum in the sea off-season, and we soon arranged to go for our first dip together.

Initially, I think it appealed to me because it numbed my body in the same way I felt my mind was numb. The intense cold then made me briefly feel alive in a way that I hadn’t experienced for months. As time went on, a regular swim with my friend got me out of the house; kept me connected both with her and with nature; and seemed to benefit me in so many other ways too.

It lifts brain fog

That intensely cold water is exhilarating. My Sunday morning swim gives my mood a huge boost and I leave the sea buzzing – as well as numb. The refreshing sensation lifts any brain fog I might be feeling from a working week and leaves me feeling like new. Both my mind and body seem to glow afterwards, a sensation that stays with me and dramatically boosts my mood for days.

It helps me sleep

Recovery has taught me how important sleep is for my mental health and sea swimming undoubtedly helps this. Sea air always tires me out, as does the short swim or the leaping around in big waves – whichever the conditions allow. As I fall asleep on a swimming day, my legs are pleasantly heavy and my muscles relaxed. In addition, my mind drifts into a dreamless night which is a significant achievement for my over-active brain.

I reconnect with nature

The time I spend in the water soothes and calms me. Both listening to the waves lapping on the shoreline, or feeling their gentle movement as a float, enables me to relax fully. Following a frenetic working week, busy with family life and teaching, this reconnection with nature is invaluable. Maybe some people can achieve this with the rustling leaves in a forest but, as someone who grew up on the coast, perhaps I have seawater in my veins.

It shifts my perspective

As an over-thinker, the sea brings me right back to reality. Its vastness, its power and its strong presence remind me just how insignificant my worries are. That’s not to say that they become irrelevant; more that they become manageable. Feeling a part of something so significant reminds me that any problems I face are relatively small and can be dealt with. This is particularly important for me as an over-thinker and is not intended to trivialize the difficulties people face in life.

What does research say?

The first study to examine the effectiveness of cold water swimming in the fight against depression was led by television doctor Chris van Tulleken, of University College London, and Professor Mike Tipton and Dr Heather Massey, two University of Portsmouth scientists.

They followed a case study of Sarah, a 24-year-old woman with major depressive disorder and anxiety who had been on medication since she was 17. Sarah took up weekly swimming in open, cold water. Her depression and anxiety eased and over time she was able to stop taking medication entirely. Two years on she is still drug free. Dr van Tulleken told Sarah's story in his 2016 TV series The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs.

Though interesting, the research is neither conclusive nor what has convinced me to commit to that pain and numbness the North Sea gives me as I enter it. However, the exhilaration, the buzz, the boost to my mood, improved sleep, connection with nature and the shift of perspective, have utterly convinced me that sea swimming has a vital role in looking after my mental health throughout the winter.

Do you feel inspired?

If you feel inspired to give it a go, make sure you read up on how to swim safely in the sea before doing so. Here are some important tips:

• Wear the right kit

• Only swim where it's safe; where you can enter and exit the water easily.

• Ideally, swim with someone else. If you don’t have a friend who’s brave enough, stick to beaches where there will be other people around like surfers or dog walkers.

• Acclimatise to the cold. As the temperature drops, enter the water slowly.

• Know your limits – spend less time in the water as the temperature drops.

• Warm up slowly. Don't take hot shower. Hot drink and snuggly clothes are best!

Good luck, and don’t give up after the first attempt. It will hurt and will take a while before you feel the benefits.

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