August 26, 2021

Cold Water Swimming and Presence

Sophie Foulkes

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea,
Drink the wild air's salubrity”

It’s a cold wintry day and, like many before it, I’m heading to the beach for a swim in the icy Atlantic. Half of me can’t wait to get in, and the other (louder) half keeps almost turning the car around as she screams about the cold. The quieter, excited side always wins – especially since I’m already dressed and en route. No turning back now.

This ritual of arriving at the beach, complaining about how cold it is, slooooowly undressing, and eventually (also very slowly) making my way into the water, has become such an important part of my life that I am drawn back almost every day for another seemingly mad ice-cold plunge into the ocean. And many others are too, with new heads bobbing around in the water just about every week. 

This is likely due to the string of physical, mental and emotional benefits associated with cold water immersion. It has been shown to reduce stress, strengthen your immune system, improve circulation, and, best of all, leave you with a feeling of complete euphoria. 

The initial cold shock takes my breath away. A gasp as I drop my shoulders into the water, collarbones aching. 

Depending on how rough the sea is I skip the slow entry and dive straight under the first big wave, gulping down the involuntary intake of air until I’m through to the other side, feeling very alive and very cold. After a couple of minutes I’m numb and no longer feeling the cold. After a few more, I’m elated, convinced I have made the best decision anyone has ever made and that everything in my world is alright, is going to be alright, and has been alright so far.

Although this may sound a little bit unstable, and is admittedly a stark contrast to the semi-miserable person driving herself to the beach in howling wind, it’s largely just the result of a series of physiological reactions in the body. And it’s activating these that gets me out of bed and down to the beach every day for my dose of frigid water and resulting clarity.

Cold water activates the ‘fight-or-flight’ response in our bodies, releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream and causing you to hyperventilate, your heart to race. Cortisol (a stress hormone, also boosted when we drink coffee) is released by the adrenal glands maintaining this state in your body, while endorphins flood the brain giving you a natural high, which can last for hours after a swim. Regular exposure to the cold through immersion allows you to adapt, significantly reducing the ‘fight-or-flight’ effect. Your heart rate doesn’t spike as much, you are able to control your breathing, and you panic far less. You become better equipped to deal with the cold water shock and, in turn, better at dealing with other everyday stress.

Although the research is limited and a lot of the evidence is anecdotal, the effects on mental health are hard to ignore with hundreds reporting transformative effects, particularly with regard to symptoms of depression and anxiety. I notice a massive difference in my life when I swim in the cold water regularly, instead of just restricting a swim to summer days when the ice-cold ocean is a welcome salve to the baking heat of the sun. Especially during the hard lockdown last year, swimming every morning (once the beaches had reopened) provided some much-needed routine and structure to my otherwise formless days. It also offered a new identity to develop, at a time when I didn’t have much else going on and was feeling pretty confused and aimless, not to mention constantly stressed about the pandemic and all the terrible things going on in the world. 

The positive effects of cold water have been widely evangelised by swimmers who report not only better health and happiness, but a greater sense of self-confidence through regular wild swimming, as well as a feeling of support and belonging to a community. Even if you swim alone, you are bound to come across the same regulars every time you go and develop some kind of kinship with them – bonding through the experience of doing this crazy thing together but not together.

Aside from mental benefits, many report great improvements to their physical health too – chronic migraines suddenly cured, better sleep, faster recovery after injuries. There is even research ongoing into the use of cold water immersion for the treatment of auto-immune disorders and the prevention of dementia.

For me, the cold water shock brings me totally inside my body, forcing a presence I’m generally not capable of in the rest of my day. My mind is silenced and completely reset. For a while it’s just me in the water, every nerve ending firing. It’s so grounding but also so light, total joy as I dive through the waves, flipping around and around feeling every inch in contact.

The thrill of a rough sea is the best. Feeling that slight edge of danger whilst still knowing I’m probably okay is my favourite kind of swim. Diving under huge waves and swimming out past the breakers for a bit of relief, and then navigating my way back to shore between sets always gives me a great sense of perspective. Reminding me of my fragility in the space and the power and magnitude of the ocean. There’s the added feeling of accomplishment too; for getting out there and overcoming a small challenge, setting you up for whatever else comes at you throughout the day, knowing already that you’re capable of facing some level of discomfort (along the lines of William McRaven’s “make your bed” theory).

A calm swim in the summer is just as sweet. The sun on my face as I paddle out even further than normal and turn back to face the shore, bathed in sunshine, the mountain lit up and glowing. The chance to lizard on a hot rock to warm up after with no need for the desperate rush to dry off and change into warm layers.

“Free diving is not only sport, it’s a way to understand who we are. When we go down, if we don’t think, we understand we are whole. We are one with world.”

When I first learnt to scuba dive, I approached it with some trepidation, concerned I would feel claustrophobic with so many things around my face and body, heavy gear weighing me down and metres of water above me. But the wonder of what I would see down below encouraged me and, in fact, it was exactly the opposite. I couldn’t believe how much space there was around me. Uninterrupted reef for as far as I could see – it felt like there was this massive opening I’d been given access to, unmatched by our normal space allocation in city life. 

I loved it so much, and still do, but there is always a lingering feeling of visiting, rather than communing. Almost like being in an aquarium, hindered by regulator, tank and BCD as you are by the glass walls, unable to be fluid and fish-like and feeling very much not part of their world.

Although my breath hold will never match that of a dolphin or a whale’s, I feel much closer to their experience and far more part of the underwater world when free diving. Literally free. Relaxed and able to move with ease through the water, getting up close to all the magnificent life, big and small. The fleetingness of it makes it that much more special – knowing my time is limited really sharpens my focus, drawing me into the present so I experience the moment fully. 

Without a wetsuit, the cold only amplifies this, making me extra aware and focused, but also grounded and relaxed. Connected both to myself and to nature, there’s a feeling of complete freedom as I dive down. Cold adapted and unprotected by equipment and extra layers, you start to get a sense of belonging down there, part of the wild.


Photos by Faine Loubser

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