A dip in natural water gives a feeling of ultimate freedom. Wild swimming in the open air feels adventurous, is fun, and is good for your stamina and your health in general. And it also helps you deal with stress, sadness, pain, and boredom. Reasons enough to go for it. Swimming in nature is more popular than ever, and thanks to the book Wild Swimming you will not be left out. Discover how healing and healthy a fresh dive is!
The intimacy of nature
When you are in the water (in the sea, a river, a lake…) something takes the whole experience of nature to a higher level. You are literally immersed in that wild environment. You may feel more closely connected to the life that bobs, swims, and splashes around you than any other life.
Immune system and stress hormones
Worcestershire-based psychiatrist Charlotte Marriott has long been interested in how lifestyle changes can affect mental health. Even if you only go into the woods once a month,’ she says, ‘it makes you more energetic and less angry, depressed and anxious. It reduces the risk of psychosocial stress-related illnesses.’ Trees even give off substances, phytoncides, that make us feel better. “They directly affect the immune system and stress hormones.”
The list of ways in which staying in nature can help us is long. Charlotte says it has been shown to “reduce the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stress, anxiety, and depression and help you sleep longer, perhaps because contact with “green” lowers levels of stress hormones: cortisol in saliva and adrenaline and noradrenaline in urine.’
Vicky Allen: ‘When Anna and I started our Wild Swimming project, we were told two things. One was that there were many people swimming in open water as a kind of self-healing from depression or anxiety. We inquired about this with a doctor, who told us that they might benefit from the social aspect or that it was something to do with the cold water. The other was dinner table talk about the vagus. This is a large nerve that starts at the base of the skull and runs throughout your body. It regulates your heart, lungs, and stomach, the bodily functions we think of when we think of relaxation.
Many wild swimmers see swimming as a kind of life saver for their mental health. Matt, a swimming guide on Skye, is one such person. He once struggled with depression and found his own way to deal with it. ‘I had to go outside. For me, being outdoors was the means that kept me going.’ He now sees swimming in cold water as the key element in keeping him mentally healthy. ‘It provides instant relief. For my muscles, my head. I always say it’s a switch that flips.”
Less stressed by wild swimming
Mark Harper, anesthesiologist, and experienced wild swimmer studied perioperative hyperthermia. In doing so, he saw how a program of cold water immersions could prepare the body for the stress of surgery. From that perspective, he set out to see how stimulating the stress response through cold water swimming could help us cope with stress in other facets of our lives.
Part of the problem today, Mark says, is that almost everyone experiences chronic low-level stress, rather than high stress every now and then. “We once had to run to avoid saber-toothed tigers, now to catch the train. You can reduce that chronic stress. You can do that by adapting to cold water, a skill that you can then apply to other stresses.’
React less strongly to stress
Mark explains that we only have one system for dealing with stress instead of a separate response for each stress. That system is controlled by our autonomic nervous system, the control network for our unconscious bodily functions. As a result, a tight deadline triggers the same reaction in that system as the sight of a saber-toothed tiger. This means that if someone regularly swims in cold water, they can be expected to react less strongly to another form of stress (any kind), such as the low stress when you have to catch a train.
Theoretically, your physiological response to a tight deadline will be less intense if you swim regularly in the sea and are used to the stress of the cold water. We constantly overreact to minor stress because we no longer have major stress. If there were, we would react less to minor stress. We are built to be stressed, if only to the right degree.’
But training our stress response isn’t the only way cold water swimming improves our mental health. That vagus nerve that our swim friends talked about is also crucial to some of the positive effects, according to Mark. “If you dip your face in cold water, you get a huge parasympathetic stimulus that reduces inflammatory reactions and that process goes through the vagus nerve.”
The tricky part about cold water immersion is that it appears to act on both the sympathetic (which triggers fight or flight responses) and the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the vagus nerve (regulates resting digestive functions).
Psychiatrist Charlotte Marriott explains that when cold water touches our skin, it activates our cold receptors, which send electrical signals to our brain. That ‘activates the sympathetic nervous system’, releasing beta-endorphins and noradrenaline: we feel great and go into a daze. But at the same time, the relaxing vagus nerve is stimulated when our face is splashed with water.
The combined activation of both systems can help balance our nervous system. Something that interests many medical scientists is the growing evidence of a link between depression and inflammation and how cold water swimming could alleviate a whole host of ailments rooted in any kind of inflammatory response.
Do you want to start wild swimming?
If you’re just starting out, go with a friend you can rely on. Start small, pick a sunny day. Do everything you can to make it less difficult so that you can get completely “into it”. Once you’ve crossed the threshold, you won’t want to go back and need no further encouragement!
Choose a good place to swim in the sea:
- Choose a location with a lifeguard.
- See where more people swim. (Ask the locals!)
- Check the weather forecast and tide tables.
Safety Tips for Swimmers:
- Think about your safety and tell others where you are going.
- Swim with others whenever possible.
- Put on a brightly colored swim cap.
- Use a swim buoy if you have one.
- Make sure you have enough warm clothes for after swimming, even in summer
You may wonder what time of year it is best to start wild swimming. The temperature of seawater often lags behind the outside temperature. So late summer, and early autumn is the best period for a careful introduction to natural water.
We strongly recommend joining a local swim group (there are plenty on social media) and taking the plunge with a bunch of experienced swimmers. We have a local group, The Wild Ones, but there is probably a group you can join in your area too. Most groups of wild swimmers are very happy with new members and will be happy to coach newcomers on their first dive.