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The Benefits of Cold Water Swimming For Depression

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life but over the last few months I’ve found dealing with the darker moments even more challenging than ever, the monotony and isolation of lockdown has really got to me and I’ve often struggled to find the energy to do the things I know will make me feel better. It’s been really hard to deal with and has led to more days laying in bed doing nothing than I’d care to admit which leave me feeling even more despondent, guilty and ashamed.

Recently, after a few really rough days, Mike made a suggestion - why didn’t I go for a swim? I didn’t have to stay long, I didn’t have to swim more than I was comfortable with, but maybe it would help me feel a little more me? It was a brave suggestion, I’m generally pretty dismissive of other people’s ideas when I’m in the pit of depression, but for some reason the idea resonated.

Outdoor pools had just re-opened after COVID-19 and the idea of submerging myself in cold water had a lure I can’t quite explain so I figured it would be worth a go. It was amazing, for the first time in a long time I felt like myself. My mind was clear, my body felt alive and although my form was terrible and my endurance shocking I loved my 200 metres of awkward breaststroke. Swimming was a game changer.


From my own experiences I know that swimming can be a game changer when it comes to depression, but what is it about dunking yourself in cold water that makes such a difference? Over the last few years we’ve started to learn more about the potential benefits of cold water swimming:

AN INCREASED TOLERANCE TO STRESS - Stress is something we’ve accepted as inherently negative, and it can be if we don’t understand it and manage it well. But if you take control of it, well then stress can be your best mate. One of the ways you can take control of stress is to get familiar with how our bodies react to stress, and cold water swimming is a great way to do this.

Submerging yourself in cold water creates a stress reaction similar to the one you experience when you’re in a scary situation, in response to this stress the body releases cortisol and cases both your breathing rate and heart rate to increase and the body’s fight of flight mechanism to kick in, at first this might make you want to leap out of the water but over time the stress reaction will reduce as you adjust to the temperature. Over time your body learns that it doesn’t need to have such an extreme reaction to stress and what’s really cool is that this applies to other stressful situations in life.

IMPROVED SELF-ESTEEM - I’ve often found that during periods of intense depression I feel totally incapable of doing anything. I know what will help me feel more myself, but I just don’t have the strength to do it. Although cold water swimming can’t help with this in the immediacy over time the process of forcing myself to endure the cold had contributed to improvements in my mental strength. Getting out of your comfort zone helps to build your confidence and courage, both things that you need to draw on during episodes of depression. What’s more by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable you’re increasing your resilience and tolerance to stress in other areas of your life.

MINDFULNESS - Swimming forces you into a state of mindfulness you can’t reach any other way. Plunging yourself into cold water overloads your nervous system and you simply don’t have the brain power to worry about anything other than how cold you are, your only option is to focus on the present and save any ruminating for later.

THE POST SWIM HIGH - the unique mixture of exercise and the sting of cold water releases a hit of dopamine, the body’s feel good hormone which leaves you feeling pretty invincible. Although this high is short lived it is addictive and will motivate you to get back to the pool for another hit, helping you build some good habits along the way.

SPENDING TIME OUTDOORS - research suggests that spending time in nature can help with mild to moderate depression possibly due to combining movement, social contact and being outside. What’s more, being outside in natural light can be helpful if you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and anecdotally could help with a myriad of other mental health problems.

BECOMING PART OF A COMMUNITY - depression can be really lonely and it can be really easy to become very isolated. While you might not find your tribe at the pool, getting into the habit of swimming on a regular basis means you’re probably going to see the same people regularly and even a smile and a nod can be a the little reminder you need to know you’re not alone.

If you want to learn more about the mental and physical health benefits related to open water swimming and cold exposure, feel free to join our ICEWIM Facebook group or follow our Instagram page.

Have you personally experienced a positive impact on your life from open water swimming or cold exposure? We want to hear from you! Share your story with us by emailing an audio or video testimonial to and get a chance to be featured on the ICEWIM Instagram account.

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