One powerful method to combat everyday stress and anxiety is cold water immersion.
Outspoken practitioners and weathered die-hards insist it can disentangle us from negative cycles and destructive behaviour. Uprooted angst. Reset potential. A stronger core source of self belief. All this awaits in the icy depths.
In his book, Chill: The Cold Water Swim Cure, author Mark Harper suggested two significant ways cold water can benefit your health. ‘The first is having less of a reaction to stress,’ Harper wrote, ‘The second… is when you put your face in the water, which affects the parasympathetic nervous system. In the long term, your baseline level of stress is lower and your peak levels of stress are also lower.’
The topic of cold water therapy recurs often in public debate. Some would put Wim ‘The Iceman’ Hof at the head of this tribe. In fact, the use of water for health benefits traces back all the way to our earliest civilisations.
More recently, influential figures like Charles Darwin, during a bout of illness, experimented with hydrotherapy. The ‘Cold Water Cure’ was sought in cases of tremulous nerves, sickness and overactive thoughts. Darwin even had a ‘water douche’ installed on the grounds of his home at Down House. He then stuck to a routine and dunked himself regularly under a cascade of cold water, deluged in a freezing cocoon of up to 900 litres.
Reflecting on what he gained from being soaked like that, Darwin wrote: ‘The Water Cure is assuredly a grand discovery… I go regularly on with douching.’
Today, cold water therapy is alive and well. Many are drawn to it as a way to root themselves in their own minds and bodies. These past 5 years, I’ve also conducted my own experiment – a way to reconnect with family, compare experiences and study the uses of cold immersion (namely ice swimming) in the modern world.
Let’s take a closer look at 7 Stages of Cold Water Use and dive into some of our more recent discoveries. The aim is to gain insights into exactly what this activity does for mind and body. In the process, we might even figure out why it’s still so relevant today:
1. The Sink Dunk
Before you step under your first cold shower, or leap into a frosty lake somewhere, it might be best to remind yourself how cold water feels. The point of immersion is transformative in many ways. You feel grounded by the act of submersion as your body adapts to unusual stimuli.
Of course, nothing is safer and more easy to manage than a sink filled with cold water. Get that porcelain topped up with the iciest water your tap can produce. Take a few deep breaths, clench the side of the sink with both hands and hold your face under for a few seconds.
Add a few ice cubes into the bowl if you need to. You will feel this shock to your system, but remember where you’re stood – in a safe environment. It should be easier to relax. When you come up you’ll feel refreshed and more readily prepared for the next step – it’s time to do as Darwin did!
It’s worth noting that experts advise you never to put your head under first. Cold water shock causes sudden inhalation (a gasp for air), which can lead you to hyperventilate and suck in a lungful of water.
In the sink though, this concern doesn’t really apply. When your face is submerged this stimulates your vagal nerve and can contribute to lowering overall stress levels as well.
2. Cold Showers
The deluge is a powerful way to revitalise your morning routine. At first, you might want to face the cold shower at a steady pace. Wheel the temperature down at the end of your warm shower for 30 seconds.
Then try it for a minute. Build up over time, until you’re ready to step into that cone of water when it’s already spattering at the coldest setting. This is an ideal way to wake yourself up in the morning, which helps improve circulation, reduce soreness in muscles and can even boost weight loss over time. One day, cold showers might enable you to face full immersion, already conditioned to a certain extent.
3. Cold Tubs & Ice Baths
Ice baths are probably the most common form of cold immersion used by athletes around the world. American football players (as well as many other participants in contact sports) are often chucked into the ice after practice to relieve sore muscles – these benefits are actually still contested.
Quicker recovery and less muscle/tissue damage are commonly linked (at least, anecdotally) to this kind of cold exposure. The application of icy water to skin can also decrease inflammation and puffiness.
To build up for this you might want to try running a cold bath at home (I know it sounds miserable). The experience shouldn’t stretch any longer than 5-10 minutes, but don’t rush and try not to focus on the clock too often.
Use it as an opportunity to practice your breathing – take deep breaths in and out, enabling yourself to feel more calm and centred.
4. Cold Dips
You don’t have to dive in headfirst (you definitely shouldn’t) and bust out a few lengths of crawl to get the health benefits of cold water swimming.
At first, ease in gently and only stay in for short stints, until you start to acclimatise. Anxiety and migraines are two of the more common conditions alleviated by cold immersion. Cold showers will enable you to recognise the initial shock as the water creeps up your body. Blood will rush to your vital organs. Extremities start to tingle.
Suddenly you’re rooted to the autonomic system that runs your body without your conscious input. Breathing is then your most useful tool to supply the oxygen your brain is gasping for. The best way to acclimatise in this process is to swim through seasons – say, autumn into winter. This will give you a taste for the gradual drop in temperature. See if it doesn’t become the ultimate endorphin-kicker as you go!
Anyone with heart problems, or high blood pressure, should always consult a doctor before starting to use cold water therapy (even if you’re just going for a dip – the cold immersion can cause cardiac arrest due to a change in circulation, blood pressure and heart rate).
5. The Scandi Method
One of the most important things to do, once you’ve been submerged in cold water, is to warm up afterwards.
Restore a healthy core body temperature with a swaddling of woollen clothes, maybe a dry robe, gloves and a hat. You should usually drink something hot and eat a sugary morsel to revive your body.
The Scandi Method incorporates a sauna after short dunks in chilled water. It does require a suitable facility, but the idea is to chase your brief stint of submersion with a minute or so in the steam.
This is then repeated to enhance the effect. While the combined activities serve to increase your heart rate and shunt blood around your body, improving circulation and triggering a ‘fight or flight’ reaction for an added mental battle.
6. Ice Holes (‘Avantouinti’)
The more eccentric dippers don’t just settle for a body of water somewhere. Digging down and carving a hole in the frozen surface of a lake, or pond, is part of the fun. Known as ‘Avantouinti’ in Finnish, ice hole swimming is a 300-year old tradition that requires a solidified body of water and some guts too, of course.
The water under the ice will usually hover at around 0C, so very short dunks are advised and a safe entry/exit is absolutely essential.
Usually you find a ladder leading down into the black abyss. Then there’s a walkway or well-trodden path, whisking you off to a recovery point – preferably a sauna.
Many will shy away from the potentially sub-zero air temperature. Others are inured to these conditions and practice the ritual daily, which is most likely if you’re a Finnish woman aged 60, or over. Indeed, all the major cities in Finland have winter swimming clubs with long waiting lists. If you ever needed an indication of the natural euphoria you feel one you climb out the water.
7. Ice Swimming
Ice swimmers travel long distance in sub-5C water without wetsuits, gloves or boots. Your cap and swimsuit are your only defence. There are definite perils to consider when it comes to this kind of extreme exercise.
The cold water lidos in London have had problems these past few years with swimmers pushing themselves to the point of hypothermia. Ambulances were called on several occasions. Anaphylactic shock and arrhythmias are present dangers if you plunge unprepared into icy water.
In fact, ice swims can surprise even conditioned swimmers. The difference a degree makes on the body and post-swim recovery is significant, especially when you get down to those those brutal sub-5C temperatures. Pace yourself. Acclimatise gradually and always be willing to call your swim if you don’t feel fully in control. Keep track of how long you’ve been in the water. Over time you will learn to predict the intensity of recovery based on the duration and temperature of your swim.
If you listen to your body as well, you will start to recognise signs of deterioration (clawed hands, numb extremities, shallow breathing).
It’s always wise to have a safety with you – someone you trust, who can oversee your recovery and look out for tell-tale signs of hypothermic behaviour as you swim.
Jack Hudson – About the Author
Jack Hudson is an accomplished ice swimmer, with several world records to his name, including a 145km river swim and the world’s first swim crossing of the 8.5km Mosksraumen whirlpool inside the Arctic Circle.
Learn more about his brand new book “Cold Water” here.