Ritual How Wild Swimming Keeps My Mental Health Afloat
Ironically, the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown gave me the time to embrace wild swimming—just when I needed my lifeline most.
Managing my mental health was never something I was very good at. As a teenager, suffering from anxiety and depressive disorders was always a source of shame, so I tried to hide it. This often meant remaining in denial about the severity of my issues. After experiencing childhood trauma during my formative teenage years, I now suffer from complex-PTSD; consecutive toxic relationships through my adolescence led to domestic abuse trauma.
It wasn’t until I left my abuser that I sought formal help from a specialist trauma therapy organization. Alongside giving me space to verbalize and process my experiences for the first time, trauma therapy equipped me with practical tools to overcome the residual impacts of these events. Even now, I experience panic attacks, emotional vulnerability, and nightmares.
In my sessions, I communicated how being in nature improved my mood drastically and immediately; it gave me the capacity to cope with external pressures. There’s something about being enveloped between the rustling leaves, or standing atop a precipice of a vast mountain scene that makes my problems feel smaller, more manageable. My therapist told me to embrace this with open arms.
I live in Sheffield, nicknamed “The Outdoor City.” It boasts over two hundred and fifty woods, parks, gardens, and green spaces amongst an urban industrial landscape. The city neighbors the Peak District, a national park which is so close, some of its areas are in walking distance of my front door.
The Peak District has been my safe space for many years. From its towering array of ‘edges’ that platform a panoramic view of patchwork hills, to its vast and voluminous reservoirs that reflect the sun’s rays, it’s a national park whose crevices I’ll never tire of exploring. A place I can escape to when I’m in need of solace, meaning, and belonging. On what I call “bad brain days,” when I’m feeling particularly fragile, emotional, or vulnerable, the Peak District acts as my reset button.
It was here where I first happened upon wild swimming. On one such bad brain day last July, I took a walk through the Peak District and I saw a couple plunging into a reservoir. Their elated squeals as they splashed into cold water, their excitable labrador bounding after them to participate in the frolics—it all sounded like the joyous liberation that I desperately wanted to feel. Their friendly companion circled me playfully before shaking itself dry, drenching me in lakewater. The dog’s owners struck up a conversation and invited me to join them. Normally, I’m a person who ruminates too long on decisions, in a constant state of overthinking. But on that day, I instantly jumped in.
As soon as I heard and felt the splash of the iridescent water, I knew this was what my body and mind needed. In contrast to the humid air, the water was icy, and the rush was exhilarating. With the first stroke of my arms, I could feel whatever worry was plaguing me being pushed away with the rippling water. I swam until the sun began to set. I emerged from the water—now turning from orange, to pink, to purple as it reflected the sky—with my brain void of that old fog. It was only as I drove home that I noticed how peaceful my mind had become.
In the months following, I dabbled in wild swimming further and introduced friends to my newfound hobby. Throughout uni, I’d tried my hand at swimming in the campus’ pool. I probably stuck it out for a month or so; it was all well and good, prescribing exercise as a form of mental health relief. But unless that exercise is isolated and without pressure—away from the echo of squealing children or the tenseness of seasoned lane swimmers speeding up behind you—swimming wasn’t going to be very relaxing at all.
Swimming in nature provides the isolation, the tranquility, the stillness, and the agency I had been craving. I want to be able to lay on my back, distracted, and watch the clouds go by, without a lifeguard whistle bringing me back to reality.
But with a full-time job and family responsibilities, it was difficult to dedicate time to wild swimming. Then, this spring came the increased stress, anxiety, and uncertainty of a global pandemic. Ironically, the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown restrictions gave me the unregulated free time to embrace wild swimming—just when I needed my lifeline most.
The benefits of wild swimming on mental health have been documented by researchers and experts alike. Nature has proven positive effects on mood disorders: The combination of physical activity, social contact, and the exposure to natural light in green spaces are particularly beneficial for those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The act of wild swimming, literally immersing yourself in cold water, has a doubly positive effect. A study conducted by scientists in Prague in 2000 found that cold water swimming boosts dopamine levels by 530%. It also has been linked to an increase in serotonin , and beta-endorphins . Whilst it boosts our commonly termed “happy hormones,” it also decreases cortisol, known as the “stress hormone.” Beyond the medical jargon, this means that wild swimming in nature decreases our stress levels, and boosts our happiness.
The UK’s Covid-19 lockdown restrictions gave me the unregulated free time to embrace wild swimming—just when I needed my lifeline most.
I’m not a religious person—in fact, I’m almost actively atheist—yet wild swimming is the closest to spirituality I’ve ever experienced. When my body submerges into the icy depths of a pool of natural water, a little weight is lifted. The weight of the world evaporates, the fog of a bad brain day immediately dissipates. I feel clear in my thought processes, my emotions, and my decisions. Floating on my back as the clouds journey across the sky, I’m enveloped in a state of peace and negative emotions simply are unable to invade.
Bad brain days can creep up on me out of the blue. I can wake in a morning already in the throws of a panic attack as my eyes open, likely to have been ignited by a nightmare, with the day already destined to be laced with dread. Or, a perfectly fine day can be blindsided by a trigger that mocks my naivety. “So you thought this was going to be a good day?” it says, as a white van in my rear view mirror makes my body freeze in panic that my abuser has found me. Bad brain days can also build over days and weeks; minute triggers that pass unaddressed, little inconveniences that become one big stressor, hormonal emotions sabotaging my sense of self, until I reach a crescendo; a deafening buzz of white noise that demands I lay in bed all day and weep.
I can step into a lake or reservoir feeling like a shell of a girl, desperate for a hug and for someone to tell her everything’s going to be okay, and emerge an empowered self-confident woman. When I’m overdue for a wild swimming day, my body feels tense; my brain feels foggy, lethargic, unmotivated, and weepy. This can be simply a result of a build up of responsibilities with little Me Time; weekdays consumed with work and weekends filled with prior commitments—birthdays, events, and errands. Before I know it, a fortnight or more has gone by without me having time to go exploring. After swimming, I feel refuelled, and the more regularly I go, the longer I feel capable to take on life’s problems.
As lockdown measures began to lift in England this July, I had more opportunity to explore spots that were further afield and only accessible by car. I’ve frequented quarries, reservoirs, waterfalls, and plunge pools. With every stroke, I regained a piece of myself that felt lost. Being able to introduce this life-changing hobby to my friends and family, and share the thing that makes me the best version of myself, made wild swimming extra special.
After a dip, my friends and I would loll on the banks of rivers, beers in hand, feeling at home with each other, whilst daring my mum to take a leap of faith into a reservoir allowed us to bond over a shared sense of tranquility. This is why I find its benefits to be most profound in the summer. The blue skies, green leaves, and blossoming wild flowers add to the sensory experience, whilst the warmth lets us savor the experience for longer.
But now, as the nights draw closer, the temperature drops, and the leaves fall from the trees, I wonder how I will be able to maintain this hobby during the winter months. When the glorious days of summer wilt into grey skies and gloomy nights, my mood begins to plummet. SAD creeps up on me every year, compounding my existing mental health conditions and destroying whatever energy I have to find joy in the world. If anything, winter is when I need wild swimming the most.
I’d always shied away from taking an icy winter plunge, but this year I haven’t ruled it out completely. My need for wild swimming sits within a context which mental health charity MIND calls the “Coronavirus Mental Health Crisis.” Six months into a global pandemic and the UK government has yet to provide official guidance for psychotherapy institutions, creating a postcode lottery for those suffering from mental health conditions.
Some of us will be able to access support if our organizations have the funding to maintain social distancing guidelines. For people like myself, whose organizations don’t have the capacity to uphold this, we find ourselves without formal support—have gone without them since March. My therapy service is predicting that we won’t receive face-to-face mental health support until 2021.
With every stroke, I regained a piece of myself that felt lost.
Like many, I’ve struggled to maintain a safe equilibrium with my mental health. Amidst a global pandemic, losing loved ones, job insecurity, and financial worry, I’ve fluctuated between a consistent state of apprehension and anxiety, had prolonged existential crises, and deep depressive episodes. Wild swimming is arguably the one lifeline which single-handedly got me through these tortuous past few months. I’m conscious that I need to hold onto this healthy coping mechanism with both hands, my capacity to navigate, and more importantly, enjoy life depends on it.
Now, in November, I am already feeling the weight of winter sit heavy on my shoulders. I’m physically, and emotionally exhausted all the time. Maybe, the icy shock of a winter plunge will be the extra boost I need to survive the dreaded months to come. Maybe, I’ll invest in a wetsuit.