Cold water swimming and anxiety

A solitary woman swimming in Wellington Harbour on a winter morning
Cold water swimming: acclimatise to the shock and tame your anxiety

This summer and autumn I’ve developed a new habit: sea swimming once or twice a week regardless of temperature and weather. Looking back, I can’t bear to think of all the years when I swam almost exclusively in hot weather.

Or didn’t swim. Because I walk, you see, and it’s almost two kilometers to the nearest beach, and on a hot day the delicious swim-experience has been burnt off me by the time I sweat my way back home. So swimming, though still gorgeous, became a random experience that usually happened only when some kind friend picked me up in their car.

This year the weather in Wellington has been all-or-nothing. Mainly glorious calm, warm days with occasional tempestuous and sometimes terrifying rain and gales. Early morning is the best time for swimming at Freyberg Beach and I’ve been loving it.

You may know of other old people who swim (almost) all year round in the sea or a river or lake. It always seems odd to me (although it shouldn’t) when people remark, “Oh you’re good!” or “You’re brave.” They shudder at the thought of cold water swimming. I try to tell them that we swim because we love it, not to be virtuous or brave. But it’s hard to understand until you do it regularly, rather than once or twice a year.

An article in The Guardian helped me to understand why our subjective experiences of cold water swimming are so vastly different: torture (for non-swimmers) or a treat (for those who indulge frequently). There’s quite a logical explanation, and it even explains why cold water swimming (after your sixth time) trains your body and mind to react much more calmly to situations that previously caused anxiety.

I went wild swimming and haven’t had a panic attack since.

Tim Clare, The Guardian, 23 May 2022

So if this delicious, sensuous, mind-healing habit appeals to you—don’t judge it by your first scary experiences. After six 3-minute swims (not on the same day!) you may become acclimatised to cold water swimming. You may be addicted. And you may have dealt your over-cranked anxiety a mortal blow.

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31 thoughts on “Cold water swimming and anxiety

  1. Anonymous says:

    My 365 days per year swimming friends swear by this. An invigoration not found elsewhere.

  2. I’d like to try cold water swimming if I could figure out the logistics. I’d have to walk, and I’d need someone with me for safety. Do you go alone?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Logistics, that’s the key! A friend makes all the difference, not just for safety but for motivation and pleasure. I often go alone but feel comradeship with strangers who swim and trust someone will notice if I’m in trouble. If I am alone and the sea is rough, I swim parallel to the shore for safety. Good luck!

      1. Sounds like a good situation for you. Do you walk to the sea, swim three minutes, and walk home? How long is the walk? I’m trying to psych myself up to do it.

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        I do walk to the sea, takes about 25 minutes. I usually swim for 5-15 minutes now, depending on various factors. Longer in summer. There’s a wee coffee place there so that is sometimes on the agenda. I walk home with one bunch of friends, or if alone may cheat by taking a bus for half the way. Think tiny habits. Say, put your swimming togs out the night before. That will help!

      3. Tiny habits. Love that! It’s a beginning just to think about swimming.

      4. Thank you for writing more about your swimming routine.

  3. Fascinating and inspirational

  4. You have me convinced, almost convinced, well, maybe I’ll think about it!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I’m not evangelizing here. You do you…

  5. granny1947 says:

    I don’t think so.
    Am sure my heart would stop.
    I like it beating!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That would never do. Sorry you will miss out on this particular thrill, but hey!

  6. I think I’ll take your word for it Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s courses for horses, one man’s meat is another man’s poison (oh man!), and you do you, Judith. As usual!

  7. Fifi Colston says:

    Rachel, I heartily concur! I have taken to it this year too and your story is so mine as well, never in the sea until its a really hot day etc. I am thoroughly addicted now and have kicked the anti depressants! I feel more alive with a sense of power over myself and my life like I’ve not had since I was about 20. I’m nearly 62 now. Isn’t it wonderful? I swim in Seatoun twice a week and at Hataitai Beach or Freyberg other days. I might catch you there!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s fascinating, Fifi. How exciting that sea swimming has had such an effect on you. And it’s free, no appointments required. Spot you one of these days!

  8. Joared says:

    I would certainly be game to give it a try. Unfortunately, I don’t have ready access to the ocean or any other body of water for swimming.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I realize that easy access to water is a privilege that not everyone has. Cold showers do not have half the thrill for me.

  9. You’re amazing, Rachel. We must aim for a polar swim together one day. I also love it. Although Welly has been so nice, it’s not really polar just yet. I call it a re-set… and hard to explain, that after a short time, the freezing cold, becomes warm… still a mystery to me, but a lovely mystery all the same.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You bet, a mid winter swim is on the agenda! That mystery is a never-ending delight.

  10. Jessy Plante says:

    Great habit to have for many reasons. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I’ve got a hunch that you could be caught wild swimming some days.

  11. Cherryl says:

    I know people who say it’s an amazing feeling, I’m sure you’re right 😊

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes. Because why would we all be telling the same lie? 😊

  12. debscarey says:

    Firstly, an introduction – I found you via Jane Fritz 🙂 I’ve been trying to talk myself into getting swimming again. Forget swimming in the sea, just swimming. I used to be a water baby, but the last time I stepped into a pool at a spa, the act of swimming felt alien. I’ve never been a fan of big indoor pools but when we moved, I discovered a small pool just across the road. Then the pandemic happened and I’m still to stir my stumps. I’m a child of the tropics so never fancied the idea of cold water swimming, and don’t really suffer from anxiety. But I do suffer from depression and I wonder if it would be a positive force for good for that too? One step at a time, methinks – especially as my nearest cold (sea) water is at least an hour’s drive away.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hello Deb! I’m happy to meet you. Well, I do recognize just how hard it is to start a new habit like this from scratch. But hey, a small pool just cross the road? It’s calling to you. Tiny habits, baby steps: that’s the answer, because I can tell you really do want to do this. You know what you want to achieve: that’s great. Do you know what’s stopping you from putting on your togs and crossing the road and starting with a ten second dip? This might become one of your favourite places, given time. I hope so.

  13. debscarey says:

    Thanks for the welcome Rachel. What’s stopping me? A mix of Covid hesitancy on the part of my other half which, only this past week has ceased; fear that my back isn’t quite stable enough yet; revisiting that alien feeling and acknowledging the heartbreak that I’m not a water baby anymore; and finally whether my swimming costume still fits! But you’re right, it IS calling to me, so time to try on the swimming costume and get a replacement if it doesn’t fit. As you say, baby steps, but keep on taking them till I get there.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Good luck,Deb. I think you will get there in your own sweet time.

  14. gc says:

    I usually get myself into hot water but diving into cold water definitely has its upside.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s the ideal antidote

      1. gc says:

        Sure sounds like it. 🙂

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