at the end of the first length I felt better than I had for months – almost, briefly, euphoric.
Julian, 55, from London, had struggled on and off with depression for most of his adult life until one day a friend introduced him to cold water swimming.
It was early autumn 2016. I was busy – travelling a lot for work, spending too much time in airports, not getting enough sleep, feeling groggy. I had been planning a change – taking up a part-time lectureship, developing my freelance consulting work – when I started to go under. I had had a hit of depression twenty years or so earlier, and the signs were unmistakeable. Fear, terrible fear overtook me. Adrenalin flooded my body. My heart hammered; my face burned; my head throbbed. I was going into meltdown.
It was an anxious depression. Less a crash in mood, more a terrible adrenal overcharging of my body. Everything ached. Sleep was fitful; waking was horrific. My body seemed to be incinerating itself. I could not think straight. I was by abrupt turns angry, irritable and tearful. I am ordinarily interested in the world, but I started to shut down, to withdraw. I didn’t want to see anybody. I walked, I dozed, I watched the world go by; the inexplicable firestorm in my body left no room for anything else. I cancelled my plans and crashed off work sick. Although I knew what was happening to me, the future seemed sealed off, impossible. My mind turned on itself.
An old friend guessed I was having a hard time. Not knowing what to suggest she asked me if I fancied a swim. I live near Tooting Bec Lido in South London, a huge blue slab of cold water, one of the biggest open-air pools in Europe. It was late September and it was already getting chilly. We took our wetsuits, changed in the near dark and jumped in. We gasped and giggled – I hadn’t giggled for months. There were clumps of leaves in the water, wavelets lapped at our faces. We swam half a dozen lengths, alternating crawl with breast stroke so we could natter.
We got dressed in the cold open-air booths, wind whipping under the doors, bare feet on freezing concrete. We cycled to Streatham High Road, had coffee and almond croissants in a small, empty café and shivered ourselves warm. My friend, Rachel, cycled off to work. I turned and headed home.
And as I cycled off, I noticed a faint lift in my mood, a thinning of the inner murk. I didn’t think too much about it – It could have been the company, the fresh morning air, the change of routine, but I went back the next day, and the day after. And it seemed to be helping.
And then one morning, impulsively, I didn’t bother with the wetsuit. And at the end of the first length I felt better than I had for months – almost, briefly, euphoric.
The Lido is only open to members of the South London Swimming Club in the winter, and on the 1st of November they turn on the sauna. And now, instead of shivering over a coffee on Streatham High Rd, I cooked in the sauna.
Slowly, over the next couple of months, I started to recover. The fear began to recede. After six weeks off work, I started, gradually – a day here, a day there – to go back. Although it doesn’t amount to a randomised control trial, I have no doubt that, for me, cold water was key. No matter how bad I felt I knew that for a few minutes every day I would feel something intensely. And because depression was for me, in part, a thermal disorder – my body burned with adrenalin – being super-cooled once a day was pure relief.
Cold water swimming is having its day. Lidos are reopening, membership of outdoor swimming clubs is booming. And there is some scientific evidence – not that I need it myself – to suggest that cold water swimming can help depression. One theory doing the rounds is ‘cross-adaptation.’ Immersion in cold water triggers your body’s stress response. Do it repeatedly and the stress response becomes muted – and not just to cold water. Such a ‘cross-adaptation’ may mean that cold water swimmers improve their ability to manage other life stresses.
There is also scientific interest in the possibility that the demands of modern life can trigger inflammatory responses in the brain and sympathetic nervous system, leading to a sheaf of stress-related disorders including anxiety and depression. It is possible that cold water swimming can both dampen the stress response and reduce the accompanying inflammation.
It has been more than three years since I was depressed, but I still swim as often as work and family life allow – I aim for four or five times a week, with a slight reduction in the summer if the lido gets too busy (I need it less in the summer, and I do not find warm water restorative). Cold water swimming hasn’t ‘cured’ me of depression – depression isn’t that sort of illness. (To be honest I doubt if it is a single ‘illness’ in any ordinary sense of the word. It feels more like a collective noun for a variety of ways in which the mind tilts away from balance.)
Over the years I have accepted that I have a tendency to it; it is how I was put together – there seems always to be a little bit too much adrenalin in my body. But as the cold, dark and introverted season returns, I am powerfully comforted by the thought that whatever my mood, however much static is in my mind and body, I will be able gently to immerse myself in an acre or so of freezing water, will swim several hundred yards in water almost viscous with cold, and come out flushed with something that could easily be mistaken for hope.