We all live busy lives, even though we spent 2 years, theoretically, slowing down I’m not 100% sure that it’s actually made our lives any slower. Busy lives equal busy minds.
I think more of us know ‘that’ feeling than we let on. That’s certainly been my experience in talking with some close friends. If you’re reading this I think you’ll probably be able to relate.
Recently I’ve found something to do with that mental energy, and that’s cold water swimming.
There are many things I could say about why I’ve fallen in love with it, but if I had to pick one it’s that it frees me from thought. Completely.
I remember the very first time I tried open (not cold) water swimming back when I lived in Portland, Oregon (around 6 years ago). There were a few lakes not far from the city that people would go to in the Summer to keep cool-during periods of intense heatwaves. I didn’t realise it at the time (hello hindsight my old friend) but I guess it was during that time that I started to think about my relationship with swimming in a different way. No longer was it boring and functional, a box to check off my exercise rota. Instead I started to see it as a legitimate outdoors activity, rather like an adventure. Something WORTH traveling for like Mountain Biking or Snowboarding. On top of that, you never quite knew what was lurking beneath you. Exciting even.
5 years passed and I rarely got back in open water. Not because of any fear or reluctance, I just didn’t have as easy access from my doorstep, and other forms of activity took preference when I did travel out of the city. I hadn’t yet really discovered the benefits that I have later come to realise and learn to prioritise.
Last year(2022) I started suffering from anxiety in different forms. Worrying about lots of different things, often catastrophising , not knowing how to deal with things out of my control, separate the small from the big. It all made it worse.
I did some research, read some books, saw some posts on Insta, and I started to read more about the benefits of cold-water swimming and how it can help people with anxiety and depression.
So in June 2022 I decided to do something about it and took the plunge (no pun intended) on a holiday in Cornwall. Despite it being June, let’s be honest it isn’t quite what we’d all imagine ‘summer’ in the UK, the water was 10 degrees. Balmy it certainly wasn’t.
All the ‘equipment’ I had was a regular swimsuit and some old neoprene surfing booties. It was all I needed.
I started by walking in slowly, just to my waist at first, pausing and controlling my breathing. That hyper focus on breath meant that I suddenly felt my thoughts dissipate. Going further into the cold water, acclimating slowly, until eventually I bobbed my head under. I wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined it might be. It felt like the water pulled me with a warm embrace (even though it was absolutely fucking freezing), kind of like an old friend. The slow approach was absolutely key, both from a safety perspective (the shock of cold water can be dangerous too) but also as it’s now become part of a routine. Literally learning how to slow down, focus, take one step at a time, surrender to the process and flow state.
Since that trip in June, I have been able to swim in cold water more regularly on weekends away in the Lakes and Cornwall, but also (maybe more importantly) I’ve also found some incredible spots on my doorstep, here in the Calder Valley and South Pennines. It’s through these regular swims that I am really start to feel the benefits for my mental health and wellbeing. It doesn’t cure my anxiety completely (at least not permanently) but it definitely quietens it and resets me. Reminds me of what’s important. And that is good enough for me.
Saying that cold water swimming frees me from thought might sound a bit exaggerated but it’s accurate, and the feeling I’ve experienced time and time again.
Refocusing that excess mental energy on one moment, one task, one process, one routine. Focus on my breath, eyes closed, being present in the moment. It makes me feel an immense amount of gratitude for my life, my health, my family & friends, and of course my wonderful dog (who absolutely hates swimming, but will tolerate a paddle board).
It’s like a reset button has been pressed and I’ve gained perspective on things.
I learn how to breath again. I feel alive again.