“Getting used… getting used… getting used… got used!” is what we used to say as small children as we eased into my dad’s unrelentingly scorching bath water. It’s what I’ve heard myself mutter too as I get into cold water at the start of my winter swim adventure.
The benefits seem manifold. Boosting circulation, immunity and libido, as well as fighting off depression, thanks to a release of lovely endorphins. “One thing that encourages people to endure the pain is the accompanying cocktail of endorphins that arises in the brain, resulting in a lasting sense of euphoria and calm,” says the Guardian’s Jonathan Knott.
There have to be enduring benefits, or nobody would do it. Risking the cold shock response, hypothermia, and possible heart attack is one thing, but the certainty of numb extremities as your blood rushes to preserve your vital organs is quite another. You know it’s going to hurt.
Yet it’s a risk worth taking. The benefits of swimming in frozen rivers and plunging in icy pools have long been enjoyed across north and eastern Europe before it became hipster cool. The “epiphany swimmers” in Russia, and the Scandinavian sauna tradition, as well as traditional swims and plunges undertaken by pretty much everyone: the young, the old, men and women.
While the health and well-being benefits are difficult to prove scientifically, the anecdotal evidence is strong. What’s more, they’re benefits anyone can enjoy; unlike most extreme sports, anyone can take a cold dip. In fact women with a good layer of subcutaneous fat seem to make the best chilly swimmers.
That’s what makes me happy, at least. It’s November, and a cold one at that, and I’ve thus far got as low as half an hour at 10 degrees centigrade without my beloved wetsuit, so it seems that bit of extra timber I’m carrying has its uses. The cold shock response is evident for about a minute or two: that dramatic in-breath, followed by some mild hyperventilation. You want to be able to hold on to something or touch the bottom until this effect has subsided.
After that, it takes a few minutes and a few strokes, dipping in my face and grimacing at the dreaded ice-cream headache. And once that’s gone, you’ve got used! And oh, the bliss! Your skin prickles, and yes, your feet and hands gradually lose sensation. You feel slower and heavier, which is why you should never go alone, and always be aware of when your body tells you get out.
But nothing can make you feel more alive, in the moment and at peace with the world. Perhaps that right there is as big a part of the antidote for anxiety and depression as those wonderful endorphins. You feel strong too, and inordinately calm.
That feeling really does stay with you, and I find myself plotting my next ‘hit’. It’s part trying to make sure I stay acclimatised as the temperature drops further. part thrill-seeking addiction. I may make the Cold Water Swimming Championships with a silly hat, but that doesn’t really matter. For now, at least, I’m just enjoying the chill. How low can I go?!
Incidentally. The colour of my skin after a cold dip is much the same as it was after a hot bath. Only after a chilly swim, when I touch my skin, I can’t actually feel my touch, which is very disconcerting!