Cold water swimming has become increasingly popular during lockdowns. (Photo: Julia Back)

Taking the plunge for better mental health

When the water in Port Phillip Bay starts to cool down in late summer, most of us chuck our bathers into the back of the closet, and dig up puffer jackets ready to take on Melbourne’s ever so unpredictable winter. 

But there is another, growing group of people, who start to look forward to the months of cold water swimming ahead.

Marie Werrett, 65,  says she used to hate winter. But after moving to Melbourne from the country last year, she joined a cold water swimming group. It’s totally changed her life.

“The stiffness I felt in my joints during winter has gone,” she said. “I used to get stressed out easily but much less now and the days I swim I sleep so much better.”

“I’m quite addicted to it. I don’t feel the same if I don’t go.”

The water temperature in Port Phillip Bay is at its warmest in February, at around 20 degrees. During the winter months, it averages around 10, but rarely below nine. Staying in 10 degree water takes practice and building strength, and even most experienced swimmers won’t usually stay longer than 30 minutes.

Cold water swimmers talk about a high, a euphoria, that has made them addicted to their hobby. While the mental benefits of cold water swimming are less researched than physical ones, they are often intertwined. 

Lucy Redpath heads into the water at Middle Park Beach. (Photo: Julia Back)

When first entering cold water, our bodies go into shock. During this initial reaction, our brains start to transmit natural pain-relieving hormones like endorphins and adrenaline.

Exercise physiologist Patrick Hughes explains these give us the sense of euphoria and kick-start our “fight or flight” response.

“Even a short time of cold water swimming can increase the amount of leukocytes in our bloodstream, which are part of our immune system,” he said.

Body temperature slowly drops and adapts to cold water as the body becomes numb, although adaptation happens during a longer period of time of controlled cold exposures.

Lindy Fagan says, for her, cold water swimming is much more about the mental benefits than fitness goals. 

Usually finishing swimming around Easter, last year she decided to keep going, and found a welcoming group of other swimmers to head into the water with at six in the morning.

“I found I especially enjoy starting in the dark and watching the sun rise from the water,“ she said.

“We wear headlights fastened to our goggles, and I just love seeing the twinkling lights in the water as I walk on the cliff top towards the shore, figuring out who is already out there swimming.”

“The camaraderie makes it much more enjoyable especially on windy, wild and wavy mornings, when we can rejoice in our masochism.”

Lucy and Joe Monteleone try come for a swim most mornings at 7.30, and say it is often the highlight of their day. (Photo: Julia Back)

But it’s not just the endorphins and swim buddies that make the hobby so enjoyable for those who dare to dip in.

Physiologist Patrick Hughes explains the theory pioneered by leading cold water swimming researcher Dr Heather Massey, who has been studying the so called “cross-adaptation” and the longer term mental health benefits of cold water exposure. 

“In theory, if the body adapts to one stressor, it can partially adapt to others,” said Mr Hughes. “Cross-adaptation can potentially lessen our response to psychological stress as well.”

“By graded and gradual exposure to shock on our body by cold water, the body begins to better learn how to deal with sudden stress on the body.”

In essence, this can be taken outside of water and applied to the stress and anxiety in our everyday lives.

Many swimmers also note the inherent mindfulness of their activity.

Swimmer Paul Widdicombe, 62, explains how the initial pain of entering the water changes into being calm and observing the sea.

“There is always blinding pain when you first enter the water,” he said. “You just hang in there knowing this will pass, and it does. Within a few minutes the pain subsides and you start to enjoy the freedom of being out in an amazing marine world.”

“The swim itself for me is trancelike. Sometimes you are away in random thoughts, just following some loose flow of ideas. It becomes a great vehicle for problems solving and finding resolution.”

“And then there are the swims where there is a break from mental activity, and just the rhythm of you and the sea.”

Experts say to build up tolerance to cold water slowly and to never swim alone. (Photo: Julia Back)

The swimmers all said there has been a peak in activity during the past 18 months of lingering lockdowns. In the midst of uncertainty, when days feel all the same, it makes sense that an activity of pushing yourself to a new limit and having a routine to stick to is something more people are gravitating towards. 

Lucy Chesser joined a group in Mount Martha called “The Sea Wolves” during last year’s lockdown. The group of women would gather in the ocean in the mornings, swim together and yell out the shock of the cold water.

Lucy, who used to hate cold water, stuck with the routine, and has now swum 244 days without a break.

“I feel proud of myself and that I am able stick with something and overcome difficulties,” she said.

Her swimming streak has faced some challenges too.

“A visit to the Grampians meant swim in lakes. A visit to Wangaratta, swim in the Ovens river. An early morning flight, swim at 4am.”

“Recently I came back from Queensland from a red zone and was stuck with 14 day home quarantine. I filled a claw foot bath in the back yard and got into the cold water for ten minutes,” she says.

The sense of achievement is what keeps her and a lot of the other swimmers heading to the beach.

“I think the control I have developed over my thoughts is a big thing,” she said. “I am able to look ahead to feeling perfectly at peace and warm in the water, which takes about five minutes, and put aside the negative self talk.”

“Getting out of cold water once I acclimatise, I describe it as feeling bullet-proof. In my bathers on a beach, with wind, rain, but none of it hurts. It’s amazing.”

In a year filled with mental challenges, it seems like overcoming just one, pushing through the cold water, can be enough. 

And, as Lucy says, it’s something anyone can do.

“So much of what seems hard is not as hard as you think.”