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  • Katrina Down

Cold water therapy

Conversing with a fitness guru friend of mine recently; theologising holistic wellness approaches and putting the world to rights; he began to speak of the “iceman” Wim Hof. Although I had banked this name from previous conversation or research, (ringing a metaphorical bell somewhere in my mental filing cabinet), I was largely unaware of his mission and the method that he had pioneered. I returned home to fervently google his name, only to become captivated by his story and the practice for which he has become recognised.


Although all three of his “pillars to potential” struck a chord with me, it is his belief in the power of cold-water therapy that I became fascinated with. As someone who finds therapeutic value in the sea (sitting by it, being in it and listening to the waves), I was intrigued as to the wealth of qualities that cold water holds, both in terms of physical and emotional wellness.

The more I read, the more I reflected on my own experience of wild swimming. I recalled the surge of vitality I felt on entering the water, the cocoon of iciness enveloping me, the sensation, as if every part of me was awakening, my nerves tingling with energy and anticipation and the serenity I felt when I finally reached ambience and was at one with the motion of the waves. In these transcendentally, magical moments you are immersed into something so sublimely powerful and yet the sea holds you in an offering of co-mastery. The truth I realised was, that it is in these moments that I feel most alive, most present and most peaceful. I could only concur with Wim Hof’s findings, from my own experience and yet although we live in an area surround by opportunity for cold water therapy, it is still somewhat of an untapped resource.

The benefits of cold water are varied and have been accounted for both scientifically and anecdotally. So before braving the big freeze what are these benefits?


Mental Health

It is widely accepted that exercise in general promotes the release of endorphins that stabilise and improve our mood. However, the additional benefits of taking the plunge with cold water therapy have more to do with the properties of the water itself. The rhythmic sway of waves or the way that river water wraps itself around you, has the powerful ability to literally wash away your stresses. When you focus on the way the water moves, how it feels and how your body responds, it has unparalleled mindfulness qualities, furthermore the icy temperatures make it challenging to consider anything other than your bodily sensations. In fact, I challenge you to jump into the January sea and try to reel off your shopping list…it won’t happen! It is for this purpose that therapists often recommend cold water therapy (in the form of ice water plunging) for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder through Dialectal Behavioural Therapy and TIPP Skills, to reduce the impact of extreme intrusive thoughts and emotions. As Dr Mark Harper so eloquently suggests “You are not only immersing yourself in the water but in the moment."

The unquestionable ability for cold water to alleviate stress, paradoxically stems from the fact that it causes stress…mind blown! Plunging into cold water activates our “fight or flight” response, raising our cortisol levels and triggering other physiological responses that manifest the same way during periods of heightened stress. With repeated exposure to cold water therapy, we gradually become accustomed to/learn to control and reduce this response, through a process known as cold water adaptation. This ability does not become forgotten on dry land and therefore we become better equipped and more resilient in dealing with land lubber stresses.

A splash in Gaia’s swimming pool has proven benefits for those suffering from depression too. Not only does cold water have anti inflammatory properties, which is effective in helping reduce the cerebral inflammation associated to depression, but the increased blood flow and electrical activity in our nervous system, stimulated by the cold will also have an anti-depressive effect.

Metabolic status

Do you know how many calories it takes to stay warm!? No, neither do I. HOWEVER, I do know our metabolism increases to provide energy for our bodies to shiver. Shivering is fundamental for core temperature maintenance and homeostasis. Therefore, even if you are not moving, you will be burning calories. A raised metabolism, will therefore have benefits for weight loss, flushing through bodily toxins, improving circulation and improved complexion.

Rest and repair

This was one of the most immediate benefits that I recognised of wild swimming. After a couple of hours bobbing about at sea, I always hanker after two things… a good carb loaded meal and some kip! Cold water arouses the parasympathetic nervous system which facilitates bodily repair and restfulness. So, expect improved sleep to be among the many delightful side effects of cold water therapy.

Increased immunity

As a coastal lass, I am no stranger to rock jumping and the overwhelming rush you feel when your body hits the water. Penetrating like glacial darts, piercing through to the bone! Cold water shock is not for the faint hearted and many may question what kind of looney would do that to themselves (well eh-hem, me!!). The thing is, with the tingling and the pins & needles AND the breathlessness, comes a whole gambit of benefits. The immune system is fired into action, the cold water acting like a military sergeant waking up a regiment. Production of antioxidants and white blood cells increases, boosting your immunity and enabling your natural defenses to protect you against various ailments, illnesses and diseases. Your ability to ward off bacterial infections and viruses enhances, and beta-endorphins help to facilitate natural pain management…well worth the trade off!

Cold water therapy may seem like an odd way to get your kicks, but my advice is definitely don’t knock it until you try it. The benefits outweigh any initial discomfort and once you are ambiently rolling with the waves, the serenity of a new perspective and the value of feeling immersed in nature, are experiences you will not quickly forget. My advice will always be to seek out an organised group, led by people in the know who will monitor tides and currents, water pollution levels and advice on aquatic precautions. Be mindful of your limitations but do not be scared to push yourself outside your comfort zone.

If wild swimming is not your thing, the benefits of cold water therapy can be experienced at home by taking regular cold showers of plunging with ice water, as Wim Hof suggests. Give it a go and feel the post cold plunge euphoria, when your snuggled up in your slippers and dressing gown…sheer bliss.

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