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How Wild Swimming and the outdoors boosts Mental Health

It is the end of Summer and soon the colour of the leaves will be changing, and Autumn will be starting to showcase itself in an array of hues of red, brown and yellows with the typical morning mist and sunrise. But here we are, on the last day of the summer holidays, a bunch of adults and young people thrown together on a project without knowing anything else about each other. Yet we find ourselves taking a coach journey to Dotshill Quarry and are about to spend every Tuesday with each other in the freezing, yes freezing water. Don’t believe anyone who tells you water at 17 degrees is warm! We spent our time getting to know each other, sharing our hopes, dreams, worries and everything else that goes with it. We learnt to support each other although the common mindset was “do not let the others see that the temperature of this water is absolutely killing me”.

That’s the thing about projects like this one though, you get together with a bunch of people who might feel awkward or uncomfortable around you as the adults, yet I am the closest in age to all the young people than any of the other staff attending and suddenly it doesn’t matter how old you are,  where you come from, what you do, or where you live. All that matters is that each and every one of us has been impacted in some way in our life, may it be losing a loved one, not being able to see family or friends, struggling with the impact of having to study or working out of a bedroom on a laptop without the support of our friends or any other myriad of issues that Covid and the lockdowns have had on all of us. Covid taught me one thing – no matter who you are, where you come from or what you went through, I guarantee you that in some way it has have left an everlasting impression and effect on all of us.

Anyway, that’s enough of being too deep about how being in nature and the freezing water has impacted on me personally.  Sorry I know I have already mentioned it, but you cannot imagine how cold the water was…

The journey one feels when in the cold water, can be described as… erm… dramatic at the least… and the thought of how you are supposed to be at one with yourself and your surroundings can be very intimidating, however that state of heightened emotional and sensory awareness does bring such an inner calm and peace and has an incredibly profound impact on your state of being. In short, the colder the water, the more intense the multitude of perceptions and sensations.

“And suddenly it’s time to start something new, and trust the magic of beginnings”

While there are huge amounts of research looking at the effects of cold-water exposure, one must wonder why it has taken so long to put these into action and why this is not more of a frequent practice.

Having witnessed the positive impact of transformation on the young people taking part in this project was deeply moving. You could say it was group therapy; a way to improve fitness and discover the huge benefits around mental health – on all of us. It is a long-known fact that exercise releases endorphins and that they make us happy.

The theory goes that immersing yourself in cold water puts your body into flight or fight mode. The initial shock response puts the body under stress but as the experience is repeated the stress response becomes less and less.  Repeated exposure leads to having a better grasp on how to cope with stress meaning you will be able to cope better with any of life’s stresses doesn’t it?

The 6 benefits of wild swimming are:

  • It boosts dopamine levels
  • Positive impact on well being
  • Mindfulness
  • Building new friendships
  • Exercise
  • Reducing symptoms of anxiety

But there is never anything quite like hearing it first-hand from the young people who took part in the project…

“Thank you so much for running these sessions. When I started, I was very nervous as I am not a confident swimmer and had no idea what to expect, but everyone had made me feel very relaxed. Before we started this project I was really struggling with my mental health, I have just moved back to a tricky home life and really was missing the sense of community I had at university but seeing a group of people every week was really helpful, particularly as in my job I had little opportunity to make time for myself. I found the cold water, the swimming and nature was really helpful, it was great to take time away from all the stress that was going on at home and at work and I feel that these sessions really helped with my outlook on life. I would love to keep in touch with the team and would love to be involved in any future activities”

“Firstly, a huge thank you and massive congratulations to yourself and the team who have really excelled in providing the awesome/ life changing experience of open water swimming.  All your efforts are so greatly appreciated by me and others.  Yes!!  I said life changing and I don’t say that lightly!  In my role caring for a young adult with additional needs, lockdown plus a sudden unexpected bereavement, the past two years has bought great challenges and a real feeling of being disconnected from the community and our world as we once knew it.  I can tell you that the joy the past two weeks  has bought is a very real feeling and such a sense of achievement for both of us – but way more than that – the experience seems to have helped with the young person’s  communication skills and she has really started to open up about her fears/ her sadness / her loss – I mean in a good way though as we can now talk openly about her feelings and try to help support her – the past two weeks has unlocked something – her sense of achievement and overcoming such fear is down to this unique fantastic experience”.

Jana Cotton – Living Well UK Team – Wild Swimming Participant

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