Mental Health Swim

Keeping the Black Dog at bay through Cold Water Swimming

Earlier this year, we partnered with the incredible Mental Health Swims. A non-profit, volunteer-led swimming community who put on open water swimming sessions across the country to encourage and empower people with mental illnesses to enjoy the healing power of cold water.


We have reached out to Mental Health Swim members to understand their journeys with cold water swimming and how it has positively impacted their lives.


Meet MHS member, James who has shared his relationship with cold water swimming.

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Entering the water, feeling the tingle of the cold slowly enveloping you. Knowing that sudden “oh god” moment is coming as your shoulders go under. How I have missed that! But I get ahead of myself slightly now.


I have “officially” suffered from anxiety and depression for around 10 years now - the truth being, it has probably been a lot longer than that. I’d always had the occasional day or two where I just didn’t feel like facing the world just as I expect many people do. It wasn't until those days started to stretch into a week at a time then weeks that I accepted something was wrong and went to my GP and I was given words to describe why I was feeling this way.  And it was then that I accepted the Black Dog was going to be a permanent visitor in my life.


Fast forward to now(ish) and I have a battery of tools at my disposal to help keep the Black Dog under control - there are still days when he is large and over powering, but most of the time he sits quietly at the back of my mind, distracted.


One of the biggest tools I have and still use is exercise - I’m slowly coming around to loving running, but my heart has always seemed to lie in or near water. Its every changing nature, the ease at which we move through it. I could happily spend hours going up and down the pool, switching off my mind. It was my own version of a mindfulness session.


Rumours of the benefits of cold water and outdoor swimming had always skirted around the edges of my awareness, and I finally took the plunge in 2019 to give it a try. A friend in a facebook group I was a member of convinced me to give it a go. So on a warm April morning, I found myself standing on the bank of a local lake in a cheap wetsuit waiting for my induction.

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What followed was a joyful summer with friends enjoying escaping out in the lake and seas around where I live. Distance and speed were key in my mind - competitiveness is one of my weaknesses. I wasn’t really slowing down to enjoy my surroundings, just treating it as another training session in a slightly quirky pool.


I had planned to swim through Winter 2019, but an injury during a night run meant I was off my feet for a few months and missed the essential transition period from Summer into Winter as the water cooled.


Then the Year That Shall Not Be Named happened. And the world as a whole struggled with our mental health. Pools and local swimming lakes closed, we were limited in who we could meet up with. So with my partner tagging along in a kayak, I made use of the sea right on my doorstep where we lived. I set up work meetings around the tide times and got out whenever I could for a swim.


Come winter 2020 I was determined to keep going through till the water started to warm again, especially after the year we were all having. While there was a slight tingle on entering the water during the warmer months, it was only once I hit mid-October and the temperatures started to drop below 15 degrees that I first experienced that cold water buzz people talk about.


I felt great after those dips, I felt truly like myself for the first time properly in a very long time. And that sense of the old me stayed with me for weeks at a time. I slowed down, I swapped from front crawl to head up breaststroke and enjoyed the view. If the waves were a little too rough to swim, I relived the joy of just jumping around in the waves like I had as a kid. But as the temperature dropped, so did the potential risk. It’s very easy to forget that outdoor swimming and cold water swimming are technically extreme sports.


I’d been following Mental Health Swims since October 2019 but only found the courage to attend one in 2020 when the Margate swim started up at Walpole Bay. With the water getting colder and knowing I would be safer swimming in a group I made my way along to the first group.


Trepidation filled me. The dread of having to make small talk, the Black Dog sitting on my shoulder whispering worries in my ear. But I really didn’t have to worry. There was no expectation to talk. It was just a group of like-minded people getting in the water together and watching out for each other. Conversations naturally happened - mainly discussing how we were going to get in - down the ladder as fast as we can, or taking it one rung at a time, slowly letting the cold envelope up. Then it moved onto how %*^%& cold it was, then the view from the tidal pool out over the bay. Now I am a regular at both the Whitstable and Walpole Mental Health Swims when I can make it down to them. 


If anyone has considered giving cold water swimming a go, I’d highly recommend it. Find a local group - Mental Health Swims maintain a map of all their swims on their website. Any group you find will be welcoming and will help you navigate your first swim. And once you have had that first cold experience, I’m fairly sure you might get hooked.

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