When I moved back to the coast 20 months ago, one of the things I wanted to do was to start swimming in the sea, but I was afraid.
I love the water. Watching it and listening to the sound of the waves is one of my favourite things in the world, yet I’m also aware of its awesome power and ferocity. Also, let’s face it, the English channel isn’t quite as appealing as a dip in the Pacific Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea!
The idea of swimming early in the morning or in the moonlight has excited me as I’ve looked out of my window over the water, but I wasn’t willing to try it alone as I was too worried I’d get into trouble or my stuff would get nicked.
But then one of my friends, who had been watching the sea swimmers on her morning bike ride, suggested we try it and, since June, I’ve been swimming in the sea regularly. Throughout the summer it was almost every day and now as the water and outside temperature has dropped, it’s been once or twice a week.
I can’t even begin to tell you what a magical and invigorating experience it has been. I’m now not afraid to go alone (although I wouldn’t risk it in winter) but equally there’s an amazing community of sea swimmers in Folkestone and I usually go with my friends.
Being so close to Mother Nature feels incredibly healing for the spirit. The cold water, the momentum and flow of the waves (which changes on a daily basis) and the epic skies take my breath away.
Swimming at sunrise in particular holds a magic I just can’t describe. This summer, and now braving the icy cold autumn waters, has been one of the best experiences of my life and it’s all been right there on my doorstep for free all this time!
And I’m not alone. Wild swimming has become increasingly popular in the UK, with more and more people deciding to brave the cold in recent years. But why? Well maybe because sea swimming, is known to have many benefits for body and mind.
The benefits of cold water swimming
For centuries, people have been drawn to the sea’s healing bosom, to feel the powerful effects of cold water and fresh coastal air.
Doctors even used to prescribe “sea air” as a cure for various ailments. But there’s nothing that compares to getting into the water itself.
The term ‘thalassotherapy’ (from the Greek word thalassa, meaning “sea”) refers to the use of seawater as a form of therapy.
The practice dates back to the ancient Egyptians as it is believed the properties of seawater have beneficial effects upon the pores of the skin.
As this blog is about mental well-being, I will mention this aspect first. Swimming in the sea has been shown to have a number of positive effects on mental health. Not merely does the sheer beauty and excitement of it give me a boost (apparently this is known as the “swim high”) but immersing yourself in cold water is linked to stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. In our stress-driven world, we are often operating on high alert with our sympathetic nervous system in the driving seat and our adrenaline and cortisol levels pumping.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and repair and can trigger the release of the feel good “happy” hormones, dopamine and serotonin. Low or depleted levels of these are linked with depression. This is why when you over stimulate your release of them, with drugs and alcohol for example, you come crashing back to Earth with a depressed bang.
Seawater is also rich in the mineral magnesium, which helps release stress, relax your muscles and promote sleep.
Let me tell you, as someone almost six years in sobriety, there’s no bigger high than swimming in cold water early in the morning as the sun rises – being awake, feeling alive, feeling invigorated and taking in so much beauty you almost want to cry with joy sometimes. And there’s no come down.
It is also believed that by repeatedly exposing yourself to cold water you can reduce your stress response. There’s a really interesting article about that you can read here.
Health and healing
Being out in the elements, the fresh air and sunshine, helps activate the body’s healing mechanisms but immersing yourself in cold water takes it a step further.
Sea swimming can support healing for pain and other ailments. Swimming supports your body weight so it’s one form of exercise that offers relief from puting strain on your joints. I used to run, but since October last year when I had a bout of inflammatory arthritis in my foot, I haven’t been able to as much. Limping for weeks on end meant I also got stiffness and pain in my hip and I now regularly get sciatica too. Swimming in the cold water offers a lot of relief.
We are all conscious of our immune systems right now, having lived the majority of this year under the cloud of a pandemic. I don’t know if sea swimming has helped me avoid catching coronavirus but I do know that thalassotherapy can help your immune system by improving the blood cycle and circulation and restoring essential micro-elements that are depleted by lifestyle and environmental factors such as diets, stress, smoking, alcohol or pollution.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that the cold water helps circulation because it makes your blood rush from your extremities to your major organs and then back out again as you warm up post-swim. Immersing yourself in cold water also stimulates the production of infection-fighting white blood cells.
The English Channel may not look like it’s full of an abundance of nourishing nutrients but sea water does contain goodies such as minerals, vitamins, amino acids and micro-organisms which are absorbed through the skin and have antibacterial effects.
Speaking of skin, sea swimming can be good for our largest organ too. As mentioned, seawater contains minerals including magnesium, sodium, calcium, chloride and sulphate which can all give the skin a feel-good boost.
Research suggests that seawater can help people who suffer with inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema because of its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to speed up the healing process.
A personal journey
More than anything what I’ve seen in myself and my friends this year as we embarked on this new adventure in sea swimming has been that we’ve all been on a very personal and transformational journey with it.
For some of us it’s been about facing fears, while for others it’s been about proving how strong and resilient we are. One friend completed 100 consecutive swims from June until October to stick two fingers up at cancer and now she and another friend are planning to swim the channel!
Swimming outside in the cold water has really anchored me in this strange and challenging year.
I never thought I’d be swimming in the English channel in December, but I am and I hope to continue to do so throughout the winter.
I’m still a little scared at times – there’s recently been a little seal in the water and while I love seeing it from the safety of the beach, it’s his home territory after all, I’m not keen on encountering him during my swim 🤣. I personally don’t like swimming when it’s too rough either, it’s not for me, but every time I go down there and think “maybe I won’t go in today it’s too cold; it’s too choppy; it’s too rainy”, the pull of the water is just too strong and I’m always glad I did. No swim is the same and that’s part of the magic of it. We’ve shared some wonderful experiences over the last few months that will make 2020 unforgettable for a good reason.
If, like me, you have been cold water swimming. Here’s a good article about keeping warm this winter ❄️
And here’s a video made by the RNLI about winter safety.