Stressed by COVID-19? Can Cold Swims or Cold Showers Help?

An examination of the mental health benefits of cold-water immersion.

Posted May 08, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis continues unabated, and many jurisdictions still have social distancing regulations in place. This is concerning, as considerable research indicates that social activities can foster positive mental health.

As such, individuals may need to engage in innovative activities to reduce stress and promote their own mental health. Two activities that may be particularly suitable to some people are cold swims or cold showers: not ice cold, but in the 16-20 degrees Celsius (60-70 degrees Fahrenheit) range—as opposed to the unnaturally warm temperatures of heated swimming pools.

Cold-Water Immersion: A Brief History

Immersion in cold water has long been associated with spiritual renewal and bodily healing. For example, both the Greeks and Romans believed that immersion could help various ailments, including skin issues, digestive problems, and arthritis—hence the popularity of Roman baths.

Such beliefs were revived in the Victorian era when a recommended treatment for mental and physical maladies was regular visits to a spa to take "hydrotherapy." Indeed, spa towns, such as Baden-Baden and Bath, flourished due to an influx of people in search of such healing waters.

In an age of biological psychiatry, the bulk of psychiatric research focuses on genetics, medication, and neuroscience. That said, there is a small corpus of research examining the psychological impact of cold-water swimming and showers. This indicates that, when done safely and responsibly, such immersion can reduce stress and promote mental health.

Mental Health Benefits for All

Some research has focused on open-water swimming in places such as lakes and the sea, indicating that this can be particularly beneficial. Such swimming can release endorphins and produce serotonin, which can elevate mood, increase happiness, and regulate sleep. The cool water can also improve circulation in deeper tissues, leading to a more vigorous distribution of nutrients, and parallel removal of toxins.

Swimming outdoors in the summer can also involve exposure to sunlight, which gives multiple health benefits, including the release of vitamin D, which can help protect against a range of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. Complete cranial immersion in cool water can also stimulate the vagus nerve, which can help reduce swelling and inflammation.

Research indicates that many of these benefits (minus those linked to exercise and sunlight) can be gained from frequent cold-water showers at home—a worthy alternative to cold-water swimming.

Cold Swimming for People With Mental Illness

People with mental illness may particularly benefit from cold-water swimming. Such swimming can have the above described biological effects, as well as a positive psychosocial effect associated with setting and achieving new goals. This is sometimes seen as a beneficial adjunct to conventional treatment.

For example, a woman with bipolar disorder told me in a recent research study that “I am looking forward to being done with this rehabilitation program. I will go somewhere that will make me feel better. I’m going swimming somewhere. I don’t know where, a valley to swim in a river, take some sun.”

Similarly, a case study published in the British Medical Journal found that a woman with depression became symptom- and medication-free after a weekly dose of lake swimming from April to September. For such reasons, some psychosocial rehabilitation centers have launched open-water swimming classes to help people in recovery from mental illness.

Perhaps the best exposition of the mental health benefits of cold-water swimming can be read in a poignant yet upbeat new book released last week entitled Natural Health Service. In this book, Isabel Hardman explores how cold-water swimming, outdoor exercise, and exposure to nature helps facilitate recovery—interweaving her own personal experience with expert interviews and first-person accounts.

Safe Practices

Cold-water swimming comes with risks and is not appropriate for everyone. Anyone interested in cold-water swimming should know and respect their limits and tailor their swimming accordingly.

As stated, cold-water swimming does not mean ice-cold-water swimming, nor does it mean winter swimming. In fact, cold-water swimming for beginners is best conducted from May-September in waters around 16-20 degrees Celsius (60-70 degrees Fahrenheit)—temperatures often seen in U.S. and UK waters.

Importantly, such swimming should always be accompanied and is best conducted where there are lifeguards present. Also, swimmers should immerse themselves gradually to avoid cold-water shock, and should always start with short swims to acclimatize and avoid the risk of hypothermia.

Moreover, it is vital to avoid swimming in locations where there are strong currents, tides, and eddies. Remember, many of the benefits of cold-water swimming can be gained by a cold shower, and this may be more appropriate for some people.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has placed limits on socializing and other health-promoting activities, such as team sports. But earlier this week, a number of well-known beaches reopened for swimmers, including Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach, as well as U.S. beaches from North Florida to California. Combined with the advent of spring, this is an ideal time to try cold-water swimming (with social distancing), following the safe practices outlined above.

In the words of Isabel Hardman, “Cold-water swimming has made such a difference, not just to my daily mood but my ability to cope.” Amen to that.