Anyone who has followed me on instagram over the past couple of years will be familiar with my cold water antics. Some would say madness. But I digress.
I spent my the happiest summers of my childhood cold water swimming. Except it wasn’t called that then. It was just swimming. We lived by the sea, there was a very old sea water pool (it’s now listed and locally it’s the stuff of legend) that was where my friends and me hung out to achieve maximum levels of freedom from parents.
I’d like to say that I kept that cycle of summer swimming up into adulthood but that’s not true. They were a rare novelty. But there was a hankering for it, a certain nostalgia and a certain knowing that it made me feel better.
When I moved home to Northern Ireland, I reconnected with that part of me. And I plucked up the courage to keep going into September. Spurred on by the harbour swimmers, a group of ladies who swim at the harbour every morning at 930 come rain or shine. I did it because it was a challenge. It felt good. It connected me to a group of likeminded friends who had joined me with that. It was the ultimate immersion in nature. And as it turned out the ultimate exercise in mindfulness. Nigh on impossible to dwell on the past or the future when swimming in the cold.
All good. But then a strange thing happened, I found it was altering my stress levels day-to-day. Even on the days I wasn’t swimming, I was calmer, more present, less afraid. I wasn’t alone. When I started to read up on it I realised that what the cold had done was to train my stress reactions. The act of getting into cold water places a stress on the body and puts you into the ‘fight or flight’ mode. When you control this – which you inevitably do if you want to swim – using your breath, you send you body back into what’s known as ‘rest and digest’ mode. You flex your reactions like a muscle. And what happens? That muscle gets stronger. So when you’re in a position that would trigger a stress reaction, you are better placed to deal with it. You can handle the stress better. Largely by flipping back into that calmer mode.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s one part of it. The other side is the bit that I like to call “badassery”. I often refer to a morning swim as topping up my levels of badass to make me feel like I’m a superhero. Put simply, there’s a moment as you’re about to immerse in cold water where every ounce of your being is telling you to stop. But you keep going. It’s a mindset thing. I find counting down from five is enough to push me through it. Once you’re in, you’re in. You’ve tested yourself, you’ve won. And with that tiny victory, you feel better, more powerful.
During a particularly tough period in my work last year, I was navigating some fairly tricky issues that called on me to dig into my reserves. If I ended up on a call with some self-serving a**hole, I knew that the tiny acts of courage involved in cold water swimming had knitted a web of support to get me through. Chances are said counterpart wasn’t in the Irish Sea in December. That helps.
Some achieve the same through turning the shower to cold and I can’t fault the logic but added to the cold, the immersion in the wild and untamed sea is the ultimate in bringing you back to yourself. A better version of yourself.