6nd November 2022:
We already know the benefits of exercise and swimming on our mental health I explain here how our body reacts when we complete open water or wild water swimming and how it improves our mental health.
It turns out cold water exposure, even if it’s only splashing our face, activates the vagus nerve, slowing down our breathing and heart rate and switching us into a state referred to as parasympathetic mode, but more commonly known as ‘rest-and-digest’.
This is relevant to our mental health because research demonstrates that prolonged and chronic stress results in changes in the brain found in people with anxiety and depression.
You can create a space to improve your mental health right in your back garden. Much prettier than a bucket, barrel, or bath outside; a swimpond is beautiful to look at, creates a habitat for wildlife, and getting into it improves your mental health.
We know cold water immersion increases the production of mood-elevating hormones and neurotransmitters (beta-endorphins, noradrenaline, and dopamine) that can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety by changing the chemistry in our body and brain. The rush we feel upon jumping into cold water is partly due to these chemicals communicating the experience to our brains.
As we learn more about mental health, the model is shifting from simply a chemically imbalanced, brain-centric model to include other factors including systemic inflammation. Researchers are considering that cold-water immersion may act like a systemic ice pack, helping to reduce inflammatory markers that may contribute to depression and anxiety.
We also have an extremely high concentration of cold receptors on the surface of our skin. When these nerve endings are simultaneously activated, the brain receives a huge influx of sensory information thought to have an antidepressant effect. Try to think about something other than the cold when you’re dipping into a glacial lake!
This flood of sensory information from the skin to the brain may act as a pause button on the neurological processes that are part of depression and anxiety. When we’re immersed in cold water, we may be interrupting certain neurological cycles contributing to mental health issues.
Plunging into the cold acts as a short-lived physiological stressor. It temporarily puts our system into sympathetic survival mode. Now, while we don’t want to spend our entire lives in a stressed-out, sympathetic mode, brief and repeated exposure to physical stress may improve our overall stress response in a process called cross-adaptation.
Some researchers propose that by practicing cold-water immersion regularly, individuals are developing a physical resilience to the stimulant of cold. By habituating to the cold, they are developing an adaptive response to one stress which may translate into other, unrelated stress triggers.
I look forward to speaking to you again soon. If you have any questions that you would like me to answer please reply to this email and I will do my best to get back to you as soon as possible.