How Cold Water Swimming helps me to cope with Depression and Grief

Oct 31, 2023 | Adventure Ideas

If you had told me a few years ago, that I would one day happily throw myself into the cold waters of the Scottish sea regularly, I would have laughed in your face. While I have always enjoyed being by the water, going in is a completely different story. I remember many instances when I hyped myself up and got into my swimsuit, only to run back and get dressed again when I realised how cold the water hitting my feet was. But now, this has all changed – and it started with one of the hardest days of my life.

Less than two years ago, we had to say our final goodbyes to our beloved cat Dexy. He was – with no disrespect to my husband – the love of my life. And while I would never want to compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a friend or a family member, I can honestly say that the period right after his death was one of the hardest times in my life. I was so overcome by grief, I didn’t know what to do with it. I felt helpless, at the mercy of my own emotions.

But as they say, time heals all wounds, and slowly these waves of desperation grew further and further apart.

Only, that a few months later, the sadness returned – and this time, it didn’t have a cause. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made me cry uncontrollably multiple times a day. At its worst, I wished I could just disappear from the face of the earth, and never deal with the sadness again. I blamed it all on stress at work and after a few days of darkness, I returned to the light, as if nothing ever happened.

Over the next few months, this happened again and again. Not every month, but when it did, it was always just a few days before I started my period. But still, the dots didn’t connect for me until I mentioned how I felt and the timing to a friend. “Have you heard about PMDD?” she asked. I had not.

PMDD, or Pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder, is a severe form of PMS that causes a range of emotional and physical symptoms, including feeling hopeless and out of control, mood swings and suicidal feelings.

And while this sounds scary – knowing that there might just be an explanation for my cycles of sadness, actually made coping with it a lot more manageable.

There is also another thing that helps me cope and that’s cold water swimming.

Living in Scotland, I am surrounded by cold water year-round. Retrospectively, I’ve noticed that whenever I felt at my worst, I scheduled to go for a swim with a friend. It is ironic that even the day before Dexy passed, I had a swim lesson on a Scottish beach with an open-water swim coach. He taught me breathing techniques and how to be in the moment when I entered cold water. It’s a strategy I have been using ever since.

Swimming to me, is almost like therapy. As I let the cold water swallow me whole, the voices in my head fade away and I feel like I can focus. Nothing clears the mind quite like a cold Highland loch or the lapping waves of the sea. Look up the meaning of “Blue Health” and you’ll see that the research shows that being in and near water is good for your wellbeing and physical health.

I wrote about this – my experiences with grief and depression and a swim trip to the Isle of Coll that I hoped would help me heal some of these wounds on my podcast Wild for Scotland. It’s a travel podcast on which I tell immersive stories, taking you along on adventurous journeys all over Scotland.

Here is an excerpt from the episode ‘Healing Waters’ in which I describe one of my favourite swims on Coll:

I find a rock to lay my backpack on, peel out of my hiking clothes that are already sweaty and neatly fold them in the best order to put them back on. Wrapped in my towel, I reach for my bathing suit, but before I can grab it, my hand pulls back.

Something stops me from putting it on. I look around the empty beach. Another group of hikers has long disappeared behind the grassy dunes we just came from and to the best of my knowledge, there was no one else coming.

I take off my towel and place it on top of my clothes. The sun feels warm on my skin, and the breeze feels cool. I walk through the soft sand, a canyon of tiny pebbles closing and opening with every step I take until it hardens beneath my feet the closer I get to the edge.

The cold water hits my feet and climbs up my legs. My ankles, calves and knees, thighs, bum and belly button. I let my hands hang down alongside my body and my fingertips dip into the sea. I close my hands, just enough to form little bowls on my palms, scooping up water to drizzle on my arms, my shoulders and my back.

I breathe deeply, bend my knees and submerge my body into the sea. My skin is burning, and my lungs contract. I lose sense of my toes but all I can focus on is staying afloat.

I remain here. Feeling the cold of the water on parts of my body that are normally protected by my swimsuit.

I pull my knees into my chest. My toes can still touch the ground, anchoring me in a way to the sand, as I bob up and down, back and forth, like a creature of the sea.

It makes me feel connected and free at the same time. An unbreakable bond with the sea, with my body and my mind. Yet, free from the constraints I put on myself every day.

You can listen to the full episode on Spotify

Now, whenever I feel the sadness bubbling up, I know it’s not my fault for feeling this way. And I might just call a friend to schedule another cold water swim to clear my mind. You may find, it helps you too.

This guest blog post was written by Kathi Kamleitner. Kathi is based in Glasgow and writes about all things Scotland on her travel blog Watch Me See. She hosts the podcast Wild for Scotland in which she tells immersive travel stories with a focus on adventure, nature, conservation and responsible travel. Her favourite place in Scotland is Glencoe – it was the first place she visited in the Highlands and also where she got married!

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