Swimming and mental health

Outdoor swimming has huge benefits for your mental health. But how can you make the most of those benefits?

Last week was Mental Health Awareness week. For me, it culminated in leading a group as part of the Feelgood Festival, an event organised by the wonderful We're Aware. The swim was a small part of the festival, and an even smaller part of the festival's remit. And walking past suicide prevention banners as gazebos were being erected and stalls set up made me realise how far we've come in getting the issue of mental health into the mainstream.

We're all in it together

In my life, I have dealt with chronic stress, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder and postnatal depression. And that's just me. In my extended family, we have coped with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, alcoholism and bipolar disorder. In fact, seven years ago, alcoholism claimed the life of one of my dearest and most beloved relatives, and that's still a very painful thing to cope with.

I don't think that my family is all that unusual. We all, every one of us, deal with some degree of mental health issue ourselves or within our close circle of friends and family. Life is difficult and complicated, as are human brains. We may or may not have had trauma or something chronic to deal with, but no matter how severe our issues, they are still significant for us. In other words, we all have to learn how to deal with our struggles.

In doing so, I'd say that most adults are looking for ways to make life better and more enjoyable. And this search is bringing more and more people to outdoor swimming.

Wash your troubles away

Outdoor swimming has huge benefits for your mental health and wellbeing. I have written before, and you can read this article in Outdoor Swimmer, about what happens physiologically and socially that makes swimming in cold water so beneficial.

But, read this and other articles, and you'll hear miraculous stories about people who have come off their meds, kicked addiction and found a 'cure'. While these stories are inspiring, it's worth remembering that outdoor swimming is a coping mechanism not a cure. It may help your mental health to a lesser or greater extent and you may eventually be able to reduce or stop other treatments, but that may be gradual or temporary. It's something to try in alignment with other treatments like medication and therapy, and never in haste or without guidance.

It's also worth bearing in mind that taking up outdoor swimming puts the onus on you. A one-off or occasional dip is unlikely to make a lasting impact, whereas a regular swim will be more beneficial. Equally, the swim in itself may not be enough. The social aspect of outdoor swimming is not to be underestimated!