One of the things I wonder about when I'm swimming is what the onlookers are thinking; and often there are many, pausing their walk along the prom to look at the group on the beach, getting in the sea, particularly in the middle of winter. I reckon half are thinking "what a bunch of crazies, why on earth would they do that?? I'm cold and I have a hundred layers on - you wouldn't catch me in there!" or words to that effect.
I think the other half are thinking "ooh, that looks fun and exhilarating, I wish I could join them" or perhaps "one day I will". This assumption is based on the fact that these are the two reactions I generally get when I tell people that I sea swim all year round. So many friends have said they'll join me, but haven't as yet. And lots of people tell me I am mad. My response? "No, it's what keeps me from going too mad!"
We winter swimmers get called brave a lot too. I don't see it as that. I do feel strong when I dip my toe into the coldest of seas and feel the chill, and slowly force my body in inch by inch. I do feel pretty tough when I've managed to face the waves and got in past my shoulders and caught my breath. But I don’t do it for the bravery accolades from friends or strangers.
I do it because it makes me feel good. I always think it's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes me feel good or not so good. It's not like life can be a randomised control experiment where we can keep all variables the same and just change the one aspect to see if this is what makes the difference. My mood and wellbeing is impacted by the weather, my sleep, my cycle, who I am spending time with and how their mood is, what I eat, what I drink, the exercise I do, the communication I have with others (extended family, friends), and whether I swim. But I know when I can’t swim, as I’m unwell or there’s a long period of stormy weather, as there was earlier this year, that I miss it a lot.
So does swimming in cold water itself impact positively my mental health? Yes, I think it does. I no longer get the rush and buzz I got when I first started. I rarely get the hysterical giggles after a cold swim any more. I wonder if the impact in that sense has worn off over time. I haven't since got the child-like rush of excitement I got after swimming 30 meters in 2 degree water at the Cold Water Swimming Championships. Some researchers liken the cold water swimming buzz to a cocaine high. Well, I have developed a tolerance to the effects of my drug of choice.
However, I still get a lot from it. I have a great sense of achievement when I've overcome the freezing-ness and got myself in, shoulder-deep and then dunked my head. Once I have gained control of my breath, I always have a sense of "ahh, that's better". I feel invincible when I've gone into deeper water and swam round the buoys, especially after overcoming a panic attack out there. But most of all I have a great time when I swim with my tribe. In additional to all of the above, I love the connection. Whether it’s a flippant chat and a "how are you"? Or a more intense, "no, how are you really". Or it might be putting the world to rights, or sharing your deepest thoughts and feelings. So for my wellbeing I think what I need is to swim, with a small group if that feels right, or a big one on other days, to check in with myself and see whether on that day I want to chat with newbies or stick to those who know me. I always need to dunk my head and get my face in. And above all just get in that damn sea, because if nothing ese, I can say I have never felt worse after a swim! So, to the onlookers, before you call us mad, give it a go!