Can cold water swimming treat depression?

The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs, Dr. Chris van Tulleken, writes:

“Dr Mark Harper is cautiously optimistic. He says: “Our observations so far support the hypothesis that cold water swimming may have a range of benefits.”

“Jumping into the sea in winter is the most alive and present I ever feel. I get in fast – a dangerous approach if you’re a beginner – when the cold shock response provokes an uncontrollable urge to inhale.

Underwater, I feel an intense mixture of burning pain and, even after doing this for years, a little panic. But it’s the only time the anxious negative chatter in my head is truly silenced.

After two minutes, as my skin reaches the same temperature as the water, I start to feel comfortable and my breathing slows. After even a brief swim, I feel elated for hours and calm for days.

Like many other people who swim in cold water regularly, I love it, but I also believe it has mental health benefits.

And the first case report on cold water swimming published in British Medical Journal Case Reports shows that it may be an effective treatment for depression.

Diving in:

The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs, a series broadcast on BBC One in 2016, which I developed and presented, followed Sarah, a 24-year-old who had been taking antidepressants since the age of 17.

Her symptoms had started earlier in her teens. When we met, she was desperate to stop her antidepressants, saying they put her in a ‘chemical fog’.

She loved swimming and, because of my own experience, I approached Prof Mike Tipton and Dr Heather Massey, both scientists at the extreme environments laboratory at Portsmouth University.

I also spoke to their collaborator Dr Mark Harper, a consultant anaesthetist at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals, to see if there was any scientific basis for trying out cold water swimming on Sarah …”

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  1. Pingback: Just One Thing – with Michael Mosley: Cold Shower – A New Vision for Mental Health

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