Studies show that swimming in frigid water or taking a cold shower supports mental and physical well-being.
We parked at the empty boat launch, in the flat, harsh winter cold of eastern Washington State. A storm was coming, and the Columbia River and sky were the color of steel. In the car I changed into layers that were easy to take off and put on — slip-on shoes, loose pants — and willed myself out into the icy air.
We left our towels in a pile on the beach’s picnic table, shucked off our layers — and ran. High-stepping down the rocky beach, we moved as fast as our legs would carry us. The water at the shore’s edge was shallow — not deep enough to dunk — so I pranced out into the depths, the rocks poking at my frigid feet, the water stinging. It was brain-frost cold. I tried to breathe through the iciness until it was deep enough to submerge myself.
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I’m not sure if I started screaming before I went under or after, but I know that I came up yelling. I shook back my hair and ran for the shore. Shrieking again when my not-quite-frozen feet connected with the rocks. I grabbed the towel, hyperventilating and still in pain, but quickly coming around. At first I felt inflamed, teeming with adrenaline, but after the buzz wore off, I was calm all day.
The next afternoon, I did it again. This time, willing myself to stay in longer, breathing into the adrenaline. And I kept coming back. Almost every day after work, I drove myself to the lake near my house and jumped in, parading across rush hour traffic in a towel and sandals. On days that the timing or logistics didn’t work out for a dip, I turned my shower tap to cold and counted my in-breaths. 10, then 12, then 15, resisting the urge to get out. It burned, but the rush that came after was addictive.
I’ve officially become part of a culty, international crew of cold water swimmers, chasing that feeling of elation while willfully freezing our knees off. And recently — out of nowhere — a surprising number of people I know are doing the same. They’re jumping into the Puget Sound, here in Seattle where I live, and diving into the ocean in coastal Maine.
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I think Covid-19 has a lot to do with it. People want to feel something, get out of their heads and into their bodies for a little bit. I know I do. A shock to the system is a good way to do that. But, as it turns out, cold water plunges are more than just a temperature reset or a bit of pandemic relief.
Research around the benefits of cold water swimming is growing, and there are a host of newly studied reasons why the shock, the cold, the adrenaline, and the hard reset all positively impact your body and brain — from alleviating depression to fighting inflammation and strengthening immune systems.
When you throw your body into ice-cold water, it boosts your white blood cell count because you immediately react to what — to your body — feels like an attack. It’s been shown to improve your immune system and help your muscles recover from stress. It flushes blood to the surface of your body and improves your circulation. You’ll also sleep better because cold water stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which doctors call the “rest and digest” response, and calms you down after a shock.
Over time and with prolonged exposure, you’ll also get better at managing the cold, which in turn helps you deal with other stressors and hone your fight or flight response. Scientists call that cross adaptation, and studies show that cold water swimmers have a less intense response to stressful situations, both physical and mental.
When it comes to the brain, quick, frigid dips release cortisol, which kills pain and makes you feel high. If you’ve ever been elated after a polar plunge, that’s what you’re feeling. The longer you can stay in, the more lasting effect the cold plunge will have on your stress response — just like with your body. In certain cases, the method has even been used to treat major depressive disorders.
At the very least, a cold water plunge is a much-needed positive shock to the system. After swimming, I feel alive, I feel tingly, I feel present, and full of joy. And following a year of being inside too much, alone too much, and not moving enough, it’s freeing to stand on a windy beach, dripping wet, and yelling loud.