Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Last week I did something that was pretty ridiculous. It involved getting cold, muddy, very wet and disgustingly stinky. I took part in a Tough Mudder event, which included too much running, 13 bizarre obstacles, and being so far out of my comfort zone, I lost the power of speech because I couldn’t talk over the voice in my head that was yelling, ‘What the ****!!!!?’ Of course the reason I decided to go down this extremely filthy route was for charity. But I also had some warped desire to see if I was capable of doing it.
The night before the event, the thing I was most dreading was the coldness. Imagine my face when I trotted up to Obstacle 11, The Ice Bath or as TM have branded it, The Arctic Enema. You could hear the brain freeze screams from 100 paces. At one point I did wonder if my innards might shrivel up and escape from my body, but when it was all over, I felt more alert and positive than I had in months. What was that all about?
Recognising the health benefits of immersing ourselves in cold water may seem contradictory to rational thinking, but there are many pros. On the physical side, studies have shown it boosts white blood cells and so improves immunity, burns more calories (it’s that racing heart) and even alleviates post-operative pain. Feeling numb anyone? But more recent research suggests that cold water can positively affect our mental health.
When we repeatedly take the icy plunge, it ‘shocks’ the body into adopting our flight or fight response which, in turn, trains our brains to cope better with stress. Plus, when we put ourselves through something particularly challenging and survive, there is a deep sense of satisfaction. It’s the ultimate pat on the back. And, while all exercise makes us feel better psychologically, the extreme exhilaration and discomfort of sub-zero dunking means the body gets flooded with endorphins to help us cope. The levels of mood enhancers, like serotonin and dopamine, are significantly increased after such activities.
The British Medical Journal recently featured a case study of a 24-year-old woman who had struggled with depression since she was seventeen. After the birth of her child, she decided she wanted to be medication-free. She was given weekly open-water sessions as a treatment and was found to still be coping well without drugs a year later. Dr Mark Harper, the Outdoor Swimming Society’s cold expert, endorses this approach, saying that cold water can work as an anti-inflammatory effect, and because depression is synonymous with high levels of inflammation in the brain, the outcome of regular outdoor swimming can be positive.
It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea to volunteer for a Tough Mudder, and it might not be your pastime of choice to plunge into the English Channel in the middle of autumn. But, even turning down the temperature control on your daily shower for a few minutes might reap some mind-altering benefits. When I crossed that finishing line last week, I had the biggest grin on my face. Although I was smelly and shivering and craving the free bag of crisps they hand out, when my husband asked me how I was feeling, do you know what I answered? ‘Alive!’ I told him.
Written by Jenny Tucker