Cold water immersion has been shown to transform the way the body responds to stress, as Tim Clare discovered after a decade of severe anxiety
I was at my wits’ end when I finally lowered myself into the River Wensum, in Norfolk, at the tail end of autumn. My quest to find a cure for my severe anxiety and decades’ worth of weekly – sometimes daily – panic attacks was going badly. I’d exhausted conventional treatments, so I decided to try something different. An anaesthetist, Mark Harper, had told me about research he had co-authored into cold outdoor swimming as a treatment for depression.
In as little as six three-minute swims on consecutive days, in water of 10-14C (50-57.2F), I could transform the way my body responded to stress – or so the theory went. Immersion in very cold water induces something called the “cold shock response”: a gasp reflex, constriction of blood vessels close to the surface of the skin as your body tries to conserve heat, raised heart rate and hyperventilation. However, repeated exposures diminish the intensity of this response. You adapt.