'How can you go from feeling lethargic to euphoric, almost instantly, without the use of drugs, or spending money? Simple. Dunk yourself in cold water, and do it as regularly as possible. Ireland is surrounded by it, and it flows out of our taps - yet as a mental health resource, the benefits of cold water immersion are largely overlooked.
There are two possible reasons for this - firstly, despite tons of anecdotal evidence that cold water immersion has a positive impact on our mental well-being, there is little scientific research to back this up (the focus has largely been on the physical benefits).
And secondly, it's bloody freezing.
It takes guts and determination. Yet we all know someone who regularly gets in the sea all year around, and swears by it. Nor is it a new idea. Russians and Scandinavians have long appreciated the merits of icy immersion, and people have been swimming the English Channel since the 1800s.
Irish sea water rarely tops 15°C, which is cold enough to make you gasp; the trick is to breathe out. A slow exhale can prevent hyperventilation, which in turn manages the brain's fight-or-flight response.
Lately, Wim Hof, aka the Iceman, has popularised the idea of extreme cold water immersion as a way of boosting physical, psychological and spiritual well-being, appearing in Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop Lab on Netflix. It's all about mind over body, he says, via controlling the breath.
But what if your idea of swimming involves heated indoor pools, or the Mediterranean in August? What if you regard cold water immersion as something strictly for elite athletes in post-sport ice baths, posh 1950s boarding schools, or fads like the ice-bucket challenge? Has warm water and central heating turned us soft?
Research published in Science Direct in 2007 from Siberian molecular biologist Nikolai Shevchuk, into the possible benefits of cold water on depression, suggests that as primates, physiological stressors like cold water immersion have been part of our evolutionary progress, and we have evolved to tolerate brief changes in body temperature; this lack of what he terms 'thermal exercise' may cause inadequate brain function.
According to Shevchuk's research, "exposure to cold is known to activate the sympathetic nervous system and increase the blood level of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline and to increase synaptic release of noradrenaline in the brain as well. Additionally, due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, a cold shower is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect. Cold hydrotherapy can relieve depressive symptoms rather effectively. The therapy was also found to have a significant analgesic effect and it does not appear to have noticeable side effects or cause dependence."
A 2004 research paper, by three Finnish academics from the University of Oulu, titled Winter swimming improves general well-being, looked at mood as well as physical benefits over a four-month period (October to January). They found that regular winter swimming "improved general well-being" in the swimmers: "In the beginning, there were no significant differences in the mood states between the swimmers and the controls. After four months, the swimmers felt themselves to be more energetic, active and brisk than the controls. Vigour-activity scores were significantly greater. All swimmers who suffered from rheumatism, fibromyalgia, or asthma, reported that winter swimming had relieved pains."
But it has been Wim Hof who has most recently revolutionised our attitudes to the therapeutic values of cold. The 61-year-old Dutch father-of-six has long pushed himself to undergo extreme challenges: he has climbed Mount Everest and Kilimanjaro in shorts, is in the Guinness Book of Records for the world's longest under-ice swim - his corneas froze - and for being fully immersed in ice, and for the fastest barefoot half marathon on snow and ice. Hof, whose exploration of his physical and psychological limits was initially spurred by grief - his first wife and mother of his oldest four children suffered from depression and took her own life in 1995 - claims that immersion in extreme cold works on the autoimmune system, on anxiety and depression, and on infection and inflammation.
The science journal NeuroImage reported how Hof is able to artificially induce a stress response in his body that helps him resist the effects of cold; basically, he activates his brain's painkiller function through breathing exercises, before exposing his body to extreme cold. Anyone can do this, he says. (See youtube.com/watch?v=nzCaZQqAs9I)
Niall O'Murchu trained directly with Wim Hof, whom he describes as "brave, loving, fierce", and now runs workshops here in Ireland (breathwithniall.com). He became hooked, he says, during a time when he and his wife were stressed and exhausted from co-parenting their four small children. They came across a Wim Hof podcast, and decided to investigate. "Within a few days, our lives had changed," he says. "There's a saying in Irish, that we go in the sea to drown the miserable person inside us. It's true."
So how do you start, if you hate the idea of cold water, but love the sound of its benefits? And is it safe? "You need to be respectful with the cold, and build up gradually over time," he says. "You can start with a cold shower at the end of a hot shower. Feel the change in your body - your heart beat goes up, and your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, with panic breathing." This is where the Wim Hof breathing comes in: "The slow exhale will cause the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, and you will feel a sense of peace within the cold." And unlike Wim Hof, you don't need to involve any actual ice - cold water is fine.
Vincent McDarby, clinical psychologist and member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, says that despite a lack of hard evidence regarding its mental health benefits, cold water swimming could still have a positive impact when it comes to our ability to cope and adapt to stress.
"Cold water induces our fight-or-flight response immediately," he says. "So we must adapt immediately. Overcoming the perceived threat - the cold - could be very empowering, and could have a crossover effect, which could potentially be adapted to other life stresses. And also, even to go swimming in cold water involves effort and activation, which in itself has a positive impact."
Add to this the positive physical effects of cold water on the body - it has been shown to lower blood pressure, burn fat, boost immunity, act as anti-inflammatory, and manage chronic pain - and it seems rude not to give it a go. Especially as it's accessible and free to everyone - all you need is a tap.
Also, as the body has thermal memory - like muscle memory, except with temperature - the more often you immerse yourself, the less cold you'll feel. Your body will adapt, so that it knows what to expect, and you will be able to stay in longer. (Not in actual ice, of course, which is next level - this is about outdoor swimming in Ireland, rather than anything polar). GP Dr Brian Higgins is also a fan: "I live in Galway so I'm all for it. What happens is that we go into shock within the first minute, but if we can control the breathing then we can tolerate up to 10 minutes. After that, the core temperature begins to drop if the water is below 20 degrees Celsius.
"People who should avoid jumping into cold water are those with poorly controlled epilepsy, those with Raynaud's phenomenon who are hypersensitive to cold, those with impaired circulation such as Venus arterial disease or poor circulation from smoking, and most importantly those with cardiac disease like angina. People with these conditions should speak to their doctor first. Overall, so long as you build it up slowly, cold water immersion is amazing and highly recommended from a mental health point of view, and from a physical health point of view it is reported to have a painkilling effect for post sport muscle strain, post surgery pain, and arthritis."
» Watch some Wim Hof to familiarise yourself with the breathing technique, so that you learn to control your breath. » Read John Cheever's The Swimmer, and Roger Deakin's Waterlog, both paeans to the joy of outdoor swimming. » Start your cold water immersion at home in the shower, going from tepid to cold for five seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds etc.
» Go cold water swimming with someone who does it regularly, for safety reasons. » Wear neoprene booties and gloves. » Breathe out as you wade in, and never dive in suddenly. » Immerse yourself slowly, swim vigorously for a few moments, building up over time. » Warm up slowly afterwards, avoid hot showers immediately afterwards.
Health & Living