Based on a survey we did in late 2021, 1 in 4 men and 1 in 3 women living with a mental health condition say that outdoor swimming is a game changer. A further 55% say it brings them a lot of benefits. In addition, around 1 in 10 people who have started outdoor swimming recently say they did so for the mental health benefits.
I don’t know if Isabel Hardman completed our survey but if she did, she would surely have been among those who reported huge benefits to their mental health through outdoor swimming. Isabel is a journalist, outdoor swimmer and author of The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind*. Isabel suffers from depression and anxiety as a result of PTSD. In her book, she chronicles how connecting with nature helps her and many others manage their illnesses. I picked up the book for its chapter on outdoor swimming (Cold Water that Warms the Soul) as I wanted to understand more about the mental health benefits of cold water immersion through the senses of someone with lived experience of mental illness. I ended up reading the whole book.
Isabel lives in London and describes a winter swim in the Serpentine. She says cold water swimming is the “most powerful antidepressant I have ever encountered.” She took up cold water swimming after reading about its effects on anxiety and depression, after having done her best to avoid swimming at school. After a few tentative trial swims with a swim guide in the Lake District, she was hooked.
While Isabel is a cold water convert, she’s clear-eyed about the limits of its benefits: wild swimming may help alleviate symptoms of mental illness; for some people, it could enable a reduction in their medication or even complete elimination; there is some scientific backing for why and how it might help but more research is needed to improve on what is mostly anecdotal evidence; but, it might not be for everyone.
The chapter also contains sensible advice on starting outdoor swimming and the importance of devoting sufficient time and attention to the rewarming process.
While outdoor swimming is a brilliant way to immerse yourself in the environment, it’s not the only way to experience and benefit from a closer contact with nature. Isabel talks at length about the joys of gardening and the delights of her finds on flower hunts. One thing missing, perhaps, is illustrations or pictures of the many plants she describes. Reading makes you want to go out and search for orchids. She talks too about the benefits of spending time with dogs and horses. Be warned, if you don’t have a dog already, you may get one after reading.
The book makes a strong case for welcoming more nature into all of our lives, despite it being sometimes messy and uncontrollable (or actually because it is messy and uncontrollable) but laments that we are becoming less connected to it with each generation. If we don’t know nature and experience its benefits, how can we learn to love and protect it?
If you’re interested in mental health, whether you’re living with a mental health condition, know someone who is, or just want to understand more, then The Natural Health Service is well worth a read. While nature isn’t a substitute for professional care or medication, there’s lots of practical advice on looking after your mental health and insight into the challenges of living with a mental health condition.
*The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind by Isabel Hardman was published in 2020. The paperback version has a different subtitle: How Nature Can Mend Your Mind.