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Ice swimming for mental health – Gilly McArthur

Wild days and wild swims in the Lake District with Gilly McArthur. By Jonathan Cowie

“Walking round the supermarket with an axe and underwear in my dryrobe pockets certainly got some looks,” says Gilly McArthur. If you went anywhere near Instagram in January, you may have seen stunning photographs of the Lake District swimmer smashing through ice to swim in frozen lakes and tarns. “I get a lot of people saying to me it’s bonkers,” she laughs. “But if you haven’t tried it, how do you know?”

Gilly swam every day in January as part of Mind’s RED January campaign, promoting better mental health through exercise. Her swims were documented by photographer and friend James Kirby. “I usually swim about three times a week but after my New Year’s Day swim in a breezy tarn, I thought I’d just carry on – as part of the RED campaign,” she says. “I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but on the first wild day with rain, wind and a minus wind chill I thought ‘oh heck’.”

Swimming every day wasn’t easy. “January is a tough time for everyone, it’s dark and cold,” says Gilly. “This challenge really pushed me out on the days I simply wouldn’t have swum.” Although she has never personally used Mind as a charity, she has seen how depression, anxiety and sadness can sweep through a person and destroy them. “I have suffered the deep loss of stillbirth, have had a friend commit suicide and witnessed friends struggle with their sexuality. Mind are incredible at supporting all types of people get back onto a road that’s bright and clear,” she says. “No one should suffer in silence.”

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Gilly used to work in international corporate retail before she began to suffer from burn-out and decided to take a year off. “I packed my bags, borrowed a snowboard and moved to the Alps,” she says. “I loved the freedom of feeling like I could breathe again.”

I swim outdoors but, living in London, rarely get the chance to fully immerse myself in nature in the way that Gilly did through January. “It’s really quite liberating to know that even on the wildest days you can get out and be in nature,” she says. “I loved that, I really feel like it’s pushed me to embrace the weather and all her joys to the full.”

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Fight or flight

The focus of the RED January campaign was better mental health through exercise, but the effects of cold water are increasingly being recognised by medical experts as beneficial to both our physical and mental health. Cold water triggers the ‘fight or flight’ reflex: every time you swim in cold water the reflex is triggered. With repeated cold water excursions we become calmer and our response to stress more balanced and measured. “I know I am calmer and happier since I started seeking the cold,” says Gilly. “The cold also gives a huge boost of adrenaline, increases and exercises the circulation to work better, much like a muscle, reduces inflammation and even increases libido. What’s not to love!”

Third boob

Whenever I say I swim in icy water, people’s first response is always: ‘But of course you wear a wetsuit?’ I ask Gilly if she was ever tempted to slip into a bit of neoprene. “I do have a great swim wetsuit,” she replies, “but have only worn it once free diving with humpbacks as the jellyfish were a bit stingy and flipping massive!” She did however wear a swimming costume made by her friend Sian. “I went out in a really deep slushy tarn and came out with a HUGE third boob of slush in my suit. Perfectly formed too!”

One of the main reasons to swim in very cold water is the resulting feelings of joy and euphoria. “If this was a pill it would be sold by every doctor out there,” says Gilly. “Just three minutes, three times a week, actually changes our bodies. It’s truly nature’s free gift to us.” It is a gift that Gilly has been happy to share. “This month I have taken 10 friends for a swim, four for their first ever ice swim, and the other six their first ever open water swim. None wore wetsuits and they all aced it. My phone was pinging all day with how much joy they got from their tiny immersions.”

After 31 days of swimming outdoors, did Gilly take a well-earned break on the first day in February? Of course not! She smashed through the ice in a Lake District tarn to swim for herself. I ask her whether she now always carries an axe in her kit bag. “Yes, and possibly a saw and some rope. It’s all gone a bit Luther hasn’t it?”

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Building a toleration is key, don’t get carried away as cold shock is horrible and can really be harmful, go with a friend, get out as soon as you feel it’s ‘easy’, breathe calmly in and get out calmly… and smile!

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.