Water: font of health and happiness

Science has made great claims about the health benefits of spending time in nature, but what about the evidence to support the benefits of cold water swimming?

Swimming and your mental health

Have you ever meditated by the sea or a stretch of open water? It does have a quality of its own, and I would recommend it. Avoid extremes of temperature and places that are crowded or noisy. However, the benefits of water to health and wellbeing extend far beyond a relaxing place to meditate.

Last week the New Scientist magazine ran a feature dedicated to the health benefits of proximity to water. ‘Why spending time near water gives us a powerful mental health boost.’ This article reminded me of the health benefits of open water swimming, particularly in the winter. Open water swimming carries its own risks and benefits, and it shouldn’t be tackled in the winter without appropriate training, equipment and consideration. If you search the internet or the archives of the mainstream media, you’ll see several TV programmes dedicated to the mental health benefits of swimming in the winter. You’ll also find research in this field if you access academic databases. The scientific explanations are patchy, although anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

New Scientist 13th July

I first tried winter swimming at the end of 2020. I swam through the summer as normal but just never stopped. By the start of October, the water began to feel uncomfortably cold. I began swimming with other cold water swimmers who shared their knowledge and encouraged me to wear a wet suit, gloves, boots and hood. It took time to become comfortable with the kit and the cold water. By the end of November, the water temperature was around 11oC and entering the English Channel on a grey winter’s day was uninviting. But the feeling of returning to dry land 15 minutes later was epic.

It’s actually quite hard to explain the sensations. Upon entering the water, I feel some fear and a sense of danger, but once immersed, all mental functions are reduced to simply coping with the cold. Even with the wetsuit, the first few minutes are challenging. A degree of acclimatisation occurs as the water inside the suit becomes slightly warmer. After that, however, the blood retreats away from the extremities, and the hands and feet become bitterly cold. Fifteen minutes is as much as I can manage in mid-winter. As soon as I come back onto the beach, I strip the wetsuit off, dry myself down and change into several layers of warm clothing. At this point, the sense of well-being becomes palpable, a wave of joy and satisfaction moving over me; it feels great. I take a warm drink from the flask as soon as I’m dressed. The effort, the fear and the cold all seem a small price to pay for this sense of well-being.

I can only imagine that the return of blood to almost normal levels of circulation underpins this great sense of wellness. Perhaps there is a flushing of toxins from the major organs, even the brain. The truth is, the scientific research doesn’t help much in explaining why cold water swimming makes me feel like this. Afterwards, I tend to use hand warmers to counter numbness, but the sense of well-being endures for hours despite this. The ‘high’ eventually passes, and in seven days, when I’m standing in front of the sea again, I feel only trepidation. But I remember how it will feel afterwards, a thought which propels me back into the icy water.

Friendly Advice: cold water swimming should only be undertaken by experienced swimmers in groups with appropriate equipment and safeguards. In the first instance, contact your local open or wild water swimming club for more information. Be advised that some wetsuits are specifically designed for swimming in cooler water.

How can meditation improve mental health?

Can meditation really help with Alzheimer’s dementia, depression, anxiety and stress? If so, how?

Should you meditate to improve mental health

This is the big question in meditation research, the short answer is yes, but it depends. It’s important to point out that meditation also protects you against mental illness in several different ways. But before you start your online search for a meditation cushion and some incense, there are a few qualifications you need to be aware of.

Firstly what do we mean by mental health? From a psychological point of view, mental health is a broad term that encompasses almost every functional and structural mental disorder that a human can experience. If you take a look at the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), you’ll find over 150 conditions listed (I’ve included the main sub-headings and examples in a table below). Most scientific meditation and mindfulness research is linked to one particular condition or group of conditions. Therefore if you are looking for a meditation method to help treat a diagnosed disorder, you must take advice from an expert health care practitioner in that field. The idea that any one meditation or mindfulness method can be used to treat a range of mental health problems has no basis in evidence or anecdote. However, just as a walk in the open air or a visit to the seaside might make people feel happier, meditation can offer general support to many different people.

Lifelong happiness

We now have to consider a second qualification; there are profound differences between spiritual and medicalised (modern) forms of meditation. This is not surprising because traditional meditation seeks to offer a permanent, holistic cure to the more general issues we face in our lives. In contrast, medicalised meditation, at least those methods that have been scientifically validated, focus on treating a particular problem, not finding a solution. Without wishing to oversimplify, we see traditional meditation linked to improved overall mental stability, increased happiness, and subsequent benefits. Medicalised meditation has been developed to address quite specific psychological and physiological issues. Before you start any course of meditation or mindfulness it’s always good to share your goals with your teacher; they should be able to explain technically how the meditation works and what it is likely to do for you.

Resilience is the mental resource to cope with life’s problems; when we have good resilience we are much less likely to develop chronic or acute mental illness. This is probably the area where meditation is most useful, improving mental health and protecting us from illness. There is evidence that even a few weeks of meditation can help, but in all probability, only a lifelong meditation habit can deliver lifelong protection. For example, we know that meditation can create new brain structure in older adults with early stage dementia. So if you begin meditating in your 30s or 40s, you start to build the brain functions and structures to create resilience now and for the future.

Traditionally we associate meditation with happiness and joy. If you find the right teacher and the right method, regular meditation should be a pleasure that will offer a wide range of benefits for your life. Leading you to greater happiness and (probably) improving the quality of life of the people around you.

If you need advice on any particular meditation methods, drop me an email, and I’ll try to point you towards relevant resources.

The current categorisation of mental health disorders

CategoriesExamples
Neurodevelopmental disordersCommunication disorders, stuttering, autism spectrum disorder and Aspergers. Motor disorders, including tic disorders such as Tourette syndrome.
Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disordersIncludes delusional disorder and catatonia.
Bipolar disordersBipolar I, bipolar II and anxious distress.
Depressive disordersPersistent depressive disorder.
Anxiety disorders  Agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Trauma- and stressor-related disorders  Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorders.
Dissociative disordersDepersonalisation and dissociative identity disorder.
Somatic symptom and related disorders  Chronic pain (inked to certain psychological conditions).
Feeding and eating disordersBinge eating, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.
Elimination disorders 
Sleep–wake disordersInsomnia, narcolepsy, hypersomnolence, sleep apnea and sleep-related hypoventilation.
Sexual dysfunctionsSexual desire and arousal disorders.
Gender dysphoria 
Disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disordersPyromania, kleptomania, antisocial personality disorder.
Substance-related and addictive disordersGambling (addiction) disorder and tobacco use disorder.
Neurocognitive disorders  Dementia, major neurocognitive disorder and mild neurocognitive disorder.
Personality disorders 
Paraphilic disordersPedophilic disorder.
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