What are the Mental Health benefits of being in and around water?

I’m Naomi, a 30 year old psychotherapist and farmer’s wife in the Lake District. As well as running my practice and farming, I spend my spare time doing CrossFit, hiking and as much time as possible swimming wild.

There is good reason why those of us who continue to seek out the open water do so. I’m not sure anyone can fully describe the experience enough to captivate it’s magic but I’ll try. Swimming wild all year round has gifted me a new relationship with my mind, body and nature that I could never have imagined. It quickly concreted itself as a part of my mental health toolkit.

It’s not often you won’t hear me let out an audible squeal when I catch my first glimpse of the water. I know what’s to come and already feel lighter. Those first few steps into cold water can take your breath away, and with it your anxious thoughts. There is one goal; get in. I edge in up to my waist and wait for a moment, preparing my body for what’s to come. As I lean forward and submerge my body, it’s shocked. I move quickly, breathing intentionally and for that first 30-40 seconds I do all I can to calm my body. I turn to mindfulness and actively absorb my surroundings; the inventory begins; the clouds, trees and birds. Quickly I’m present. Utterly consumed by this moment. I am focussed on moving, breathing and mesmerised by what I can see. Already we have a powerful psychological tool of grounding and presence. The safety of now is incredibly useful for positive mental health and taking that feeling into everyday life. In addition, the connection to breath offers the knowledge that we have the power to control our body through breathing and in doing so, our psychological state. 

After a minute or so there is a new state of acceptance in the feeling of the cold water on my skin. A lesson in withstanding temporary pain with the trust that I can cope and come through. I am utterly immersed in Mother Nature. Not only can I see her, I can feel her. She is holding me. I am in awe of her power and immensity. Of her capacity to grow, heal and inspire. Then I realise that I, like the water, am nature too. Fluid, powerful and brilliant. Another of her masterpieces. I’m transcended by her benevolence.

Come rain or come shine wild swimming brings something special. Swimming all year round brings a new relationship to the seasons. A connection to the cyclical nature of the landscape brings me closer to my own cycles and seasonal changes. An understanding, an acceptance and a faith. There is also a new openness to the outdoors whatever the weather, very little stops a dip. Through each lockdown I had an anchor. Something I could rely on time and time again and it’s not going anywhere. There is something raw, primal and empowering about dunking in ice covered tarns and embracing the rain on my skin. I feel unstoppable. Connected to my humanness.

A particular experience late last summer when the lake was warm but the weather stormy brought out my playfulness. The water was choppy so I donned my goggles, leaped in off the jetty and swum under the waves. I felt so alive, so excited and at the same time so trusting of and protected by Mother Nature. It was invigorating and freeing in a way I could only connect to being an exuberant child. We all deserve to play and have fun in a world full of negativity and suffering. The giddiness I felt was afforded by having no goal or measurement other than enjoyment. That’s been one of the most unexpected elements of wild swimming for me. It is a leveller. Natures pools do not care for your ability, appearance or age. She does not discriminate, she only accepts. Wild swimming for me has never been about performance. I get to move without the preoccupation of burning calories, altering my body shape or earning food. Finally, I have a connection to my body that isn’t about changing it but being in awe of it. The way my body responds and adjusts is nothing short of extraordinary. I have a newfound respect for it. 

On a calm day, with flat water, I’m enchanted by the simplicity of the moment and it is here that I find peace. Away from the noise of the world, technology, and work. A rare opportunity for most of us. This kind of psychological space is a healer for our minds. Like a state of meditation, I feel like I have entered an emotional clearing. It is in these openings that our brains can begin to think more clearly and creativity and processing materialise. 

As I take those last few steps out of the water, leaving behind the anticipation I entered with, I walk towards my towel feeling so many things. Firstly, a physical buzz, a warmth unexplainable. Like electricity. I’m also proud of myself. I just accomplished something that took courage and bravery, now knowing I am both. Each and every swim adds a layer of mental resilience, a knowledge of my capacity to endure the struggle. Of my power to face my fears, push beyond and know I’ll be just fine afterwards. You don’t forget that feeling, quite the opposite, you’re pulled back to the shoreline time and time again. With each dip, you understand you can rely on that feeling and with that you’re gifted hope. We survive because of hope. The afterglow of lakeside chatter and the way my body warms itself up is magic. Physically, the endorphins help boost my mood and energy. Mentally, it’s as though something has been dislodged. 

Getting to swim in the Lake District, I am also wildly grateful and regular gratitude offers a mindset shift for our current circumstances, enriching mental health. A newfound appreciation for what is and for what I already have. The immersion itself also offers perspective. A shift in environment. An opportunity to reflect on my day, sometimes even my life. A new view from which to process what I need to.

Time spent in or around water is time well spent. A virtually free and wholesome hobby that will happily replace those maladaptive coping mechanisms we all develop. It has been described by many as addictive and I would agree, adding that it’s the best thing for me to crave. An enriched relationship to myself, life and the earth are healing in a commanding and mighty way. You deserve that too. Sharing the experience with like-minded folks adds another layer of joy. Something I have noticed since swimming wild and sharing about it is that people are interested in it. It becomes a talking point. And a healthy one too. Wild swimming will offer you layers of love and gratitude you maybe haven’t felt before.

Naomi Wright

Psychotherapist

@naomipsychotherapy