Taking the plunge as a matter of life and death

Carin Dean recounts the lows, highs and long-term benefits of her journey with cold-water swimming.

I would drive along the Atlantic seaboard regularly. I was drawn in by the surreal whiteness of the beaches and the clear aqua blue of the sea. The beaches were polka-dotted with bright sun umbrellas and lollipop men hustling for a sale of a jolly iced-granadilla popsicle. University students lolled around en masse, soaking up the sun and avoiding lectures. Small children ran around with buckets and balls, ill-attired nannies tirelessly in pursuit. Little old men lay around in Speedos with bronzed bellies and nicotine-stained fingernails. The beaches were always full. The. Sea. Was. Always. Empty. At an average summer water temperature of around 14 degrees Celsius, there were few who found delight in the frosty Antarctic waters. The cold Benguela current flushes out any desire for a cooling dip at these popular beaches.

Haiku

It is cold out there
In a way that unhinges
Turning you around

I fundamentally hate the cold – hate it! I hate cold showers, swimming in cold water, drinking cold water or cold air of any kind. One winter in the UK nearly killed me. A summer in Scotland nearly killed me too.

I hadn’t really heard about cold-water swimming. Wim Hof could have been a new brand of cleaning detergent for all I knew. The only cold immersion I knew about (or was interested in) was that of the fresh plop of an ice cube into my G&T. There was no famous celebrity selling me on the empowerment of the cold shock response. And I knew nothing about the benefits.

Haiku

So much stuff
Just swirling around
In our heads

My cousin is a super-performer and it was her idea. She had tossed the idea into conversation on occasion. I’d ignored the bait. I hate the cold. Then on no particular day, I took the bait and gobbled it like trout takes to a rainbow fly. I was going to take the plunge. Literally.

Haiku

Head to the ocean
Explore. Dive under. Jump. Swim
And play in the waves

It was January. Mid-summer in Cape Town. That means the sun was hot and the sea was icy. The prevailing south-easter wind that is frequently in residence in Cape Town has this nasty habit of whipping up the warm surface water and shooing it north. Because of the earth’s rotation to the east in an upwelling twist of motion called the Coriolis effect, the warm water is deflected offshore, making ways for the dense, cold waters flooding in from the dark depths of the Antarctic to pull up at the famous Cape Town beaches. Sea temperatures typically hover in the 10-15°C range. Crystal clear as a glacier, and equally cold.

I’m not going to lie – it was painful. Excruciatingly painful. As I put my toes into the water, a thousand little ice hooks embedded themselves in my feet, gripping deep into muscle.

Haiku

Sometimes we exhale
Sometimes we scream out in pain
We always release

Bones seemed to shatter. I hobbled forward. Each step sent another shaft of searing pain into my legs. I dragged my flailing enthusiasm and beleaguered body deeper. I was waist deep. My sphincter spasmed. I clenched my butt cheeks trying to soothe my puckered starfish. I waddled another step forward trying not to lose grip. My whole body was pinching inwards, seemingly gathering itself in the limited space around my viscera. I was feeling light-headed. I couldn’t breathe. Was I having a heart attack? Oh God, was I dying? How long had I been in for? Ten minutes? Fifteen? Forty-five seconds beamed Garmin. I couldn’t move my legs. Was I going into hyperthermia? Was I going to drown? 

Haiku

Cold shock therapy
Euphoria in the wings
The pain before joy

Thwack! A little shore break cracked into my belly, tipping me off my precarious footing. I was down. The iced water washed over me dragging me numbly up the beach with it. There were too many non-functioning body parts to allow me to salvage any elegance. I lay in the shallows, upturned and gasping like a marooned potato bass, clinging onto my cramping bottom.

My swim buddies had paddled off in elegant breaststroke, their off-the-shoulder plunging neckline cozzies glimmering in the summer sun.

Haiku

Out the comfort zone
There’s a way to feel alive
Invigorated

“Come join us,” they whooped as though inviting me into the balmy waters of the Caribbean. I dragged myself up onto the warm, dry sand, burying my bottom into its comfortingly warm lap. “Yoo hoo,” they called. “It’s divine!”

As my spasm abated slightly and there was a sense that my feet may be able to hold their own, I gingerly re-entered the fluorescent waters.

I waded in, hip deep. A sixty-second hour passed. Hooks, pain, spasm, clench, panic. Nope, no limber swim for me.

Haiku

Ice cold immersion
When we dip in with the mind
Joy can seem like pain

I did the butt-clench shuffle back up to warm ground and flopped down, my cheek pressed into the sand and tail in the air, desperately hoping to defrost my nether region. It occurred to me that perhaps I’d picked the wrong benefit-seeking self-care method. Perineum sunning, the practice of exposing your backside to the sun in whichever position you deemed most fitting, may have been a far more suitable method for me and my tiddly bits. Allegedly the perineum (or Hui Yin) is the “Gate of Life and Death”, the portal where energy enters and leaves the body, and this cold-water swimming clearly had my gate rattling in its hinges.

The following week, the swimming belles headed out again. Not to be defeated, I was tempted to join them. But not without some knowledge for comfort. “Anybody can get used to the cold,” taunted Professor Mike Tipton from the University of Portsmouth. “You can do it with as little as five or six 5-minute immersions.”

Haiku

Determination
Deciding what to achieve
Then making it real

It was going to take a lot more than sunshine, the encouraging words of a physiologist and an adaptive response promise for me to dive deeper into this game of life and death. I decided to plunge into some of the science behind the effect. What had happened to me and why was it worth trying again?

Essentially, as I’d entered the water, my skin was cooled immediately. This was sensed by my cold receptors very close to the skin. They responded by screaming pain signals to my brain and expecting some kind of action.

As I went deeper, my body started going into cold shock response – my blood pressure went up, my breathing became more rapid and my muscles cooled rapidly, stiffening like chewing gum and causing a cramp. I gasped. I panicked. Adrenaline coursed through my body. My heart raced as it panicked in response to the shock. I was really having an exaggerated fight-or-flight response. So how could this be good for me?

Haiku

When the world is mad
Just step into the water
And calm is restored

While research into cold-water immersion is still new, researchers have discovered that it can prime you, mentally and physically, to better deal with any stress that might come your way. 

Tucked away neatly in our brain stem, above our reptilian brain is the limbic system. While the reptilian brain makes sure we poop, shag and breathe, the limbic system is what makes us uniquely mammal and allows us to avoid foods that may give us the runs, get jiggy with a potential mate and sniff out a bad apple. It basically gauges what is fun and not so fun in our wrangle with staying alive. It essentially predicates our survival on less pain and more pleasure. And it learns this from experience. The more experience the more discerning it can be.

Haiku

Every day
Resistance and joy
Fight it out

“When this ancient brain alarm system is turned on,” says Bessel van der Kolk, author of the book The Body Keeps Score, “it automatically triggers pre-programmed escape plans. By the time we’re fully aware of our situation, our body is probably already on the move. It’s not designed to make judgements, just to take action.”

Haiku

Swim against the tide
Build resilience and strength
Makes a change from flow

But as long as we’re not really being chased by a lion or being lured by a snake to take a bite of his rotten apple, the thinking part of our brain quickly kicks in and restores order, helping us realise that it’s all just a false alarm and that fighty-flighty-freeze can abort its mission.

Back in the icy big blue, as we adapt to the discomfort of the cold water and realise we’re not actually going to die (even if there are moments we’re not entirely convinced), we’re basically teaching our body how to handle stress and discomfort and adapt instead of to react. More commonly known in scientific circles as eustress – the good stress that makes us stronger.

Haiku

Not every day flows
Don’t fear the rough and wild days
Throw yourself in, swim

“So, your bodily reactions now have a top-down story that keeps it contained,” says Professor Steve Porges, author of the polyvagal theory. “It says ‘Wow! My body’s reacting. It’s overcoming fear or pain that doesn’t serve me. I can save my courage for when my life is actually on the line.’”

Haiku

This very moment
But a drop in the ocean
Yet so exquisite

In other words, our body learns to adapt: our heart and breathing rates only rise half as much, we panic less and we can control our breathing. This adaptation makes us less reactive to the shock of cold water, but more importantly it also makes us less reactive to everyday stress. Being able to hover calmly and objectively over a situation and then take our time to respond, allows us to avoid our outrage button from reaching burnout.

Haiku

Positive ions
A malaise of modern life
Washed away at sea

Several other studies have also suggested that cold-water swimming has a wide variety of other health benefits, including skin vascularisation, inflammation and pain management, increased metabolism, changes in haematological and endocrine function, fewer upper respiratory tract infections, amelioration of autoimmune conditions and mood disorders and general well-being, higher alertness, decreased drowsiness, and more mental energy. Plus, a surge of beta-endorphin hormones in the brain provides pain relief and gives a sense of euphoria.

Haiku

It’s the connection
The meeting of fragile souls
That allow us ease

Apart from potentially becoming a much nicer and healthier human, it is also this sense of euphoria that cold swimmers chase. Just like the club drugs of the nineties, cold water exposure increases levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in the bloodstream by as much as 530% and 250%, respectively. Who doesn’t love the feeling of an ecstasy rush? And with the cold-water swim, depending on how long your immersion, this “high” may last for hours. Side-effects nil.

Haiku

Tempestuous times
We stand strong against the storm
And ride the wild waves

Two years and multiple lockdowns later I’m pole dancing from the gates of life and death. I am officially a cold-water immersion addict. Come rain or shine or sub-10°C water temperatures, I’m in the ocean. I still don’t like the cold, but I’ve adapted so much that I barely feel it anymore. I learnt that cold-water immersion is to the cold what a sauna is to the heat – you don’t have to like it but it works a treat for a cheap and cheerful wellness fix. Twenty minutes and I’m flushed, buffed and chuffed – no chemicals required.

Carin is not a guru or a sage or an expert or a doctor. She is a yogi and meditator, a healtharian, a coach, a researcher, an intuitive, an autodidact, a linguist. She has a great underwater camera and loves looking at life through the lines of a haiku. She is a mother of a neurologically diverse child, a wife of a beer-swilling, meat-eating grumpy old man, and a self-professed run-of-the-mill, middle-aged urbanite. Above all, she is a curious adventurer. This piece is an excerpt from her upcoming book, Joy, oh Joy – a midlife journey through the mind and body and around the world as a reminder that life is not for the serious but for the curious, the crazy and the brave, and that joy should be your compass. It is a book on perspective, authenticity and wellbeing served up with dollops of irreverence, insight and humour. Find her at @the_joy_institute and @curiouscarin 

Words and photography: Carin Dean
Production: J-P de la Chaumette