How cold water swimming helps me cope with PTSD
I want to introduce you to Becca, one of my sister's extraordinary best friends. There are some people you meet in life and think 'you're a force to be reckoned with' and I mean that in the very best way. Becca is one of those people. From the first day I met her, I knew she was one hell of a woman. What I didn't know is that she was living with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Becca has kindly agreed to share with me why she got into cold water swimming and the difference this sport has made to her life, especially when it comes to coping with mental health issues.
So, first off, it’s probably best to ask what cold water swimming is?
Cold water swimming is pretty much any form of swimming outside, really, especially in the winter. Then you have ice swimming which is swimming under 5 degrees so it has to be under this temperature to be considered as ice swimming.
What got you into cold water swimming? It’s not something I’ve heard of before.
I first got into cold water swimming because I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from a car accident I had nearly six years ago now. Soon after my crash, I was very fearful because in my car accident, I didn’t know what to be afraid of so I was just afraid of everything. Two years after my crash, I started getting phantom pain in my arms and in my stomach and everyone was saying it was unresolved trauma and I needed therapy. So, I started doing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and had Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy but nothing was working and nothing was instant. I felt locked in my own body and very scared all the time. I saw this documentary about swimming helping depression and that it can help manage the panic response. After seeing that documentary, I thought that if swimming worked for depression, it might also work for PTSD.
If you don’t mind me asking, how bad was the crash?
So, I can’t remember about an hour of the crash which includes driving to where I was supposed to be going, turning around, coming back, and then that’s when I had my car accident. I just woke up in the car, covered in blood with a woman sticking her head into the car telling me there was an ambulance on the way and I was thinking, ‘who for?’ I couldn’t remember the crash so I was instantly scared of everything. As soon as I got to the hospital, I was taken straight through to the operating theatre. They were cutting all my clothes off and no one was talking any English because it happened in Slovenia so I was completely terrified. From the get go, no one was talking to me about anything. I didn’t really understand what had happened, I just knew I’d been in a car accident and that was it. I was taken to intensive care and people were worried I was going to die. I had this woman with me the entire way through the CT scans, MRI scans and all that stuff and she just held my hand the whole time. She told me she wanted to stay with me because they thought I was going to die. My stomach had gone completely black because I’d flipped my intestines in my crash so they were worried I’d lost all sensation. Processing all that stuff made me question what had happened and what was real.
What was the first time you went cold water swimming like? Were you scared?
So, I first gave it a go two years ago now. It was four degrees in the water and I kept thinking to myself, ‘am I completely mad for doing this?’ I got in and it was SO cold. My brain didn’t have any time to think about anything else. It was the first time I felt alive after the accident and from that point on, I knew I just had to keep getting in.
Can you describe what it feels like to go cold water swimming? It goes without saying it’s cold, but how does that make you feel?
As soon as you get into the water, it takes your breath away. It simulates a panic attack. I think I’m going to die, my chest is really tight and I question why I’m doing it. But you know your body can survive it. An untrained person can survive one minute per degree. Even though you feel the coldest you’ve ever felt the first time you get in, you have to think about your mindset, you have to think about your breathing and you just forget about everything. It makes you be truly in the present. And even when I’m actively swimming, I don’t think about anything other than the next stroke, what I can see, how far I’m going to go etc. As soon as you get out of that water, you’ve proven to yourself that you can survive and no matter what you face, you will survive. It rejuvenates you, I think.
What benefits do you get out of cold water swimming and ice swimming? Are the benefits different depending on the type of swimming you do?
That’s a very good question. I’ve never been asked that before! With cold water swimming and ice swimming, the benefits are basically the same. The only difference is cold water swimming is almost the gateway to ice swimming. Cold water is what I’ve always been doing, I suppose. It’s only this season that I’ve been seeking out more opportunities for ice swimming. The difference between them, I suppose, is just ego. I started cold water swimming to test myself and help myself with PTSD and I got into ice water swimming because I wanted to see how far I could test my body and to prove to myself that I wasn’t broken. So, ice water swimming became this thing that not everyone can do because it’s at such a low temperature, but something I can do to prove to myself that I am good at something and I can do something. If the temperature is below five, I feel I have really achieved something whereas if it’s above five degrees, I don’t get as much of a rush. Every half of a degree seems to be very different. Three degrees seems to be the magic number for me. It’s so cold but it’s the kind of cold that makes you mindful and focus on that present moment of time. I can’t think of any worries or any other emotions so I completely reset. I don’t have to worry about anything other than that temperature because when it gets too cold, you need to get out.
Cold water swimming and ice swimming seem to have a really good community feel. You seem to have a made a lot of friends as a result of getting into it.
You need to have the right people around you when you’re doing cold water swimming. You need to know that you’re surrounded by people you trust who can change you when or if you’re too cold. I think it’s the camaraderie below five degrees- the people I go with are unbelievable friends which adds to the experience. Until you’ve experienced an under five degree after drop and someone can take the swimsuit off your back, you know that you can trust them and that is something that is massive for me, especially with my PTSD. I find it hard to trust people or gauge people. It’s helped me to embrace people again.
Do you think there are a lot of misconceptions about PTSD?
I think a lot of people think PTSD only affects soldiers or veterans and I think I thought that before I was diagnosed with it. I didn’t know what I was experiencing was PTSD because you expect to feel a certain way after an accident like the one I had. I thought it was to be expected. I’d never experienced anxiety before so this kind of fear that arose after the crash was completely new to me.
Has it been difficult to accept your PTSD diagnosis? I know I found it difficult to accept my own mental health diagnosis.
I’ve never had anxiety or anything like that before and I used to see mental health as an injury. I thought I was broken because I have something wrong with me, but, in actual fact, it’s not something that is going to go away. I’ve had to learn to reassess how I see it myself because I’m not broken. It’s an ongoing management plan. This idea of fixing something is difficult because what is normal? You just have to sit there and think that things will get better at times and they will get worse; there will be times when you feel happy and there will be times when you feel sad, but don’t beat yourself up about it. One of my friends sent me a lovely link about Japanese pottery called Kintsugi. When a pot is broken, they put it in a caste and they pour gold into it so it’s not broken, it’s enhanced. It’s a really lovely way to look at things. As a community, if you experience mental health, you’ve got this intrinsic ability to be empathetic to everyone else and that’s what I try and take away from it. I think it’s a lovely quality to have.
What advice would you give to anyone reading this who would like to give cold water swimming a go? Maybe even myself included after all I’ve heard!
If you wanted to get into it, find a community nearby. The community is so big now that there is always someone in that area. They’ll be on Facebook or have Instagram pages so definitely have a look on there. Just reach out to people! I’ve found swimmers are very friendly people. Anyone I have reached out to has always responded. Also, the outdoor swimming Facebook page is really helpful because it’s got 25,000 people on it.
What is your golden piece of advice for anyone who might be going through hell at the moment?
Find an outlet that inspires you. For me, it’s swimming. For you, it could be something else.
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