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taking the plunge...

Testing out first hand if wild swimming and dipping into cold water really does help you feel happy!

(The look says it all! Dipping in Loch Ness)

After years of saying “it’s too cold... there’s no way I’m getting in there!” I finally decided to take the plunge and see if the fast growing craze of wild open water swimming really can make you feel happier...

There was no better place to test it out (finally) than up in the stunning Scottish Highlands, and no better person to support and encourage me than my dear friend of over 26 years, Nix. I credit Nix for igniting my love for swimming. At uni together she taught me how to swim 50m lanes “properly”, enabling me to swim faster and for longer, which totally transformed my experience and passion for lane swimming.

I love the feeling you get when you swim. It clears and calms your mind completely and energises you in a way other exercises can’t. I’ve come up with many creative ideas and solutions to challenges whilst swimming up and down the lanes!

But what about open water, cold (often freezing cold) and wild swimming? How does that make you feel and why are so many people (crazy people?) choosing to dip, dunk, dive and dance around in freezing cold seas, lochs, lakes and rivers?

Well, despite being curious about it and dreaming of being able to just jump right in - its always felt like a stretch too far for me.

Nix on the other hand - well, she’s been an avid open water swimmer for years. She was the brave swim leg of our team olympic triathlon challenge many years ago, (I was the bike - go figure!), she’s completed a relay swim across the channel (OMG), has been breaking the ice in her new local river for winter dips and is fast swimming her way around all the local lochs of the highlands.

I’ve watched in awe and envy how courageous she’s been braving all sorts of crazy conditions to get a hit of cold water happiness and wanted so bad to conquer my fear and have this experience for myself.

I needed Nix to help me take the plunge (and a Michael Phelps quote!)…

So off to the highlands we went!

Finally, the opportunity to take the plunge presented itself on our recent holiday and visit to see Nix and her equally adventurous husband Ben in their beautiful new home in the seaside town of Nairn.

And we didn’t waste anytime diving into my challenge thanks to the sun making a rare appearance on day one!

Here’s a snippet from my journal of my top four swims...

Swim 1 - Nairn Beach

So after a nice walk along the glorious beach and with the promise of delicious tacos for lunch, we just had to ‘break the ice’ and kick start the challenge here. A quick but much needed breathing lesson from Nix (to stop me hyperventilating!) and that was me hooked. It was simply exhilarating. What a stunning beach too... Nix and Ben’s local - the lucky so and so’s!

Swim 2 - Loch Ness

Finally the rain stopped and another swimmer arrived (a friendly local in training to become an open water swimming instructor - handy!), so we grabbed the opportunity to take a dip in this famous Loch. It was bloomin’ freezing but the stones on the Loch bed were the biggest cause of pain as we forgot to pack our swim shoes! We must have looked a picture hobbling in and out of the Loch - laughing and swearing!

Did we find Nessie? No, but we did find “Happy-Ness” (sorry - couldn’t resist!!)

Swim 3 - Findhorn Beach

WOW! This beach not only looks like you’re in the Caribbean, you also share it with a colony of rather cute looking Seals. The water actually felt quite warm as it rained heavily during our dip. The views from the sea back to the shore were stunning and Nix and I had a moment of calm reflection basking in the beauty of the area and how lucky we were to be there.

Marvel the pug wasn’t as impressed and hid under one of the beach huts until the sun finally came back out!

Swim 4 - Firemore Sands

It was FREEZING... (it is the Atlantic after all!) but far too beautiful not to swim in. The water was clear blue and the sand almost pink. I had to work hard to convince Nix and David to come in - but of course they did!

This dip was the icing on the cake following an epic adventure to the west coast and a BBQ on the beach. A day we’ll never forget and a highlight of our trip spending quality time good friends. Bliss.

Every swim, dip, dunk and dance in the cold waters of the highlands has made me feel amazing. I can only describe it as having a extra large dose* of happiness.

DOSE* - Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins. Otherwise known as those wonderful Happiness Chemicals!

We’ve written much about how you feel happiness through the release of these chemicals, but I’ve yet to find an activity that enables you to benefit from all four at once.

The positive interaction of wild swimming with friends immediately gives you a hit of oxytocin, which is especially felt as you laugh trying to get changed as fast and as elegantly as you can and then run hysterically (screaming and swearing) together in and out of the freezing cold water! Oxytocin immediately makes you feel calm and safe so it also then helps warm you up a bit during and after too - so that’s a bonus! (especially in rainy, cold May 2021!).

Serotonin soon releases as you feel a real sense of achievement taking the plunge and let’s not forget to mention the obvious 'wild swimmers high' from all the endorphins! These happy hormones are released in response to pain. (Yep, it’s painful at times) They help us push our bodies beyond their comfort zone and encourage us to ‘stay in the cold water’ when we might otherwise want to give up and get out.

And then there’s the dopamine, when you get out with an immediate sense of achievement, pop that photo of you in the freezing water straight onto social media and bask in the glory of your friends all commenting on how brave and crazy you are!

These are just some of the ways wild swimming makes you feel happy. There’s also much evidence of it helping with your physical health too and I must say, my knees felt amazing and painless during and after a cold water wild swim. They are less swollen and painful which is amazing after being in pain for months.

So, it’s safe to say... I’m hooked! At the time of writing, we’ve still got 4 more days here so I’m already busy planning the epic locations for my last few swims before I have to go home and continue my training in our small but perfectly freezing swimming pool in our garden!

I’ve even bought some proper open water swimming gloves and am currently looking for a wetsuit to complete the kit. I’m planning open water swimming lessons for when we return.

Now, if you’re still not convinced to take the plunge, here’s a bit of info about the benefits you stand to gain and why this activity is so powerful for your happiness, health (mental and physical) and overall well-being.

Cold Water Health Benefits:

  • Boost your brain power (it activates more of the brain)

  • Less muscle soreness – improves recovery

  • Reduces body pain and inflammation

  • Boost your immune system

  • Improve circulation

  • Potential weight loss (through improved metabolism and I'm sure shivering like crazy helps too!)

  • It’s good for the skin and hair

  • ‘Cold adaptation’ – overtime reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce fat disposition, inhibit blood clothing and increase libido

Cold Water Mental Health Benefits:

  • A way to help manage anxiety, stress and depression

  • Increase alertness, clarity and boosts your energy levels

  • Increased feelings of happiness

  • Feelings of euphoria and achievement

  • Sense of will power and courage

  • A sense of community and positive social interactions

  • Reconnecting with nature

So, when will you take the plunge and feel the happiness for yourself?

Much happiness and thanks to...

Our dear friends and inspiration Nix and Ben for helping me discover the power of jumping into freezing cold water. And to my husband David for sticking by my side and diving in too! It was fun and we’ve got enough money in our swear box to book a return visit soon! :-)

Wanna go visit and experience the wonder of the Highlands for yourself...

I can't 'big-up' Nix and Ben's holiday Steading in Redburn enough, it's just the most wonderful home away from home, best placed for the beaches, the Cairngorms and too many beautiful places to mention. In fact, it's so nice it's now fully booked for 2021 - but why not check it out and start planning your 2022 adventure? Just promise me one thing... if you do go, please keep calm and jump into icy water!

Check it out: Redburn Steading

What are you doing to create happiness for yourself this summer? Would love to hear your stories too so please share... who knows what positive action they might inspire!

Much happiness,

Helen xxx

(Blog written gazing out of the Redburn Steading, inspired by bird song and fresh air on 26/05/21)

(The happiness hit... it's real! Nix and David, my co-crazy swimmers!)


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