Can Swimming in Cold Water Ease Depression?

man swimming underwater athletic

Trending News: Case study offers interesting news for depression sufferers.


A recently published case study suggests swimming in cold water may help to reduce symptoms of depression.


If you struggle with depression, you aren’t alone. Data published by the American Psychological Association shows nearly 10% of all men in the United States live with this mental health challenge.

Historically, treatment options have included pill-based medications (psychotropics) and various forms of talk-therapy. Physical activity and exercise are recommended because the clinical data shows they help to ameliorate symptoms.

Which is why a new study published by British Medical Journal Case Reports is so interesting. The research, carried out by Chris van Tulleken with the University College of London and co-authored by two scientists with University of Portsmouth, explores the case of a 24-year old woman who lived with severe depression and anxiety.

Her name is Sarah and her story was chronicled by the BBC as part of a series called The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs. After giving birth to her daughter, Sarah was committed to taking herself off the anti-depressants and exploring natural approaches to coping.

Seeking answers, she spoke to her doctor and was given some unusual advice: Try swimming each week in cold water. Yep, you read that right – swimming.

So, guess what? That’s exactly what Sarah did. And we aren’t talking about swimming in a warm pool. Nope, how about water that was 15C.

Apparently, the tip from her physician worked. After four months, she took herself off her meds and became symptom-free. Two years later and still swimming, Sarah still isn’t taking a psychotropic.

Pretty cool, don’t you think?

man by ocean
Cold water swimming helpful with depression?

This was the first study to examine the effects of open water therapy as a treatment approach for depression. The research is also one of the first to assess how cold-water effects mood.

Now there are a number of important caveats that need to be pointed out. First, we know from years of research that when skin is immersed in cold water, it can – in some situations, send a person into shock.

In turn, life-threatening medical problems can arise, including respiratory and cardiovascular distress. That said, cold water also holds anti-inflammatory benefits and has been successfully used to treat people with post-operative pain.

Apparently, cold water swimming also helps to activate the stress response in the body. Over time, this results in a something called habituation (meaning a form of learning).

Commenting on this phenomenon, Dr. Van Tulleken shared the following with The Guardian: “One theory is that if you adapt to cold water, you also blunt your stress response to other daily stresses such as road rage, exams or getting fired at work.”

Guy Counseling spoke to Dr. John Moore a licensed mental health counselor and faculty member in the School of Behavioral Science at New York Institute of Technology about the results. He’s also the editor of this site.

“You really can’t say anything is clinically effective based on one study. We need to see many more lines of research in the future. That said, this study does add to the body of evidence to suggest ongoing physical activity can help people living with depression,” said Moore.

We will continue to keep our eyes open for new developments on the relationship between cold water therapy and depression. In reading Sarah’s story, we can’t help but feel hopeful.

Do you live with depression? If so, are you a swimmer? How has this impacted your mood?

About Adrian Cruce 16 Articles
Adrian Cruce is a marketer by day and a fitness and health enthusiast by night. He shares the knowledge gathered in years of practice, after having helped train numerous people in various life aspects from self defense to nutrition.