'Open water swimming helped me to come off antidepressants'

·12-min read

Open water swimming is riding the crest of a wave in popularity, and for good reason. Studies show it can help with depression, weight loss, boosting your immune system, increasing your fitness and muscle strength, and adding to overall happiness. For me, it’s the mental benefits that really changed the game, but I initially tried it for physical reasons.

It was June 2017, and I was injured from running so I decided to take up triathlons to keep fit (adding in cycling and swimming meant I dramatically reduced the amount of running I was doing). To practice swimming, I borrowed a wetsuit and headed to Cotswold Water Park, which has several supervised lakes, with an experienced friend. I’d never been in the open water before – even at the sea I always kept in my depth – and I felt extremely apprehensive.

Luckily, I felt safe with buoys to hang on to and my friend guiding me, and somehow, after just that one open-air practice session where I’d swim a few hundred metres then stop at the lake side, I ended up winning the event. Now though, I much prefer swimming for fun, as it’s the one time I can switch off from my day and get some headspace. There’s something so calming about the sense of space and being part of the landscape.

I love it and try to go most weeks over the warmer months. I don’t go as often during winter because it’s so cold, but the extra layer of a wetsuit helps protect you and gives you more buoyancy which makes swimming easier. The added bonus of swimming in skins (i.e. without a wetsuit, in just a costume), means that you have a more sensory experience.

I’m not the only one who feels mentally lighter and clearer after swimming in open water. In researching this article, I was deluged with women wanting to share their own experiences, while I also hit up some experts to explain what open water swimming could do for your mental health.

Esther Stubbs , a physiotherapist specialising in women’s health and sports injury, is also a swimmer. Whilst Esther doesn’t often get the chance to practice open water swimming, every day in March 2022 she swam open water to raise funds for breast cancer. Even when the temperature was four degrees, she came out of the water feeling balanced and set for the day mentally and emotionally. Tarama Turchet is a popular open water swim coach who helps many women improve both their confidence and swim technique in the water. Dr Josie Perry, meanwhile, is a chartered sports psychologist and triathlete. Here’s what they have to say about the women who, like me, have experienced improved mental health through open water swimming.

Layla Chamberlain, 46, Private Carer

‘Four years ago, some school mums and I decided to give open water swimming a go as a change from the norm. It was love at first dip. Being amongst nature and looking up at the sky was amazing. Initially, I wore a wetsuit as it gave me more confidence in the water and meant that I could adapt to the colder temperatures gradually, but now I prefer swimming in skins as I love the sensation of the water - I feel more awakened.

‘I’ve always struggled with bouts of depression but felt it came from a physiological chemical imbalance rather than a psychological, emotional trigger. I accepted that I needed antidepressants for years to help with balancing my dopamine and serotonin levels – the feel good chemicals in your brain. But then open water swimming started to do what the tablets were doing for me. It gave me a sense of balance and wellbeing and I felt I didn’t need the medication anymore, so I started to wean myself off them.

'I changed from taking them daily to every other day, then three times a week until I ran out, and then I just didn't pick up the next prescription and haven’t felt the need for them since. It was in the middle of this process (as I wasn't new to antidepressants) that I let my GP know what I was doing. She was pleasantly surprised that I'd taken the initiative as she only wanted them to be short term anyway (to get through some particular stresses that I was going through at the time). She trusted my judgement and worked together with me.

If you also take medication for depression, always consult your GP for advice on whether it would be safe for you to consider weaning yourself off.

‘I get many physical benefits from open water swimming, too. I’ve always struggled with insomnia but after a long swim or a particularly cold swim where I’ve pushed my boundaries, my sleep improves and it’s of better quality. Whenever I was in the throes of a depression I would sleep a lot, need naps in the afternoons and then not sleep for half the night. Sleeping in the daytime felt like a coping mechanism. So that pattern has definitely improved; I've a lot more energy and if I'm flagging, I know that if I go for a swim outdoors, I'll feel energised and refreshed for it, and then sleep better.

‘More than anything, I get such a buzz from open water swimming and the peace, tranquillity is respite from my job as a private carer. The positive camaraderie of being with like-minded people that I swim with is amazing too, I’ve a great support structure with them. Each time I come out of the water I feel replenished. A lot of people describe it as a 'reset' button, and that's exactly how it feels.'

Stubbs’ verdict:

‘There’s a release of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine when we exercise, and these have a positive effect on your mental state, mood and wellbeing. Exercise also reduces the stress hormones cortisone and cortisol that can cause brain fog, suppress insulin and cause weight gain. Depression is linked to an increase of these hormones. In simple terms, our body is in either fight (so activating stress and adrenaline responses) or flight (using the parasympathetic system to rest and repair) when exercising, and your mental state and whether you’re in fight or flight mode depends on what kind of exercise you do (and how much of it you do).

‘Open water swimming relaxes our fight mode - the primitive part of our brain, and means that we use the happier hormones which help to repair and return to the intelligent brain. This enables us to be more logical and reasonable and inhibits the stress response.’

Perry’s verdict:

‘The biggest benefit of exercise like open water swimming for sleep is that it helps you stop ruminating - that annoying process of thinking through all the things you haven’t done or have done but messed up, and how you’ll be judged for that. Exercising means you alter the way you process and respond to your emotions, and this reduces your tendency to ruminate, which improves your sleep.’

Imogen Tinkler, 39, Forager and Co-founder of Bangers and Balls

‘I’m lucky to live by the sea at Whitstable and go open water swimming every day. I don’t know what I'd do without it, I feel I can cope with life better when I’ve been in the water.

‘Physically, I suffered with hyperemesis gravidarum in pregnancies, a condition which causes excessive nausea and vomiting. I suffered from muscle wastage, but found that open water swimming improved my fitness and helped me to build muscle back.

‘Then, sadly, I Iost my baby girl at eight weeks old in lockdown one. I wouldn’t have been able to cope without the mental health benefits that open water swimming in the sea brings. I didn’t realise at the time, but open water swimming was restoring my dopamine and serotonin levels – the neurotransmitters in your brain that make you feel good, and I always felt better after. I also set up a swim group in this terrible period of my life and I still find it invaluable. There’s something about being stripped bare of makeup and clothing that means you’re able to share more openly and have vulnerable conversations.

‘I’ve got a busy life as a Forager and Co-founder of Bangers and Balls, two young children and I kayak and do yoga regularly, but swimming in the sea is always my go to when I need a reset and recharge.’

Stubbs’ verdict:

‘Serotonin is associated with feelings of happiness, focus and calm, and dopamine with feelings of rewards, motivation, and being productive, and these clearly helped Imogen deal with a tough time.’

Perry’s verdict:

‘Trauma like a baby loss can make you want to avoid others, hide away and not engage which will make you feel worse. Exercise helps build a sense of belonging and connection and, when done regularly, gives you a sense of structure and purpose which is particularly valuable if you’re going through a transition phase in life, like grief.’

Amanda Husband, 51, Food Manager at M&S

‘I started open water swimming years ago when I got injured running, so I took up triathlons (which meant I reduced the amount of running I was doing and combined it with cycling and swimming). I went to my first open air lake with someone more experienced than me and spent a lot of time getting used to the wetsuit and sense of space in the lake. I only had a few tries in that lake until my first triathlon was upon me.

'It went really badly - I got pulled from the water as I panicked since it was a completely unfamiliar lake and there were so many people surrounding me. The next week, I returned to my usual lake with my friend and sat in my wetsuit just splashing water on myself. Other swimmers asked if I was ok and, when I told people what had happened, they were all lovely and encouraging. I didn't swim that night, but the act of getting into the water and feeling calm made a huge difference.

‘The following week I went back to the lake and told myself I could just swim to the first buoy and then stop or come back. I knew that I felt light and calm and less anxious when I was in the water, and I wanted to get those feelings back. I managed to get round a whole lap, and then trip after trip I got my confidence back. Seeing familiar and friendly faces helped, too, and I persevered and successfully completed more triathlons, as well as Swim Serpentine.

‘I have a much better experience now – I feel chilled, calm and rebalanced when I come out of the water. I love how inclusive it is – all shapes, sizes and ages are at the lakes and sea. I still love my running and cycling but look forward to my swim sessions as they’re no impact and brilliant for endurance training - there’s no rest at every turn like there is in a pool.

‘Most notably, it’s helped with anxiety and brain fog I’ve experienced since going through the menopause – when I swim, my anxiety levels drop as I focus entirely on the moment, and it’s the one time I get clarity on my thoughts as I run through them without stressing, which makes my brain fog disappear. Open water swimming also seems to settle mood swings for me, which I’ve dealt with off the back of the menopause. I’ve got more confidence, too, as it’s taught me that I can achieve anything I put my mind to.

Turchet’s verdict:

‘The menopause is associated with lower levels of oestrogen which can disrupt the production of serotonin, which can lead to anxiety and mood swings. Exercise like open water swimming increases the production of serotonin - one of our happy chemicals - so that we feel more balanced.

‘That said, some elements of open water swimming can be anxiety-inducing in its own right. For one, before you get into a new body of water, remember that you’re sharing the water with potentially fish, weed and crayfish and that’s ok, they’re unlikely to want to come near you. Practising the mass start of a triathlon or swim event (where there are likely to be lots of bodies in close proximity) with a coach or group is also really useful so that you’re well prepared with what to expect and have strategies to overcome any anxiety around this.’

8 Beginner tips for open water swimming

Inspired to try it? Turchet has a few handy tips:

  1. Swim with other people - it’s more enjoyable and safer

  2. Find a supervised open water venue nearby

  3. Start in warmer months - it’s better for the body to adapt to colder temperatures gradually

  4. Wear lots of layers of clothing afterwards - your body continues cooling after you’ve exited the water

  5. Have a hot drink afterwards

  6. Listen to your body - if you’re tired it’s time to get out

  7. Take a tow float so that you’re easily spotted in the water

  8. Wear a wetsuit – the buoyancy will make swimming easier, and it’ll keep you warm in colder months

In an ideal world, you’d have a session or two with an open water swim coach who'll be happy to help you prepare for that particular body of water. Once in, you’ll fall for it hook, line and sinker. Promise.

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