Some studies suggest swimming in cold water can improve mood and diminish negative emotions. Follow-up question: is it the exercise that improves mood, or can immersing oneself in cold water alone do the trick?
Susanna Søberg, Danish winter swimmer and foremost researcher of cold water's effects on the body, says that just like antidepressants, dipping yourself into cold water is believed to increase levels of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine in the body. These are known to improve mood.
A 2021 UK study was conducted to gain further insight to whether cold water exposure alone can improve mood. Researchers recruited 64 University of Chichester students to join one of two test groups: 1) a cold-plunging group or 2) a control group that would not participate in a cold plunge. The experiment involved each member in both groups to complete three questionnaires: a basic survey of questions related to demographics, a Connectedness to Nature scale, and another called the Profile of Mood States (POMS), which would detail subjects’ mood levels. Everyone completed the POMS twice, whether they were participating in the plunge or not, before and after the cold plunge experiment in the ocean.
The experiment took place over the course of a week. After everyone filled out the questionnaire, the cold plunge group of 42 people was split in three and scheduled across three days. On their day, the test subjects were invited to wade into the 56 degree F ocean and stay up to their necks for about 20 minutes without swimming. Upon exiting the water, they filled out the same mood questionnaire. The control group also filled out the questionnaire while indoors at the university campus, as they didn’t participate in the cold plunge.
Results were fascinating. The POMS evaluated levels of anger, depression, fatigue, confusion, vigor, and esteem-related effects. At baseline, the cold water immersion group had higher levels of each negative emotion. But after the plunges, that group reported lower levels of anger, depression, fatigue, and confusion, and higher levels of vigor and esteem. On the other hand, there wasn’t as much of a change in the control group, except those subjects on average had higher levels of depression the second time they filled out the POMS. The cold water group even surpassed the control group in vigor and esteem after their immersion in the ocean.
According to these results, mood can be significantly improved after one deliberate immersion in cold water, even without swimming. Perhaps similar effects can occur with people who immerse in much colder water for shorter periods of time. Countless PLUNJers experience a boost in mood even after getting neck-deep in cold water for 1-2 minutes! If you’re struggling with complex negative emotions, try a plunge into cold water or cold shower. It will likely help you relax, get out of your head, and feel happier!
John S. Kelly, & Ellis Bird. (2022). Improved mood following a single immersion in cold water. Lifestyle Medicine, 3(1). https://doi-org.ezproxy.uvu.edu/10.1002/lim2.53
Søberg, S. 2022. Winter Swimming (E. DeNoma, Trans., 1st ed.). MacLehose Press. (Original work published 2019).