“I don’t profess that cold water swimming is a cure-all solution, but it’s a good place to start.”
‘Cold water swimming in Scotland’ – does that phrase make you shiver in disgust or entice you to jump straight in? Well Liv Sharron, a fellow Edinburgh Uni student, is looking to change how we look at the activity and educate us all on both its physical and mental benefits. I caught up with Liv to chat to her about her Chilly Dippers initiative and the work they’re doing to encourage as many of us as possible to simply strip down and take a dip!
“I’d always loved cold swimming and it was something I’d done a lot of as a child, so I knew how great I felt after doing it,” said Liv. Prior to starting at the University of Edinburgh, on her childhood visits up North, Liv had frequented the gorgeous North Berwick beach. Unlike most of us, who would stand there staring at the water, admiring the view from afar with a woolly scarf and cup of tea in hand, Liv thought nothing of taking a dip in the freezing cold sea.
When Liv later became a student at Edinburgh, her passion for cold water dipping didn’t fade. North Berwick, in particular, became a special place for her, where she could go to shake off all the stresses and anxieties of university life. It was from bringing her close friends along for a trip out of the city, that the concept of Chilly Dippers first came to Liv.
“I could see how much my friends were enjoying something I’d always done, so I thought why not start some kind of swimming club,” said Liv. From here, she began encouraging more of her university peers to join her in literally dipping their toe into the cold water.
On a basic level, Liv had always been aware of how ‘good’ cold water swimming had made her feel, but sharing that with her friends and seeing them benefit in a similar vein, really opened her eyes to what a tool the activity could be for improving people’s mental wellbeing.
Last year, as I’m sure lots of you remember, the social media trend of ‘it’s ok not to be ok’ went completely viral. For those of you that don’t, the premise was young men taking a photo of themselves, tagging other friends, with the caption ‘it’s ok not to be ok’. This was an initiative with the purpose of raising awareness of suicide rates in young men. A commendable premise, but in practice, it was a trend that Liv saw as slightly flawed.
“I just thought why don’t I copy the concept, but make it a challenge, so people are forced to actually do something, whilst also feeling the benefits of cold water swimming,” said Liv. Starting amongst her friends, Liv encouraged people to take a photo of themselves in the water and tag others, forcing them to do it too.
Liv’s initiative spread both the message of what Chilly Dippers was trying to do, but also in the same vein as ‘it’s ok not to be ok’, it sparked a conversation about mental health. When I asked if she received some resistance from people not so eager to jump into freezing water, Liv said she absolutely didn’t. “It’s interesting for us to market it as a sport because that’s when people are interested. I say to them that you get the same rewards as going on a run or playing a hockey game, but you don’t even need to swim!” said Liv.
University is one of the most exciting, vibrant times of many young peoples’ lives. But it can also be one of the loneliest, anxiety-inducing environments there is. You would be hard-pressed to find a student who, at one stage, hadn’t struggled with both the academic and social expectations of university life, as well as trying to figure out who they are outside of their school or family bubbles. It can be a very unsettling and difficult environment for so many young people.
Liv recognised there was a real gap and lack of opportunity for people to socialise, interact, or chat about things on their mind with different people of different ages, outside of a night-club environment. As such, Liv began hosting ‘dips’, which involved hundreds of people turning up at Portobello Beach or North Berwick to collectively embrace the cold water. “Cold water swimming is a great way of getting people down to a very raw state, and these dips were an opportunity for people to completely dispel any hierarchies that might exist in ‘normal’ university life,” said Liv.
In terms of how we talk about mental health, sometimes when we are ‘forced’ to sit down and talk about our problems, the intention is completely lost. However, “these dips were a relaxed environment where people had a general shared understanding that you’re here because you are open to talking about things going on in your life and in your head,” said Liv.
“Just a cup of tea after the dip became a great space for conversation,” said Liv. These dips became a safe and supportive space, allowing for people to naturally and organically chat. “Even my closest friends would come up to me and say ‘thanks, this has really helped with my anxiety about my assignment’ for example. I would never even have known about that if they hadn’t come,” explains Liv.
It’s not just the time for a cup of tea after that has really helped participants with their mental health. The scientific benefits of cold water swimming are well-documented, and Chilly Dippers are trying to inform as many people as they can about these. As soon as you hit the cold water, you produce endorphins and get a rush of adrenalin. You’ll get a release of endorphins and adrenaline from going on a run or playing a game of football, but the simple process of just hitting the water achieves the same effect. So-called ‘happiness inducers’, endorphins are the body’s natural way of bringing about feelings of euphoria and general well-being.
On top of that, you’re also put into immediate fight or flight mode. “When you go for a run, you might be thinking, ‘I could be running faster’ or ‘I hope I lose weight by doing this’, but when you jump into the cold water, your brain literally thinks ‘how am I going to live in this cold water’?” says Liv. The breathing technique required to literally ‘keep you afloat’ has to be really slow and deep otherwise you inevitably stress out and panic. This technique and awareness of breath is something that can become a really useful skill for everyday life.
There are obvious immune system benefits to cold water swimming, in terms of how it increases white blood cell count and regulates red blood cell count. But Liv and I spoke about the new studies there are about how cold water swimming can be a useful tool even in preventing early onset dementia. It would appear the benefits are endless!
On a day-to-day basis, Chilly Dippers has become an online social initiative, providing regular content from blogs, videos or personal stories. Beyond just encouraging people to partake in cold water swimming, Chilly Dippers are really trying to change the conversation surrounding young people and mental health. “I want this kind of information and conversation to be on young people’s feeds all the time, rather than just mindless Instagram content,” says Liv.
Chilly Dippers is a non-profit organisation with a two-fold purpose – sharing the benefits of cold water swimming and sparking the conversation about mental health. But in the future, Liv says she’d love to be able to host more dips, Covid-permitted. Pre-Coronavirus, Chilly Dippers were hosting ‘big dips’, twice a week in London and in Edinburgh once a term. Liv has so many ideas for how to expand the initiative, from making a documentary series to getting a professional sportsperson on board, and the future is exciting for them.
At a time when so many people, young or old, are perhaps struggling with their mental health or are perhaps more inactive than ever, it is fantastic to see Chilly Dippers as a positive community looking to help people. As we’re increasingly sat at a desk working from home all day, as well as literally and figuratively isolating ourselves from others, an activity like cold water swimming could be a great outlet for so many. “It’s almost ancestral – we’re doing something that’s not on our phones or at our desk which is great,” says Liv.
We spoke about ‘Millennial Burnout Theory’ and how important it was to address this in young people. “I don’t want to just keep it for young people, but so many young students, new graduates or even young professionals need an outlet and an opportunity to find different coping mechanisms,” said Liv. Therapy or counselling are things that are becoming more readily available, but for many, the process of doing this can seem so daunting. “I don’t profess that cold water swimming is a cure-all solution, but it’s a good place to start,” said Liv.
Liv’s tips for a dip? “Make sure you have the right kit, always have a hot drink after, and try and get home or in the warm quickly,” she advises. You can see when Chilly Dippers will be hosting their next ‘dip’ on their website linked below or by following them on Instagram – @chilly.dippers