Cold Water: Therapy for Depression

The power of the sea is a useful way to help people conquer depression, according to scientific research. Cold water therapy has been increasingly used by the medical profession as a therapy for depression in recent years.

Now the popularity of surfing and swimming in the sea is gaining momentum, as respected research institutions begin to recognise its mental health value. The National Centre for Mental Health, based in Cardiff, is the latest institution to publish information on cold water therapy projects in the UK.

surfing in cold water

© EB Adventure Photography /

Depression affects more than 260 million people globally, according to the World Health Organisation. It is estimated that 4.5% of Britain's total adult population has some form of depression, which can alter our mood and the way we function on a daily basis.


What are the symptoms of depression?

While every mental health condition is different, people who suffer from depression and mood disorders may exhibit some common symptoms including sudden mood swings, anxiety, manic depression, headaches, insomnia, a feeling of sadness, physical pain related to inflammation, continual fatigue and feeling inadequate. They may also live an isolated life, experience guilt and no longer wish to do activities they once enjoyed.

These symptoms can severely impact a person's quality of life and limit what they can do on a day-to-day basis.


How can cold water therapy help?

Cold water therapy was the subject of a scientific study by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, in Richmond, United States, in 2008. Researchers studying the effects of depression researched what they called "adapted cold shower therapy".

The approach involved people with depression taking a cold shower at 20°C for a duration of two to three minutes, preceded by a five-minute gradual adaptation to make the experience less of a shock. This was performed twice daily for a period of several weeks.

The research concluded the majority of people who had taken part in the test felt it had relieved their depression symptoms considerably.


Why does cold water therapy seem to work?

Scientists say exposure to cold temperatures is known to activate several functions in the body. It activates the sympathetic nervous system; increases the levels of beta-endorphine and noradrenaline in the bloodstream; and increases the release of noradrenaline in the brain. All of these processes can help alleviate depression.

In addition, a cold shower is believed to send a massive amount of electrical impulses to the brain from the peripheral nerve endings. This could result in an anti-depressive effect.

Cold therapy has been tested in many ways and has been used for hundreds of years in medicine, but it's only in recent years that serious research in the medical profession has realised its impact in treating some mental health conditions. Exposure to cold water for as little as three minutes a day can change the way our body reacts to anxiety triggers.

Rather than sitting in an ice bath every day, people who enjoy water sports prefer to go surfing or "wild swimming" in the sea, as it's more fun and also good exercise.


Reducing stress levels

A highly stressful modern lifestyle can lead to mental health conditions because of the general pressure it exerts on our body. On a physical and mental level, stress can be dangerous for our health.

Exposure to cold water affects the body by reducing cortisol levels. The hormone is a key component of humans' "fight-or-flight" response.


Bipolar disorders

Cold water therapy is a holistic treatment choice for some people with bipolar disorder. This condition can be extremely severe, resulting in manic depression and even self-harm. People with bipolar often feel treatment with drugs isn't particularly effective.

Studies show a combination of cold therapy and breathing exercises can help treat bipolar. This treatment has helped some patients to reach remission.


Reducing depression

Depression can disrupt people's life in general and affect everything from decision-making to thinking clearly. For years, the medical profession prescribed anti-depressant medication to patients. However, this isn't always effective.

A variety of studies and tests have suggested cold therapy can help alleviate depression. Some research suggests it has been more effective than medication to get patients into remission.

Cold water therapy combined with meditation and holotropic breathing work has been most successful in treating depression. There are a number of related conditions that could be helped by cold water therapy, including PTSD.


Surfing therapy in the UK

There are a number of initiatives in the UK aimed at getting people surfing to improve their mental health. There are different target groups for some of the courses.

People suffering from general depression and anxiety disorders are encouraged to take up surfing, while another study has focused on police personnel who have post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their job.

The Wave Project's Surf Therapy Charity harnesses the power of the ocean to improve the mental health of young people and children through surfing. Currently, around 6,000 volunteer surf mentors provide the service across the UK, free of charge, every day.


How did the Surf Therapy Charity start?

A group of 20 young people gathered on Watergate Bay beach, in Cornwall, in 2010, for a surfing lesson on a pioneering course supported by the NHS.

The young people had been diagnosed with various mental health disorders, from mild to severe. Sadly, some were experiencing severe anxiety, others had been self-harming and one participant had schizophrenia.

This was the pilot scheme that launched The Wave Project – the first surf therapy course in the world. The course was assigned Dr Kathryn Lovering, a clinical psychologist, to evaluate its success.

The results were significant, with a feeling of well-being increasing among the group as a whole. Participants said they felt less angry, calmer and more connected to each other after surfing. They grew in confidence. One participant diagnosed as having selective mutism began talking freely while on the course.

From the initial pilot scheme, surfing to support mental health has grown into a major therapy today. The Wave Project spread from Cornwall across South West England through to Scotland, Yorkshire, Wales and Northern Ireland. The group continues to change people's lives through surfing.