Sara Barnes on falling in love with cold-water immersion
September 29, 20224 min read
Sara Barnes, author of The Cold Fix, talks about her passion for cold-water immersion and how it has positively affected her (and others’) lives.
It is possible to fall in love with the feel of cold water: from the anticipation of immersion to the icy hug it gives you as you slip down into its embrace. But unless your mind accepts the mixed messages your body is going to send to your nervous system, then cold-water shock can be a barrier.
I learnt the hard way how to deepen my relationship with immersion. Faced with a choice of daily physical and emotional pain on land or intense but brief physical pain in the water, I chose the latter. From the moment my emotions felt calmed down and lightened up, I realised I now had the key to unlock myself. Now, after almost six years of regular, if not daily, bathing in what most people would call ‘cold water’ (from 16C and colder – much colder!), I can reliably choose exactly what kind of water I need at any given moment.
For example, where I live in the Lake District offers mountain waterfalls of varying sizes and intensities; tarns of varying depths and surroundings, and a handful of lakes all within walking, cycling or quick driving distance. Factors I take into consideration when choosing where to go include (but are not limited to) the weather, the time available and my mood/physical state on that day.
Maggie’s Tail (after Grey Mare’s Tail in the Borders) is a slender, tall and gentle plume of icy water which takes some finding. In fact, to my knowledge, I am the only person who has ever bathed there. One Friday summer evening I was feeling the emptiness that sometimes comes over me, especially at the start of a weekend. You know the kind? When you think everyone else is doing Friday evening type things with other people. For me, the antidote is to get off my backside and go exploring, with a view to having a walk and a swim. If it takes me out of my comfort zone too, then I know the cure for loneliness will be that much more powerful. But I didn’t expect to be beating my way through a jungle of ripe bracken, home to the almighty Lakeland tick, nor did I enjoy the unpleasant aroma of decaying sheep along the track. By the time I’d adjusted my senses to adventure mode, any uncertainty and sadness had vanished, leaving a palpable taste of anticipation at what I knew I would find as I emerged hot and sweaty from the undergrowth that keeps the Tail a secret location.
Stripping down to bare skin is a part of the ritual for me, almost as if by shedding human trappings I become more open to connection: to nature and myself. Above me is a cloudless blue sky. All around me are moss-covered shards of granite. From my throat, high-pitched human cries like those of a bleating lamb were quickly blended and diluted by Maggie’s oxygenated freefall. The cold hardness of falling water on my head and shoulders made me want to cry: a mixture of emotional release and utter joy. How had I ever lived without this simple pleasure and gift? I am addicted to the cold fix.
Every person I interviewed for The Cold Fix can relate to the idea of cold-water immersion being something that has changed them for the better and, for that reason, is now a non-negotiable part of their lives. Carving out time in a busy day is often the greatest challenge, therefore creative solutions for a quick fix often apply, for example, a chest freezer, a galvanised steel water trough, a wheelie bin or a wooden barrel. All of these vessels can be located in the tiniest of gardens (or even on a balcony) and certainly hold enough water for most sizes and shapes of cold-water enthusiasts. One lady bonded so deeply with her garden wheelie bin that it was almost a wrench to venture back out into nature once national Covid-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted. Indeed, it is partly due to the virus that one man was moved to take up ice bathing as a form of protecting himself and his children from fear mongering. What started as a cross between play and education has ended up a soulful, almost spiritual personal dedication to self-healing.
Nowhere did I come across chest beating, stomping or any other remotely violent physical battle between a human and the cold. Quite the opposite, to be honest. Every person I spoke with appeared to invite the potentially life-threatening state of getting extremely cold with open arms as if it was a dear friend. Experience had taught them how to listen to their bodies, how to stay safe and how to rewarm afterwards. Being so intimately connected to themselves carried through into their everyday lives too, allowing them to overcome difficult situations, to calm unsettled emotions and to stand up and be heard.
The beauty of allowing oneself to be vulnerable is a thread that runs through every person’s story, which leads back full circle to my own story of how I was forced to stop running away from myself following some pretty major surgery on my legs. Physically I was at my most vulnerable and emotionally I was broken, but inside a tiny spark of hope flickered and then, perversely, flames were fanned into life by the magic of cold water. How can this be? It only makes sense when you allow yourself to experience the intensity of good cold water: chilly prickles smother your skin, blood rushes from your extremities, warmth builds in your core and energy explodes from your spirit, followed by a blissful state of endorphin intoxication.
I can imagine how difficult it is to believe we’re not all just crazy people! But before you dismiss us, open the book, sit back and read how sixteen ordinary men and women from around the world have given themselves the opportunity to go beyond the facts and figures, the drama and media hype, and fall in love with something incredibly simple but extraordinarily powerful: the cold fix.