There is a pier near a beach in Herttoniemi, Helsinki, that appears ordinary to passersby. But this place is a sanctuary for those who have discovered the enchantment of cold exposure.
Before I discovered winter swimming, I would dread the approaching winter every year. Just the thought of six months of dark, cold, windy, and icy weather conditions used to send shivers down my spine.
A few years ago, I decided not to take a break from my favorite sea swim after summer ended and simply continued swimming. I swam from the beach until the end of October nearly every day. In November, the sand became too cold for my bare feet, and I started to plunge from the pier. During winter, I realized that my hands and feet could get cold rather quickly, so to prevent it, I used neoprene socks and gloves. Wearing a woolen hat also added a nice touch.
Soon after joining the winter swimming club Herttoniemen Hylkeet, which provides a moderately warmed-up changing room, I have been practicing winter swimming for over 3 years. I’ve learned how to calibrate exposure to icy water by experimenting with duration and frequency. Some days I extended the time a bit too much, resulting in a mild cold. On other occasions, I took a dip daily, finding it too exhausting. My body couldn’t cope, and I felt like an exhausted balloon.
Now, I’ve reached a point where it feels just right. During the winter months when the temperature drops to 0.5 degree, I take a dip for up to 30 seconds, 2-3 times per week.
I still find myself marveling at the numerous benefits of cold exposure. Not only does your immune system strengthen, but the experience is also amazing for your mind. Exposure to icy water immediately brings you to the present moment as your mind is instantly tuned into the bodily sensations. You undergo a sudden reset of your mind—if you find yourself stuck in loops of thoughts, worries, and stress, it all suddenly disappears. Both emotional and physical pain become frozen and washed away.
As you become accustomed to the cold over time, it ceases to be unpleasant; instead, you embrace the experience. You relish the invigorating sensation of icy water, making you feel alive, alert, focused, clear-minded, and euphoric. The sudden release of brain chemicals, including hormones and neurotransmitters, elevates your mood.
As blood circulates through your body, it fosters a sense of vitality and rejuvenation. Exiting the water brings an instant wave of warmth and comfort. The feeling of accomplishment and resilience adds an extra layer to amplify the overall mood-enhancing effect.
Once the initial chill subsides, it provides the perfect opportunity for contemplation. You feel a deepened connection with yourself and the nature around, and a sense of gratitude. The cold becomes a medium through which you can enter the presence and explore mindfulness.
In my view as a psychologist, cold exposure offers an incredibly effective treatment for seasonal depression, anxiety, insomnia, burnout, and various mental conditions. Life takes on a different flavor after immersing oneself in icy water—it becomes richer.
When starting this discovery, take it rather slowly and gradually. The best approach is to begin with a summer sea swim and continue through autumn and winter. Give it a try and discover the joy of the Finnish winter and, more importantly, your life’s inner joy. Let the cold sea become your sanctuary for mental clarity and calmness.