by Hazel Anna Rogers
I was always a “summer” person, as it were, despite my tendency to overheat and get exceptionally sweaty the minute the weather went above 17 degrees. Winter meant sadness, darkness, and solitude to me for the longest time. From mid-October onwards, life felt like it ground to a stand-still and would only revive itself upon feeling the caress of the milder winds of spring. Once the material enthusiasm of Christmas wore off around age 12, I began to dread winter. Dread the evenings creeping onto each other, faster and faster and faster until the days became more dark than light. Dread the chilblains that would coat my hands and feet the moment the weather turned. Dread the pensive hours of night that became increasingly unbearable as they elongated. Dread the watery white sunshine that barely rose above the horizon. Dread the burning itch of frozen skin warming up, and the icy numbness of my fingers, so paralyzed that I could barely bend them – the cold, oh the cold and its endlessly intolerable hostility.
Then, three years ago, I took to getting cold for fun.
January 8th was the third anniversary since I went out for that first time, clad in wetsuit, booties, and gloves, and exposed myself to the chill of the English Channel. It was four degrees that day, on my birthday, and a thin, pallid sun reflected off of the gently undulating waves of the sea, blinding me with its shimmering beauty. I remember the sensation of the water seeping into the inside of the suit, worming its way over my body into a protective layer under the thick black material. I remember how I gasped at the thrill of the cold as it took me in, swaying round and into me like air. It felt incredible. A few meters away, a girl got out of the water, bare-skinned, in nothing but a one-piece swimsuit. The hundreds of beads of water that covered her body glittered in the morning rays as she went over to her mother to be cocooned in a thick yellow towel. I vowed to myself that I too would one day swim with nothing but my skin and sheer willpower to protect me from the winter waters.
From then on, I steadily increased my capability to withstand the cold. Guided by the sage words of ice-man Wim Hof, I took to taking cold showers, learned to better control my breath, and swam whenever and wherever I could as often as possible. The road to understanding and nurturing the strength it took to control my body under the stress of the cold was a long one. Many days were spent shivering under layers upon layers of thick wool, trying desperately to get warm after a swim. I hadn’t yet learned that the game I was playing relied almost entirely upon the focus of my mind.
The sea surrounding Southern England reaches its coldest in March at six degrees centigrade. I’ll say it now – that’s pretty damn cold. There’s a vast disparity between a six-degree air temperature and a six-degree water temperature. This is due to water being a far better conductor than air, and thus is the reason why cold-water swimming can be so very perilous to the inexperienced winter swimmer. The shock of the cold makes you gasp and lose control over your breathing, and it is this action that one must aim to regulate over long-term cold exposure. If you can learn to command your breath when entering into freezing water, you can have greater control over your autonomous system and suppress natural bodily reactions to extreme temperatures. Additionally, an increased amount of time spent in the cold can activate the production of brown adipose to help maintain a stable body temperature in the cold. The power that we have to manipulate our bodies in such deeply physiological ways I find utterly fascinating.
Today, I swim almost daily, and I can stay in the water without getting cold at all. That isn’t to say I don’t know that the water is cold, but that I can control how my body reacts to it. It has been the most joyous journey of trial and failure, and one that I treasure dearly and continue to work on every year. It has made winter not dissimilar to summer, except that the beach isn’t covered in tourists all hours of every day, and I get the sea all to myself a lot of the time. It has made me feel stronger and happier than I ever thought I could be. I now love an icy sea more than I do a warm one. It never gets old, the shock of cold water, and though I can more easily navigate it now there is something I love about that initial laughter and shiver than runs through your body like a live wire when you first immerse yourself. It is electrifying and incomparable to any other feeling.
Winter. When people walk faster, when shops close sooner, when everyone is in a rush to get somewhere before their bones stiffen in the frosty air. When days shorten, when scarves thicken, when the world saddens in anticipation of the many months they’ll have to endure before the sun warms them once again. I urge you, don’t halt your life in the face of cold. Why not keep having barbecues, keep dipping your toes in the sea, keep playing outdoor tennis, keep practicing yoga outside? If you treat the wrath of winter as you do the inviting warmth of summer, it could help you to ease that ever-present threat of seasonal depression that slithers in as the sun disappears. I think everyone should try to bring more fun and youthful silliness to their lives. We could all do with it.
Here’s to chilly swims and winter barbecues. Sounds like fun, right?