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At the dawn of the twentieth century, it had become standard practice for mental institutions to practice hydrotherapy as a treatment method for various illnesses brought about by underlying psychiatric disorders. This was based on the theory by specialists and psychologists back then that cooling and heating the body’s epidermis to certain temperatures could elicit reactions throughout the human body. The temperature of the water could easily be changed in a system to reach optimal levels for treatment. A substantial advantage of this treatment method was its capacity to affect a patient instantly.

Hydrotherapy was in the form of compresses, baths, and sprays. For example, patients suffering from sleeping disorders such as insomnia were asked to remain in a warm bath for steady amounts of time. A similar treatment was performed on patients who seemed unsettled and overly-energetic, including patients with the tendency to become violent or suicidal. These baths lasted for long hours, and for some patients, the procedure would continue overnight. 

The effects of hydrotherapy baths are most optimal when the patient was at their most comfortable and calm state, sometimes even allowing the patient to doze off throughout their stay in the tub. The baths were performed in a peaceful, dimly-lit room, with the water temperature ranging from 33 to 36. Treatment using a hot or cold compress, referred to as packs, were made out of layers exposed to varying temperatures of water. These packs were strapped onto the patient’s body for a varying amount of hours, depending on their needs.

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The spray form operated similarly to that of a shower, with the use of either cold or hot water. Generally, the water of lower temperatures was used on patients suffering from both manic and psychotic episodes alike, involving symptoms such as heightened activation and enhanced affective expression. The theory behind using cold water was that the lower temperature would reduce the speed of blood flow traveling toward the patient’s brain, allowing the excessive mental and physical activation to be neutralized. Temperatures for cold water treatment ranged from 8 to 21. Hydrotherapy was a common practice used extensively in various mental health institutions, such as the London Asylum for the Insane (LAI). 

Immersing my body into cold water gives me a sense of awareness. The instant reaction my body has to the shocking cold elicits a strong need to breathe faster. Even though I have been doing this for years, I still feel both pain and panic. However, this is the only time that my anxieties and negative thoughts are truly seized. As I acclimatize to the water, I begin to feel more comfortable, with more relaxed breathing rhythm. Even quick swims can leave me feeling jubilated for a few hours, and calmer for a few days. I believe this experience could have beneficial effects on a person’s mental health. This conjecture is strongly supported by a report published in the British Medical Journal Case Reports.

In 2016, BBC One released a series titled “The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs,” following a girl named Sarah, who had been prescribed antidepressants ever since she was 17. Her symptoms were present ever since she was a teenager, and when I met her, she wanted to get off her medication. With the help of Prof. Mike Tipson and Dr. Heather Massey, who are both Portsmouth University researchers specializing in extreme environments, and Dr. Mark Harper, an anesthetist from Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals, we set out to see if cold water swimming would be a proper treatment for Sarah. 

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The Portsmouth scientists proposed a theory about how cold water immersion could alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Cold water stimulates a stress response, which are innate responses evolved throughout human development to protect us from various threats. Running from wild animals, taking a challenging exam, and jumping into cold water all evoke stress responses. We breathe faster, our heart rushes, our blood pressure elevates, and we release stress hormones such as Cortisol.

With repetitive exposures, this stress response diminishes. However, Prof. Tipson and Dr. Massey found a significant decrease in stress responses to other stimuli, such as fatigue at high altitudes. This is attributed to cross-adaptation, where the body adapts to other forms of stress alongside each other. With more evidence tying depression and anxiety to the stress response, cold water swimming may be able to alleviate these symptoms through cross-adaptation. Although the theory seems plausible, all evidence to back up the claim are merely narratives. Cold water swimmers claim to experience numerous benefits and have begun to find joy in the water. Further studies are still being conducted on these cases.

There has been a two-fold increase in the number of prescribed antidepressants ever since 2006, and their effectiveness is now heavily disputed. The field calls for more innovative approaches to face the varying causes of depression. Cold water swimming may prove to be a step in the right direction. In the case of Sarah, she has chosen to discontinue her medication and has found her quality of life to have improved.