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Cold water swimming cured my depression and anxiety

Aileen Lister, 60, a nurse, lives in Colchester, with her husband, a mechanic. She was struggling with menopause-linked depression until she discovered cold water swimming, which transformed her life.

Open water swimming has given Aileen Lister a whole new lease of life. (Supplied)
Open water swimming has given Aileen Lister a whole new lease of life. (Supplied)

One of my favourite places in the world is the balcony of my little apartment overlooking the River Stour. In the height of summer, I can sit there for hours listening to the church bells and the birds and the insects as the water gently flows by.

Even in winter, I wrap myself up in blankets, take a hot cup of tea and sit and listen to the rain or wind howling as the fast-flowing water rushes past. But whatever sights and sounds I can see and hear, I feel completely at peace.

This river has changed my life but it’s not only watching and listening to it that makes me feel so alive. Since discovering open-water swimming just over four years ago, I’ve been completely changed. It has healed me from a rather traumatic period of my life when menopause led me into a dark depression where I wanted to end it all.

I started my menopause over a decade ago when I was 47 years old and it was quite unusual. One day at work, I started flooding really badly. Blood was pouring out of me. I had no idea what was going on but after that, I never had a period again.

Hit by anxiety

I felt different somehow but couldn’t put my finger on why. It wasn’t the ‘classic menopause’ with a gradual appearance of symptoms such as night sweats. But when I turned 50, everything changed. I literally woke up one day and felt anxious about everything, as if I was looking at my life from the outside in.

I completely lost my confidence and felt so unattractive. I used to love going shopping for lovely clothes and designer handbags, I had hobbies like clay-pigeon shooting but all of a sudden I lost interest in all of these things. Even holidays scared me. I remember going away for two days and just wanting to get back home where I felt safe. I felt so strange.

When I turned 50, everything changed. I literally woke up one day and felt anxious about everything, as if I was looking at my life from the outside in.

There was no sanctuary in my job. I’d go to work and come home in tears. I tried anti-depressants for a while but they made me feel suicidal so I stopped them after only a few weeks. I never even tried HRT. I wish I had. I’d been scared off by the headlines about its connection to breast cancer. Of course, we now know there’s no connection and it can actually benefit our health but at the time I had no idea.

My moods and hormones were affecting everything in my life and I went through a very turbulent time personally. I looked for a little apartment by the river in Dedham but I was such a hormonal mess that at one point an estate agent was showing me around a property and I collapsed on the floor in a heap, just crying.

Taking the plunge

I found my beautiful little apartment overlooking the river and moved there for a while to gather myself. But it was on that balcony about four years ago that I first spotted a group of women swimming in the river. They were chatting and laughing and I rather envied that they looked so happy as a group of friends. I had been feeling so lonely and really wanted to make new connections.

Aileen Lister was inspired after seeing a group of women swimming in the river from her balcony. (Supplied)
Aileen Lister was inspired after seeing a group of women swimming in the river from her balcony. (Supplied)

In February 2020, just before lockdown I plucked up the courage to try swimming in the river for myself. There were already a couple of people in the river when I arrived on the banks on that cold, frosty day – only eight degrees – but I thought: 'I’m just going to do this' and I asked if I could join them. They welcomed me. I wore a wetsuit, shoes, gloves and a hat and dipped in my toe and gently lowered myself in.

As soon as I got into the water I felt a rush of emotion. It was incredibly cold but it was so exhilarating and energising.

As soon as I got into the water I felt a rush of emotion. It was incredibly cold but it was so exhilarating and energising, like an overwhelming electric current all over my body. I’ve always described it as ‘nature kissing your body’ because that’s what it feels like. It was absolutely wonderful.

From that moment on, I was hooked. I got to know the group of swimmers I’d seen from my balcony in the river and it turned out to be a group run by Vicky Malmsjo who owns Swimspirational Open Water Coaching.

Swim training

As I began to swim more regularly, it boosted my confidence and energy levels. I even dared myself to enter an event called This Girl Can which was asking for open-water swimmers to come forward. To my amazement, they chose me as one of six women from around the UK to do a mile-long swim up the Thames from Henley. I was thrilled but realised that if I was going to swim such a long way, I’d need to do front crawl and I’d never done that before.

Aileen Lister says outdoor swimming has cured all her menopause symptoms. (Supplied)
Aileen Lister says outdoor swimming has cured all her menopause symptoms. (Supplied)

I asked Vicky if she could coach me. She was brilliant. One of my biggest fears was putting my face in the water when I was doing front crawl so Vicky advised me to start practising it when I was in the shower, to get used to the feeling of being submerged. Then she helped me with my technique, using my hips and arms properly, as well as teaching me how to breathe while doing front crawl.

I’ve become addicted to open-water swimming. In the summer I’ll go swimming two or three times a week with friends.

By the October I was ready and managed to swim the whole mile up the Thames where my family and Vicky were supporting me and waiting for me with a huge gin and tonic.

Since then, I’ve become addicted to open-water swimming. In the summer I’ll go swimming two or three times a week with friends – never on my own for safety reasons. And during the autumn and winter months, I’ll often take a dip as long as the river is not flooded or too fast-flowing as then it becomes dangerous.

Aileen Lister says her social life is better than ever now and she swims regularly with friends. (Supplied)
Aileen Lister says her social life is better than ever now and she swims regularly with friends. (Supplied)

More confidence and energy

People ask me if I’m scared of what’s in the water and touching things like newts, fish and bugs. But I’m always in a wetsuit, with gloves and shoes and the silky sensation of the water running past takes your mind off anything in the water. I absolutely love it.

My confidence and energy levels are higher than they have been for years.

What’s more it has all but cured my menopause symptoms and has benefited my health no end. My skin has a more youthful feel to it and my arms aren’t as crepey. I sleep better and even though I suffer with long Covid and am often out of breath, this is an exercise that I really feel I can do and it helps my lungs to heal.

My confidence and energy levels are higher than they have been for years. I’ve found more friends via not only the swimming group but a new book club. I have even bought a campervan and go to music festivals on my own – something I’d never have dreamed of doing 10 years ago.

My anxiety has all but disappeared and if I’m feeling a little shaky, I know that a morning dip will sort me out. I’d encourage everyone to try it.

If you would like support with your mental health, visit the charity Mind or contact The Samaritans any time, day or night on 116 123. You can also email the charity on jo@samaritans.org.