Why I swim in Sweden’s icy cold waters every New Year

A cold-water dip to start the new year might just give us the resilience to deal with whatever the pandemic has coming in 2022, writes Local contributor, Chiara Milford. 

Why I swim in Sweden's icy cold waters every New Year
The Local contributor Chiara Milford emerged from the icy waters by the Tantolunden pier in Södermalm. Photo: private

Everyone has their New Year’s traditions. In Colombia you might fill your pockets with lentils and run around the block in yellow underwear. In the Philippines you might hang 12 round fruits above your door.

In Sweden, you’ll get drunk and watch Dinner for One

Being a third culture kid, I came up with my own while living in Scandinavia: a very cold swim. 

Come January 1st you’ll find me at the pier in Tantolunden, Södermalm, or the nearest open body of water. 

The dog keeps warm with a towel. Photo: Chiara Milford

The dog shivers on the beach where I’ve wrapped him in a towel to keep him out of the cold. I rest my hand gently on top of the water and ask for permission to go in (a Coast Salish tradition I picked up in Canada). 

Being half-Finnish I must curse the Swedes to generate enough sisu (a Finnish word for reckless bravery) to go in. According to some fucking good science, swearing also increases your threshold for pain.  

Slowly, feet first, I lower myself into water that was ice less than a week ago. 

My body screams, ‘what are you doing to me?!’ gasping for air that just won’t stay in my lungs. And I frantically splash towards the ladder to get out again. 

Photo: Chiara Milford

Every time I go cold water swimming I question my sanity. 

But rather than wrap myself in the dog-warmed towel, I immediately want to go in again. It’s addictive. Like a shot of the strongest espresso direct to the bloodstream.

The next time is easier. My body knows what’s coming. By this point, my blood has rushed to my vital organs and left my extremities numb to the cold. 

My mind goes into what can only be described as a meditative trance. I can hear the soft tinkles of raindrops on the surface of the water, the traffic on the bridge, my heartbeat thumping rapidly. I have stopped thinking. 

I only get out when my muscles start to feel like they’re turning to stone. 

Photo: Chiara Milford

When I clamber onto the jetty I’m dizzy with endorphins. My legs are bright pink and blotchy. I feel high; mighty enough to win an arm-wrestling contest with Thor. 

First comes the cortisol, a stress hormone released from your adrenal glands. That’s the initial panic shock response; gasping for air, questioning the terrible life decisions that led me to this point. 

Then there’s a surge of beta-endorphins which provide pain relief and a sense of euphoria. This is what makes you feel high. 

Other than having the place almost entirely to yourself, there are innumerable benefits to the cold water plunge. 

For some, it’s helped with everything from chronic fatigue to depression. For others, like my grandmother, it’s a sign of madness. 

Cold water swimming kicks your immune system into gear. And, contrary to popular belief, immersing yourself in cold water can actually increase your libido. 

It has a long tradition in northern countries. In Eastern Europe and Russia, winter swimming is how they celebrate Epiphany. In the UK, where I grew up, swimming in the sea is a way to ring in the new year and freeze-out the hangover. In the Nordics, it’s part of sauna bathing rituals. 

There are over 97,500 lakes in Sweden. We’re blessed with unrestricted access to the long Swedish coastline all year round with Allemansrätten (‘the right to roam’) – probably my favourite thing about the country. There’s also a chance that you’ll find a sauna nearby.

The more you subject yourself to cold water swimming, the more your body learns to adapt. Your heart rate calms down, you panic less and you can control your breathing. 

After the initial shock, you adapt. 

If we need anything for this coming pandemic year, it’s the resilience to adapt, breathe, and keep going. 

Tips for cold-water swimming in Sweden: 

  • Wear a hat. 

And not just a swimming cap. Heat leaves your body quickest from your head (as my Finnish mother always told me) so it’s best to insulate with a sturdy woollen hat. 

  • Don’t go in alone. 

If none of your friends are delusional enough to join you, make sure to swim in a place where other people are around. Even if you’re the most confident swimmer in the world, our bodies can react in surprising ways on contact with cold water, so it’s good to make sure help is nearby. 

  • Don’t be drunk. 

A quick dunk in Sweden’s frigid water will sober you up enough to kill you. Alcohol in the blood might serve up some Dutch courage and make you feel warmer but this means you won’t realise how cold you actually are. It also reduces your body’s ability to cope with stress and increases the risk of hypothermia. 

  • Don’t jump in. 

Although tempting to get it over with, this is how people die. Your body needs to acclimatise to the cold gradually. If you dive bomb, there’s a chance your body could go into cold shock and you could drown. I’ll sometimes only dip up to my knees first, before running out again, and then gradually going deeper and deeper until I’m immersed.   

  • Have an exit strategy. 

It’s important to bring enough warm clothes to wrap up after you’ve dried off, but it’s just as important to make sure that you can get out. Don’t swim anywhere with strong currents. Make sure there’s a ladder or a shallow beach nearby. And when you’re done, don’t immediately jump under a warm shower. Though tempting, it’s better to generate your own heat by running or walking or jumping or doing any form of brief exercise. Shivering is just your body’s way of warming itself up.  

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EXPLAINED: Sweden’s rising prices and what’s being done to stop them

Sweden is experiencing the highest inflation in 30 years. What's behind the price rises and what can the government do about it?

EXPLAINED: Sweden's rising prices and what's being done to stop them

What are the factors behind the increase in prices in Sweden? 

The biggest single factor has been the rise in oil and gas prices, which has pushed up transport and manufacturing costs across the world, pushing up prices more or less across the board. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has also disrupted the production and transportation of goods, leading to shortages as the lifting of restrictions releases pent-up demand. 

Finally, most countries have been running expansive fiscal and monetary policies. The US, for instance, has so far sent out $1,400 cheques to 127 million households. 

SEB’s senior economist, Robert Bergqvist, told The Local that Sweden if anything faced slightly lower inflationary pressure than other countries. 

“One reason why Sweden has lower inflation is that we still have slower wage growth, because we have wage agreements that last for three to four years,” he said. 


What has the government done to help people in Sweden? 

Quite a lot. 

In January it offered an electricity rebate of up to 2,000 kronor per month to all those hit by high electricity prices.

On March 14th, it launched a package of subsidies for car-owners. 

This included a pay-out of between 1,000 to 1,500 kronor to every car-owner in the country, which has cost the government 13.9bn kronor. 

It also included a temporary reduction in tax on petrol and diesel to the lowest level allowed by the European Union. The government said that this would reduce the price by 1.3 kronor per litre. This will reduce the government’s tax intake by 3.8 billion kronor. 

Finally, it has also a temporary increase in housing benefit for families with children, which could provide up to 1,325 kronor in extra benefits a month between July and December this year. 

Are the other political parties satisfied? 

Of course they’re not. This is an election year.

The Moderate Party are pushing for a tax cut that will reduce the price at the pump by five kronor a litre for diesel, and “several kronor” for petrol.

The Sweden Democrats party has proposed a package it claims will reduce the price of diesel by 9.45 kronor and petrol by 6.50 kronor, at a cost of 34bn kronor. 

The only party that is against reducing fuel tax is the Green Party, which instead wants to pass 20bn kronor to households living in the countryside to help them deal with the additional costs. Subsidising fuel, the party argued, meant “filling Putin’s warchest”. 

What about economists? 

Robert Bergqvist said that Sweden’s relatively strong government finances meant that it could easily afford to be this generous to lessen the pain for citizens. 

“It’s nothing that will jeopardise the very strong government finances that we have,” he said. “Sweden can afford a more expansionary fiscal policy.” 

The only risk, he argued was that having what he called a “slightly more expansionary fiscal policy” could end up pushing prices up even higher. “It could be a bit inflationary,” he said. 

What can Sweden’s central bank do? 

Controlling inflation is one of the key purposes of a central bank, and Sweden’s Riksbank is instructed to aim for inflation of two percent. 

The Riksbank’s current position is that there will be no increase in interest rates until the second half of 2024. But the prices rises of the last six months will almost certainly force it to act sooner. 

In an interview with Sweden’s state broadcaster SR last week, the bank’s governor, Stefan Ingves, said that the bank would need to change its position. Most economists in Sweden now expect a rate rise in the second half of this year, or at the start of next year. 

Ingves’s deputy, Anna Breman, said in a speech on Wednesday that it, now “now looks like it would be reasonable to bring forward a rise in interest rates”. 

Will Sweden manage to get prices under control? 

Bergqvist said he believed that the Riksbank had a relatively short window in which to act if it was to avoid the risk that high inflation expectations become firmly established among companies and wage earners. 

“We have new wage negotiations which will start at the end of this year, and you will have new wage deals in the first quarter of next year,” he said. 

If the unions expect higher inflation in the coming years, they are likely to push for more generous wage hikes, which could in turn lead to rising costs for companies, and so increase inflation still further. 

“When I talk to companies and households, everyone says that we have an inflation problem, that prices are going up, and I think we haven’t seen the worst yet,” he said. “I think inflation will continue to rise. Companies say costs are rising and that it’s also quite easy to raise prices right now.” 

If the Riksbank does not take action soon, he argued, then high inflation expectations will become more too established to reduce much higher interest rates, which could cause a recession.  

“And that will make it much more difficult for the Riksbank to bring inflation down to two percent,” he said.