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Cold water swimming cured my panic attacks

Breathing, immersion in freezing lakes and comraderie helped Sharing Miranda Bailey heal herself

I first met Helen Barnett in a field in August 2020. I was one of about 20 people – none of whom knew each other – who had been invited to congregate over three days in the middle of the pandemic, to explore how we could support one another’s healing journeys. A funny, delightful but slightly odd mish-mash of people populated our camp: veterans, therapists, ex-addicts, prison officers & bee-keepers – all arrived to share their stories and offer their ears around an enormous open fire pit and a bell-tent stashed with home-made food, a few beers and a collection of gongs & sound bowls.

…a former Metropolitan Police Officer who had suffered three separate traumas during her active service – shot in the leg, stabbed three times and caught in an IRA explosion

I already knew something of Helen’s background – a former Metropolitan Police Officer who had suffered three separate traumas during her active service – shot in the leg, stabbed three times and caught in an IRA explosion – events that led to her PTSD diagnosis several years after being medically discharged from the Met. I instantly liked her. She had real warmth, a quiet protective strength and a big smile – and our early conversations over alternative and unorthodox approaches to healing really resonated with me.

the practices of mild hyperventilation, extended breath-holds and 10-minute cold showers were already familiar.

I’d been invited to this bank holiday gathering in my capacity as a Breathworker – and because my good friend wanted to introduce me to Sam Murray, a man who later became my business partner and my lover. A former Royal Marine Commando, whose path out of depression, drugs and alcohol use had been catalysed by his discovery of the Wim Hof Method (WHM), Sam was on a mission to unite our experiences and skills, and to offer us his own demonstration of the power of conscious breathing and cold-water therapy. I was already aware of Wim Hof, having done his ten-week fundamentals course a year or so previously – so the practices of mild hyperventilation, extended breath-holds and 10-minute cold showers were already familiar. Sam had embraced the WHM with gusto and had recently engaged Helen with these techniques too.

Early on the Saturday morning of camp, we all trooped down to a local reservoir where Sam invited us all to sit down and do several rounds with a recording of Wim Hof’s breathwork before we all immersed in the cold water of the reservoir. As we stood placing our towels and yoga mats at the water’s edge, I remember seeing a flash of panic across Helen’s face and, with hands pushed deep in her coat pockets, she told me “I really can’t get on with this style of breathing; I’ve tried it and I find it way too stressful” before walking back towards her car and our camp, the breathwork anxiously abandoned.

…breathwork (and cold-water immersion) lies at the core of our ability to transform our embodied experiences of stress and trauma

Helen’s words that day set in motion a chain of events that absolutely consolidated my conviction that breathwork (and cold-water immersion) lies at the core of our ability to transform our embodied experiences of stress and trauma and truly start the process of deep healing. I had been on a healing journey myself for many years – a neglectful and abusive childhood had left wounds that, over the years, I had tried to salve through various means, not least the distractions of always ‘keeping busy’, the late nights & partying of my younger years – to talking therapy, mindfulness, plant medicine ceremonies and, finally, breathwork.

I found breathwork late in life. A difficult relationship break-up at 42 had sent me off down a path of ‘rediscovering’ myself; which felt much needed after a year of getting ruined every night on wine. I retrained as a Nutritional Therapist, started studying Functional Medicine and, on the suggestion of a friend, I engaged with my first silent Vipassana meditation retreat. On this retreat, the repeated acts of witnessing my thoughts and bodily sensations whilst trying not to attach and react to them – and of quietening my breath – enabled me to start separating from all my long-standing feelings of rage, fear and self-pity and start to climb out of the ‘abandoned child’ story I felt I was in.

A few years later, I discovered Conscious Connected Breathwork – the first technique I went on to train in. During my first ever session, lay down in a tent that housed around 50 people, all breathing in unison, open-mouthed to music, I discovered that – with the breath and the slightly altered state of consciousness it took me to – I could revisit and reexperience my previously damaged 5-year-old self and begin a process of re-parenting her so she didn’t feel quite so rejected.

As I explored these issues with my clients, stress regularly leaped out as a major and common denominator for all sorts of health problems

Running alongside my personal experiences with breathwork, I was becoming increasingly aware of the damaging effects of stress on my nutrition clients. Functional Medicine asks why a person has become ill in the first place – it looks for antecedents, triggers and drivers of chronic health problems and seeks to right these by exploring and making changes to different lifestyle factors: including what and how we eat, sleep, move and manage stress. As I explored these issues with my clients, stress regularly leaped out as a major and common denominator for all sorts of health problems – autoimmunity, hormone imbalances, acute anxiety, chronic fatigue. Whatever my clients brought to the table, their health seemed to be influenced, to some degree, by a dysregulated stress response. So I started using breathwork with them. Slowing the breath down. Breathing before eating. Counting breaths. Extending the exhale. I used whatever I felt was most appropriate.

The technique is primarily used to support asthma sufferers but I’ve long been interested in it for its positive influence on stress and anxiety.

For Helen, this started with encouraging her to follow the practices advocated by the Buteyko school of breathing – the emphasis is on establishing a strong nasal practice, slowing the breathing cycle down and reducing the airflow in and out of the lungs. The technique is primarily used to support asthma sufferers but I’ve long been interested in it for its positive influence on stress and anxiety.

With elements of Wim Hof, Conscious Connected Breathing, meditation, and mindfulness, this technique is proving to have a powerful influence on resilience, mood, and well-being

Since that chance encounter & panicked comment in August 2020, Helen and I have worked with the breath – she has religiously practiced nasal breathing during her waking hours, her exercise routine and her sleep, and has experienced an almost complete elimination of her anxiety. So much so that, since the beginning of this year, she has been practising a technique that Sam & I went on to develop when we set up our company ‘The Breath Connection’ – a technique we call Dynamic Breathing. With elements of Wim Hof, Conscious Connected Breathing, meditation, and mindfulness, this technique is proving to have a powerful influence on resilience, mood, and well-being – with lasting benefits when practised regularly.

The benefits of the breathwork and cold water on the nervous, circulatory & immune systems combine to improve mood, reduce stress and improve all sorts of health issues

Sam & I encourage our breathers – whether we coach them online or in-person – to follow our Dynamic Breathwork with cold-water immersion; whether that’s taking a cold shower, a dip in a former sherry barrel in the garden, or a safe swim in a local river or lake. The benefits of the breathwork and cold water on the nervous, circulatory & immune systems combine to improve mood, reduce stress and improve all sorts of health issues, both physical and mental.

Helen describes the effects of the practice of Dynamic Breathing and cold showers, which take just 30 minutes a day, as “life-changing”

Helen describes the effects of the practice of Dynamic Breathing and cold showers, which take just 30 minutes a day, as “life-changing”: these techniques have enabled her to come out of her ‘fight or flight’ response, release embodied trauma and transform her life. And for me, and my deep love of the breath and its incredible healing power, Helen’s experience – and the possibilities found in breathwork for other women like her – feels like my life’s work.

  • Miranda Bailey

Visit The Breath Connection website

Dynamic Breathwork and immersing in cold water influences various physiological processes within the body. When we’re chronically stressed, we end up living in a state of ‘sympathetic dominance’ where our fight & flight response is persistently activated – so without practices in place to encourage parasympathetic activity, we remain in a state of hyperarousal, which negatively impacts health.

The techniques involved in Dynamic Breathwork work on the principle of ‘hormetic stress’, where we deliberately apply small controlled amounts of stress on certain bodily systems, which the body responds & adapts to, creating greater flexibility, balance and stability over time. As we improve this parasympathetic activity, we actively induce the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system (and all the calm, grounded feelings that come with it). Inflammation reduces, immunity is boosted and our health improves.

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