Almost exactly a year ago, when countries around the world started going under lockdown one after the other like some sort of uncertain global game of dominoes, there was one among them that resolutely refused to let its chips fall: Sweden.
Faced with mounting criticism, the Scandinavian country still managed to flatten its COVID-19 curve rather rapidly and effectively without ever implementing a full-scale lockdown. The health leadership immediately claimed victory, but the cynics were not so impressed with this apparent inaction. And rightly so.
With many Swedes choosing the more sensible route of self-quarantine and social distancing, cases of mental unrest and depression saw a remarkable upswing across the country. This was further exacerbated all the while by the long, dark and miserably frigid Nordic winter that sets in as early as late September. It was enough to send the country hurtling down the precipice of a major mental health crisis.
A few members of the Ladies Circle of Sweden club, Gripsholm in south-central Sweden decided to tackle this problem by turning to one of Sweden’s greatest outdoor winter traditions: kallbad, or ice bathing. Earlier this month, on February 7 at exactly 11.30 a.m. , 80 women across the country — led by Anna Lyckström, the club member who’d come up with the idea — plunged simultaneously into the icy waters of lakes, ponds and other semi-frozen waterbodies nearest to them. Some of the ladies living in the high north of the country had to saw through almost 60 cm of ice to get to the water!
These ‘simulbaths’ were aired digitally over the club’s Facebook page. The aim of all this was to raise both money and awareness in the fight against mental illness. Together, they managed to amass just over SEK 8,000 ( approximately ₹70,000) for the national charity project Fonden För Psykisk hälsa (Foundation of Mental Health).
A brutally cold water dip is a Nordic favourite due to a host of health benefits that range from raising feel-good hormones and lowering stress to improving sleep and general mood. Interestingly, a 2004 study conducted by scientists at Oulu University in Finland reinforces the immense benefits of ice bathing for mental health.
Apparently, icy water causes the blood vessels to constrict in order to try to retain body heat, and the blood pressure increases to avoid cooling down. In the process, hormones such as endorphins are released to protect the body and act as pain relief (as well as anti-depressants) for a few hours. As a result, ice bathers are known to lead more active lives and are generally happier and more fulfilled people.
But the Swedes have cottoned onto this trend and seen method to the madness for centuries. Given their nonchalance towards public nudity, and taking full advantage of the coastline and the multitude of lakes and rivers, skinny dipping in their icy waters is a national obsession come autumn and winter. A session in a scalding hot sauna completes the therapeutic experience.
Speaking of saunas, equally popular is the concept of spending a cold winter’s day in one of the many cold bath houses across the country, most of which are open year-round. These serve several purposes. Not only do they prepare one for the invigorating open-air kallbad, they typically house a number of saunas to sweat it out in, both before and after an ice bath.
It was during the last quarter of the 19th century that the first few cold bath houses began to surface across Sweden, inspired by the facilities found in health resorts in places like Switzerland. But even before these fully-fledged bath houses emerged, stair-equipped outdoor swimming pools had begun to crop up as early as the 1850s.
Keeping up with the times seems to be a mantra for many bath houses that formerly had dedicated areas for men and women, given the nudity aspect. Take for instance Malmö’s Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, which has now acknowledged transgender and non-binary people by making the bath house gender egalitarian.
The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.