A Good Soaking

Leave showers to the young – there’s nothing like a leisurely dip in a hot tub to reap scientifically-proven rewards

By Rachel Cunliffe

February 13 2023

The list of history’s great bath-lovers is long and illustrious. The story goes that the Greek inventor Archimedes had an epiphany about the displacement of water when stepping into a bath, while Winston Churchill famously conducted government business from his tub, dictating to his secretary on the other side of the door. “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them,” wrote Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar. The legendary science fiction author Douglas Adams, meanwhile, adored baths so much that in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy he insisted that a bath towel “is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”.

It’s true that my own baths are more about relaxing with a glass of wine than trying to win wars, make scientific breakthroughs, or write great literature. But I don’t mind admitting that over the past two years of pandemic-related hell, when I have felt on the cusp of mental breakdown for weeks on end, the bath – complete with scented candles and as many bubbles as I can get away with – has been my salvation.

The bath becomes the ultimate sanctuary: a place where work emails, Twitter trolls and the weight of the world events cannot reach me
The bath becomes the ultimate sanctuary: a place where work emails, Twitter trolls and the weight of the world events cannot reach me

There is actual science backing up this effect. A 2018 study reported in New Scientist found that regular hot baths are associated with a lift in mood for people with depression. The theory is that raising your core temperature helps synchronise your circadian rhythm, which improves sleep and generally gives your body and mind a boost. There is also research that suggests people can become “touch starved” after prolonged periods without physical human contact (lockdowns, for example), and that a hot bath or shower can mitigate this effect. A bath might be no substitute for a hug, but it can still elicit a sense of security and intimacy.

But I think there might be something else at play, too. The bath is one of the few places left where I am truly untethered from the online world. Other glimpses of refuge include driving, travelling by Tube (I refuse on principle to sign up to TFL WIFI), and going to the gym, although even there I will find myself doom-scrolling social media on the treadmill.

The bath, in contrast, is by definition a digital-free zone – at least for me. I have heard of brave souls texting or even video-conferencing while submerged, but my innate clumsiness makes the risk of electrocution so high I am forced to leave anything remotely technological at the door. The bath, then, becomes the ultimate sanctuary: a place where work emails, Twitter trolls, and the weight of world events simply cannot reach me. I am offline, off the grid, untraceable, if only for an hour. I can fully and wholeheartedly give myself over to the experience, getting lost in a book I have read a dozen times (most likely one that has been dropped in the water on more than one occasion), and listening to the crackle as the candle burns down. It is mindfulness for people too impatient to do meditation; an act of rebellion in a tech-crazed society that demands we never switch off.

It doesn’t last, of course. Eventually the water becomes cold and reality beckons. But I find it impossible to leave the bath as stressed and on edge as when I enter it. For all that the clichéd concept of “self-care” makes me wince, I can’t deny there is power in remembering we do have the power to disconnect, even when it feels impossible, and that the world will not end just because we choose to purposefully ignore it for a while.

It is liberating to surrender and sink into fragrant bubbles without a screen in sight. And it’s a damn sight cheaper than therapy.