Cold Exposure Therapy – Escaping the Comfort Zone

DESPITE BITING POLAR WINDS skimming the crust of snow off the surface and stunning scenery atop the Nevis range in the highlands of Scotland, I could be forgiven for having a wandering mind.

Skiers garbed in their expensive ensemble mumbled to one another, trailed by tiny tots who pointed to the figure emerging from the cable car, like an alien from a foreign craft.

The object of their bemusement was none other than I – dressed in my summer finest shorts and t-shirt despite the -10° C (14°F) temperature. Why? Well, the reason for that can be traced to twelve months earlier.

Someone sent me an article of a guy nicknamed the ‘Iceman’ because of his superhuman feats in extreme temperatures. Wim Hof, a Dutch native, holds 26 World Records including the longest amount of time immersed in ice (1 hour 13 minutes) and he is famous for climbing 22,000 feet (6.7 km) up Mount Everest dressed only in his shorts.

Around the same time, I had just completed an interview with a life coach in New York for my blog. In the interview, she had casually mentioned having undergone a workshop with Hof and since then had been taking cold showers every day.

I parked my scepticism until about six months ago when Wim Hof began to break through into the mainstream with stints on Tim Ferris‘ and Joe Rogan‘s shows. It’s hard not to be bowled away by Hof’s enthusiasm in his interviews, with his lust-for-life, carefree attitude despite being in his fifties.

The risk-taker in me is always drawn to things a little bit weird and wacky (see ayahuasca, bungee jumping, skydiving, shark swimming, etc.) so I decided to take the plunge and see if there was anything to the various fanciful claims made by Hof about embracing the cold – claims which included developing a stronger immune system, more energy, greater focus, a sense of peace and calm – all things that sounded too good to be true.

Hof said that frequent brushes with cold temperatures would be enough to offer said benefits – a daily cold shower adequate for those who don’t have a nearby freezing canal or cryotherapy chamber in their back garden.

How I Started

I was determined to trial cold showers for seven days. My first experience with the cold fountainhead was almost my last. After a scorching hot shower, I psyched myself up and turned the dial to freezing cold. I didn’t last two seconds, leaping out of the shower, slipping and nearly cracking my skull on the tiles.

Baseline set, a little wiser, I eked out a few more seconds the next time, slowly turning the dial until the transition was slightly more bearable albeit at a more comfortable temperature.

A funny thing happened in the next few showers. While by no means comfortable in the cold showers, I was able to withstand the initial jolt, tightening up my muscles to force myself in place where before I’d shut it off. My final shower of the week was my best, holding myself under the cold stream for almost a minute. However, it was still incredibly tough.

I can’t say I was feeling particularly different at the end of that week, but I decided to persevere to see how far I could take it – explore the edges of my discomfort where perhaps I could find a mental strength I never knew I had. Sounds silly – after all – little courage is needed to stand underneath a cold shower. Until of course you try it.

On week three, my body had adapted. I had ditched the shower ‘warm-up’ opting instead to jump straight into the cold, turning the dial to its lowest setting. This was during our Irish wintertime, so there was no grace period. Not quite frying pan into the fire; rather cold wet walk to freezing shower.

Hof and others have argued that modern civilisation has made us too comfortable in our heated homes and that such luxuries have made our bodies weaker. Exposure to harsher climates, albeit in small amounts could be said to strengthen not only our bodies but our minds.

On that point, I read this BBC article recently about babies in Sweden that are often left outside in their prams by their parents in sub-zero temperatures, as they sip on their lattes in coffee shops inside. So the question remains…

Did I notice any positive effects as a result of my daily cold showers, six months later?

I wanted to let enough time pass before deciding whether cold showers, and greater exposure to cold weather has had any effect on me. This is of course anecdotal but is corroborated by many bloggers and YouTube advocates of cold-immersion techniques.

Some of the reasons I have swapped hot for cold-showers include:

  • Consistent energy levels. I take my shower mid-day and don’t find myself flagging anymore in the evenings. The kick I get from a cold shower is one of the main reasons I take them.
  • Better skin.
  • Adaption to the elements. If it isn’t raining, I’m comfortable stepping out in shorts and t-shirts whatever the season. After a few weeks of the showers, I actually stopped shivering entirely which was a strange sensation. I still feel the cold but it doesn’t permeate. It’s as if I’ve formed an impenetrable defence that the elements can’t breach.
  • Higher metabolism. I’ve gradually lost weight (about 4 kg) without trying. I’m about 193lbs, standing at 6ft2. I didn’t have much to lose to begin with but I’m certainly eating a lot more than I used to!
  • Excitement! I genuinely look forward to my cold showers now. Each one is a little challenge, one that is getting easier and easier. It feels like I’ve achieved something when I complete one.
  • Recovery. I take a cold shower post-workout. It’s not a coincidence that many athletes take ice baths and immerse themselves in the cold after a workout. It’s been known to help with the healing process.
  • Stronger immune system. I haven’t had one sniffle/bug/cold/fever or anything of the sort in six months which is strange for me, especially over the winter period.

Naturally, I encounter some resistance when I tell people why I take cold showers – especially on ski slopes when I’m dressed in shorts. It’s not my job to convince others, except to share my own story.

There are many resources out there for those brave enough to try it. A simple google search for ‘cold exposure’, ‘cold showers’ or ‘cold immersion’ will bring up the best.

As more people edge out of their comfort zone, a growing body of scientific evidence is beginning to point to tangible medical benefits for people suffering from depression, autoimmune disorders, inflammation and other ailments.

Will I go back to warm showers? Weirdly, that seems more foreign to me now than my current lifestyle. I really can’t see a reason why I would return when I’ve gotten so much from the cold-exposure.

I’d recommend people give it a try. Consider doing a trial over seven days. That would be a good barometer for gauging if something is right for you.

What’s the worst that could happen?

 

23 thoughts on “Cold Exposure Therapy – Escaping the Comfort Zone

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