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Let the Cold Be Your Teacher

Written by
Michael Wells

Let the Cold Be Your Teacher

Written by
Michael Wells

Let the Cold Be Your Teacher

Written by
Michael Wells

What kind of idiot would choose to take a freezing cold shower - when warm, soothing, comfortable, sane temperatures are just a quick twist of the knob away?

For that past 6 months, that idiot has been me.

And I want more.

No doubt, you fear for my sanity, as I did for others who I've observed doing this practice...

But before you pick up that phone and call the men in the white jackets... let me share why I'm doing this and what I've learned.

I love my showers

I absolutely treasure my shower time. For me the shower is a soothing, comfortable happy place, where I'm alone with my thoughts.

I often shower just to reflect on something - my day, a new article I'm writing, a particular technical problem I'm challenged with in my work.

Its my version of the hot bath, or the Japanese onsen.

What's more, truth be told, I like my showers as hot as possible. Just slightly on the edge of scalding... a pleasurable pain that relaxes the muscles- such an incredible feeling.

But... Wim Hof intrigues me.

Here's a man who, through his own personal struggles and deep emotional pain, has pursued a very personal, practical approach to exploring and charting the practical fundamentals of the mind-body connection.

Specifically, how to train the mind- and its ability to deal with emotional pain, through the body and coping with physical pain.

Believe it or not, it turns out that from the mind's standpoint there is no difference.

Pain, whether physical or emotional, is experienced in the same part of the brain.

Curiosity steps in

So for some time, the idea of trying cold showers for myself played on my mind.

What benefits exactly, if any, could I win? Is it all bullshit?

As part of my self development, I decided that this was something I needed to explore and experience for myself- to find out if there was anything positive to be learned or gained through the experience.

It took me nearly two years of "thinking about" it, before I decided to give it a proper go, and I wish I had started earlier.

Since January 2019, I've  been taking cold showers once or twice each day

Every time I view it as an experiment.  Putting myself in that situation, and watching what happens in my mind and body.

In the tradition of Vipassana, I'm seeking to experience and observe, and to carefully dissect each observation, looking for ever deeper and smaller components of my psychology. Like a physicist splitting atoms, my goal is to discover & understand the parts, and how they work together to create my everyday experience of life.

What I've Learned so far

Let the cold be your teacher. - Wim Hof

The cold is a good teacher.

I've learned more than I imagined possible, from a simple cold shower.

To explain what I've learned I want to walk you through the experience of the cold shower as closely as I can.  

Step by step.

PHASE 1 - Preparation

Before I even turn on the water, I can see my mind resisting what's about to happen.

All the way up to stepping in the shower, my mind remains at ease, but just as I prepare to turn on the shower, a part of my mind says "nooooooooooooooo!"

I can almost feel it.

However that part of my mind, as loud as it is, can't stop me. This is a very important realization, that my fear of pain cannot actually stop me from taking action.

This is particularly important for me, because that fear is palpable. I feel it everywhere. It absolutely feels like it wants to stop me. "Don't you dare," it says. Part of me wants to stop, and reconsider.

For many other cold-shower practitioners I've talked to, this is perhaps the primary benefit- confronting your fear directly, and in a very real way, practicing courage.

As you practice stepping through fear, your ability to feel OK with discomfort expands, and along with it, your comfort zone.

Soon, other things that felt uncomfortable, are no longer hindering me from taking action either.

Some personal examples...

  • I feel like I should go to the gym, but... aaah feeling uninspired and low-energy. Should I really?
  • I want to write an article that's... contentious and vulnerable. Should I?
  • I need to chase down a client, on a past-due bill. I fear that this confrontation will destroy our relationship.
  • WOW that girl is cute. Should I say "hi?" I'm feeling anxious.
  • My neighbor was playing his TV loud at 3-fucking-am. I should confront him. Right? Or will it make things worse?

In every one of these cases, normally I'd feel a significant struggle with my comfort zone, and would likely bail while I "think about it"

The cold shower practice has had a noticeable impact on these. I still feel the discomfort, but it's a lot less uncomfortable.

It's more like...

"Yeah I feel uncomfortable." ...
... "So what?"

LESSONS

  1. We don't fear reality, we fear our predictions of reality.
    Even when I'm 100% warm and totally fine, I saw my mind freak out once I was confronted with the imminent reality of stepping under the freezing cold water. In that moment, I already felt pain, even before I had turned the water on. Fear is a kind of pain. This fear alone has an enormous amount of influence over my mental state, I begin to feel stress the rising of cortisol before I even have done anything. Your imagination alone has an incredible amount of power over your emotions.
  2. That fear-pain has zero ability to stop me.
    I'm absolutely free to make that decision regardless. This is a very empowering realization. My emotions are not an impossible wall. This understanding alone gave me tremendous value from this practice.

PHASE 2 - Decision

At some point during the struggle, I could feel some part of my mind say...

"I'm doing this anyway."

And then a kind of magic happened.

The pain went away. The fear part of my responded with...

"Oh well then."

This specific experience is astounding. The argument in my head suddenly fell silent, and I felt a kind of peace. Ok, then, we're doing this. No problem.

The fear was simply gone.

LESSONS

  1. The decision is the key point at which the mind appears to stop fighting, and stop calculating what if's.
  2. The longer you wait to make that decision, the harder it becomes, because the rational mind has more opportunity to search out justifications for why you shouldn't proceed. Cortisol ( the neurotransmitter responsible for the physical sensation of fear ) also gets to build. Those of you that experience social anxiety, approach anxiety, or stage fright know that you have about 3 seconds of time to make that decision before cortisol hits, and then the decision is 1000x harder.  

PHASE 3 - Immersion

The moment I enter the water, I experience a sense of shock- however it's almost never as bad as I imagined.

My imagination is powerful.

That alone is meaningful, it suggests that when my mind doesn't know something, it assumes the worst.  I think of this as a kind of mental pessimism.  The reality is never as bad as my imagination.

Knowing that is helpful. Whatever pain my mind imagines, I can probably cut in half.

From that first point of harsh impact, I also notice the pain level subside quite quickly.

Likely this is due to two things happening in concert...

First my mind is adapting to the new reality, and recognizes that it is a survivable risk. The intensity of pain is now a known, so I can deal with the manageable reality-pain rather than unlimited-imagined-pain.

Second, my body is reacting by increasing my cardiovascular throughput, like a quick sprint, and pumping blood to warm my body.  I feel the sensation of cold lessen, both physically and mentally, with surprising speed.

The experience goes like this-

Ouch!
Owww oww ow
Oooh that's not pleasant
...
Aaaactually, that's not bad at all really,
...
I'm totally OK standing here for awhile if I need to

All in about 5 to 7 seconds

LESSONS

  1. The decision-point is fundamental in confronting fear. Once you decide, your fear subsides. Master that, and life will be easier inside of your head.
  2. My mind is pessimistic in its predictions. It imagines the worst case. If the worst case is the worst that can happen, I'm all good- because the worst case almost certainly will never happen.
  3. My mind adapts quickly to changes in sensation. The change itself might not be desirable, but once it's happening, my brain simply adjusts to the new reality. Quickly, I feel fine.

PHASE 4 - Exploration

OK. So now I'm under the freezing cold water, and the initial sensation of shock has passed. Now I'm just... OK.

Until I turn around.

The moment I shift so that the water is hitting a new side of my body, I feel the shock all over again, and then watch the cold diminish.  

Turn back to the front, and I feel it again, just like the first time - and the pain is pretty much identical to the first moment I stepped under the water.  

Wim Hof says that the unique thing about training with the cold is that your mind never truly acclimatizes to it, so it is always available as a tool.

I'm also aware that certain parts of my body my mind react a bit more strongly, feeling stronger sensation of initial pain.

Putting my face, or my head under the cold water is especially intense.

LESSONS

  1. My mind acclimatizes to pain sensations quickly, once it determines they are not actually harmful.
  2. It forgets that acclimatization quickly too, so subsequent exposures aren't more comfortable. However my rational mind can predict my safety much more easily, so overall I experience less fear.
  3. My mind is especially protective of certain things. In the cold shower experience this relates to specific areas of the body, but in other areas of life, I attach more fear-pain to other specific things too. Fear of rejection is one.

PHASE 5 - Relief

When I step out of a warm shower, I feel comfortable. I feel slightly more awake, and somewhat invigorated. The warm shower is very comfortable and leaving it does not fill me with enthusiasm.

When I step out of a cold shower, I'm totally amped. I'm ready to tackle today. I haven't seen any studies supporting this but the feeling is a lot like having about two strong shots of espresso. My mind is wide awake.

Logically makes sense - if your brain thinks even for a moment that your life is at risk, it is not going to be sluggish about responding.

It brings everything on board all at once. You are wide awake and fully alert.  

Boom.

The best morning mind hack ever.

LESSONS

  1. Cold showers rock. Absolutely the best way to start the day.
  2. When your feeling low energy blahs, it's easy to recharge.

What are the Benefits?

Immediate Benefits ( from the first Shower )

  • Instant rush of energy - probably adrenaline.
  • Wide awake, ready to go, in 30 seconds flat.
  • Save on coffee,

Near-Term Benefits ( 1 to 4 weeks )

Cold weather outside feels enjoyable. I no longer wear jackets in the winter time, unless it's raining.

My immune system seems to be stronger too, everyone is sick, but not me, and that's with my flying, traveling, cold showered, jacket-less existence. Wim Hof mentions this, I haven't researched it, but my personal experience so far backs this up in some small way.

In my recent trip to Queenstown, New Zealand, the early morning air outside felt almost as cold as my cold shower. For a few days, I skipped the showers, and walked 6 blocks to the local Starbucks to do my writing. With no jacket. I felt the same effect- wide awake, not uncomfortable, full of energy, and the moment I walked into the door to begin writing I felt that same energy surge that I feel stepping out of the shower.

Long-Term Benefits ( 6 months+ )

I've been doing cold showers daily for about 6 months now.

Over that time, I discovered that my trepidation about the cold showers decreased noticeably.

Entering the shower now has a much lower resistance.

  1. I've already made the decision. There was no waffling up to the point of the shower- I went there specifically for the cold. Even though I knew it would be uncomfortable, I didn't feel that psychological resistance.
  2. Familiarity. There are no unknowns here now, I know exactly how uncomfortable it will be. I also know that when I step out the pain will end instantly, and I have that control over the situation,.
  3. Reward. I know there is a reward- the immediate reward after stepping out is the rush of energy and wakefulness, focus. I don't know if anyone has measured the chemical response- my guess would be some adrenaline, plus probably serotonin. In my experience I'd describe the feeling just after a courageous act, as being very much like the feeling of social approval (serotonin). It's an enormous boost of positivity and self-appreciation.

There is an entire deeper layer of discovery as well, but before I delve into that, let's talk about setting up a routine for you.

Tips

Here are a few tips...

Design your own routine. Try different things. I recommend these...

  • Separate cold showers from hot showers. They have two different purposes, so treat them differently. to trying to mix the two types of showers together. Unless you really want to push your comfort zone, I tend to leave the cleaning tasks- hair conditioning, body scrub, whatever... for the hot showers.
  • Cold shower can be as long, or as short, as you want.  My suspicion is that most of the psychological benefit is at the beginning- the part where you actually step under the water, and acclimatize to it.  After say 3 minutes there may be diminishing returns- but I could easily be wrong in this.
  • Practice stepping into the cold, I think this part is essential.
  • I recommend trying start-to-finish, short cold showers for awhile to get the full experience.
  • Later, you can mix it up. Starting cold, then turning up the temperature. Or taking a nice hot shower but finishing with a good freeze. All of these feel different and likely have different benefits. One popular method is to start is 40 seconds of cold, then take your regular hot shower, then finish again with cold.

Advanced reflection

I'll organize these notes better later, as I have time to reflect on them better.

This part will probably be best understood by those who have practiced Vipassana meditation.

After about five months of practice, I began to realize that there were new layers of exploration that I could experience. This is quite difficult to explain, but it reminded me very strongly of my experience with Vipassana meditation.

In Vipassana, you learn that any experience you are feeling is just a sensation that has no pain or pleasure attached to it inherently.

... until a different part of your mind steps in and interprets the sensation.

Vipassana identifies 4 stages of this process which in English are referred to as Sensation, Perception, Interpretation, and Reaction.

Pain is not pain until about stage 3, and generally speaking pain is quite mild and brief until we React and make it 1000x worse, compounding the mental experience intensely.

Combining cold showers with Vipassana was very eye opening.

Here, I could essentially toy with my brain, peeling back those layers.

I've just begin this process, but personally, I'd describe the process as one of controlling my attention.

  1. As I play with my attention, I can see that the sensation of the cold water, and the pain of that sensation are two entirely separate things- which I can have a large amount of control over.
  2. If I put my attention on the uncomfortable feeling of pain, it magnifies.
  3. If I put my attention on the sensation of cold water hitting my skin, but ignore the pain, it's just... water hitting my skin, Not cold, really. Just a sensation. It's not that the pain exactly goes away, I'm still aware of it. But it becomes less than half of what it was. It becomes inconsequential.
  4. If I put my attention somewhere outside the shower, on work, or other events, I barely feel anything.

The experience reminds me a lot of a TED talk I saw, why aren't humans awesomer? Which is truly fantastic.

One of the things it points out is that inside our head, sensation and experience are very separate things- sensation is like information, and interpretation is like a guy sitting in the audience watching.

So what happens if the guy looks away from the screen, or starts playing on his phone, or falls asleep?

I think in a very real way, anaesthesia works on this model.

Local anaesthesia disrupts the signal itself, blurring the screen, or cuting the video feed entirely.

General anaesthesia is more like getting the audience drunk, or knocking them out.

Also, note that the audience can really only pay attention to one thing at a time.

If you stub your toe, and it hurts quite badly, and then you smack yourself on the face, you quickly forget the toe. It's not that the toe stopped hurting... it's that your mind now has something new to focus its attention on and evaluate. And that means that it gives less importance to the stubbed toe.

The same effect is why people who are in a bad emotional state will often stay busy and don't want to stop -because the moment they stop their mind has nothing to focus its attention on other than their own internal feelings.

So much to learn.

If you explore these things, share your experiences!

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Addendum

Addendum