Every day for the last two years I have ended my morning shower in exactly the same way: by turning the temperature control as low as it will go and standing there (gasping) until I adjust to the cold.
Every day I dread it. Yet every day I’m really glad to have done it.
There are all sorts of hypotheses about the benefits of cold exposure on the body and mind, including the suggestion that it can play a role in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. So far there hasn’t been a great deal of research carried out, which is surprising given that cold water therapy has been used all over the world for at least 3500 years*. However, some interesting ideas are starting to be explored:
- It has been suggested that, throughout our evolution, we have adapted to cope with brief changes in body temperature (such as might occur during an outdoor swim), and that the absence of this kind of ’thermal exercise’ in our modern-day lives may have a negative effect on brain function.
- It is believed that the body’s response to cold exposure (increased blood levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline and a surge of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain) may generate a naturally anti-depressant effect.
- There is a growing body of evidence connecting depression with inflammation in the body. Extreme athlete, ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof, is currently working with Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands to explore the effects of deep breathing, meditation and cold exposure on this kind of inflammation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students of the Wim Hof Method regularly experience reduced levels of stress, anxiety and an increased sense of wellbeing as a result of using such techniques.
I’m not sure whether the benefits I experience from my morning blast of cold water can be attributed to any of these things or not. Maybe I just find it helpful to have a daily reminder that I can cope with discomfort, whether I feel like doing so or not. The practice of deliberately stretching one’s comfort zone (or ‘voluntary discomfort’ as the ancient Stoics called it), is certainly a great way of building self-confidence.
Whatever it is that helps, I’m realising that I’ve become rather attached to those daily cold showers. I may dread the moment when the warm water is replaced by ‘aaaaaaaargh-ness’, but I kind of love it too. It feels great. (Afterwards, at least.)
So I’m curious….do you have love-hate habits of your own?
Do you also enjoy cold showers or practice ‘voluntary discomfort’ in other ways?
If so, what do you do – and why?
*Cold water therapy is mentioned throughout the Edwin Smith Papyrus (an ancient Egyptian medical text dating from 1600 BCE).