"Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside." —Marcus Aurelius
When I first started taking control of my anxiety, I had no idea where to start, so I did what most people do and went to see a therapist. After several visits, I realized that it was not for me.
So, I began looking elsewhere. I had done zero research on anxiety/mental health at that point, so I did what most men nowadays in their 20s and 30s do when we have a question about something, I listened to the Tim Ferriss Show.
In the episode, they talked a lot about the benefits of cold water therapy. My initial thoughts were anything but supportive:
Are they crazy? There is no way I could take a cold shower every morning. Let alone take an ice bath. It is December; I would freeze. That may work for a crazy Dutchman, but there is no way it could help an anxious New Yorker.
But I am happy to say that I was dead wrong.
After almost a year of talking myself out of it, I finally started taking a cold shower every morning. And I have been doing it for the last 176 days. The benefits have been nothing short of amazing. But don't take my word for it …
The science behind the cold
"The cold makes you go within." — Wim Hof
Dr. Rhonda Patrick, founder of Found My Fitness and an all-around scientific rockstar, wrote a dense report on the topic called Cold Shocking the Body. If you are scientifically inclined, check it out!
For us lesser scientifically minded folks, her report begins by talking about the effect of cold shocks through cold-water immersion (ice bath) on the brain. She explains that by taking a cold shower, you are increasing the release of the hormone norepinephrine (one that calms you down) to the blood, which will have a positive influence on focus, attention, and mood.
According to Dr. Patrick, norepinephrine is also the primary driver behind the anti-inflammatory effects of cold shock therapy, and the benefits it can have for people who have chronic stress, anxiety, and depression.
Regarding benefits to the immune system, her research has shown that long-term cold exposure leads to higher counts of white blood cells and has some effect on the metabolism, burning fat through thermogenesis.
7 things freezing my butt off taught me
Although there are many scientific health reasons that you should try out a cold shower, in my opinion, the most important thing it has done for me is building my mental resilience.
1. Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional
One of the Buddha's most poignant maxims for living a good life was to realize that life will never be easy, but you have the choice to respond to it either skillfully or unskillfully.
Taking a cold shower never gets easier. The pain is inevitable every single morning I turn the lever 'cold.' But to remain in the shower, I choose to reframe how I respond to the stimulus that is freezing cold water.
Instead of seeing it as a threat or something that I need to run from, I see it as a necessary stimulus for my growth. Something that I need to endure to become more mentally resilient. And it works.
I have been taking one every day for the last 176. And I do not plan on stopping.
2. Accepting what is here
"Fear does not go away by itself. You have to confront your fear, mold it, then learn to control it in its own irrational reality. Every human being has the power to do just that." — Wim Hof
In life, it can be difficult to accept painful emotions, thoughts, or events that arise. For a time it may seem easier to suppress them, hoping that with time they will just go away. However, if you never face these demons head on, they will only grow larger.
A cold shower allows you to do just that, face your demons, every single time you step into a shower. As soon as the cold water turns on, your brain will instantly tell you to run from the pain.
Get out. Run, run, run! I haaaaate this. Find safety now. You are dying.
To remain in the cold, you will have to tell yourself, "don't run away, accept what is, don't try to fight it by tensing up or squirming, just let it be." If you remain calm and neutral, within a few seconds, you'll find that everything is…ok. You're still cold, but you're alive.
Bring yourself into awareness of this fact, and realize that you're not dying; you're not in danger; you're just experiencing something out of your comfort zone. And if you don't panic or try to escape the feeling, everything will remain as it is, and eventually, you will be able to transcend it.
The same goes with painful emotions, thought, and events. If you try to fight them or run away from them, they will still be there waiting for you to step back into the shower. Only this time you will be more filled with fear.
However, when you accept them and see them for what they truly are, you will be able to move past them. Maybe even learn to enjoy them.
3. The power of your breath
The moment the piercing water strikes your back, your breath will become short and shallow.
This is the way a majority of people breathe, taking shallow, short breaths without realizing it. The problem is that unconscious breathing can cause heightened levels of stress and discomfort.
If you want to stay in the cold shower for longer than a couple of seconds, you will have to remind yourself to breathe normally. Inhale for 5 seconds. Hold for 5 seconds. Then exhale for 10 seconds.
You can take this same breathing practice with you to work or any other stressful situations. It will help you calm down by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Also, it gives you a chance to find space between the stimulus and your response to it.
4. Face your fear daily
The phrase, do something every day that scares you, is emblazoned on the majority of pseudo-psychology blogs across the world. It is a phrase that made sense to me in the abstract, but I never knew how to put it into action, until I started taking cold showers.
Every morning I have an internal battle about whether I will do it (it being turning the water cold). It is something my brain and body still fear ever morning. No matter how long I have kept the habit.
When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Taking a cold shower has taught me that fear is usually an illusion that when examined carefully fades away. I have been able to face my fears more effectively the last couple of months, and I attribute a lot of that to the habit of taking a cold shower.
5. Working with your thoughts
Many wise people have spoken about the power of thoughts.
Shakespeare wrote: "for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
But the most dramatic example is Viktor Frankl, who said, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Thoughts will abound in life, and during a cold shower. Most of them will be irrational fears and worries about your own survival. You can learn to better work with these thoughts by putting yourself in situations in which they arise more freely (i.e. a cold shower).
Repetition is the key to mastery. So if you want to become a master of your mind, put yourself in situations that allow you to get the necessary reps.
The one benefit of taking cold showers that I was not expecting was a deeper sense of gratitude. This is something the Stoics talked about a lot. Practicing what you fear most to be more grateful for what you have.
When I am shivering in the cold water, all I can think about is turning on the delicious, warm water. A luxury that I have to relieve my suffering. However, whenever I have that thought, I am forced to think about all of the people in the world that do not even have clean water to drink, which puts my mind into an instant state of gratitude.
In a way, by remaining in the cold shower, I am expressing my enormous appreciation for all of the things I have in my life.
A deeper sense of gratitude has been the most impactful thing that taking a cold shower has done for my life.
7. 10% happier
I recently read Dan Harris' book "10% Happier," which tells his story of using meditation to bring more happiness into daily life. Although I don't have any science to back up this claim, I have noticed a similar 10–15% increase in my overall happiness and contentment since I started taking a daily cold shower.
This can probably be attributed to a lot of the biological components going on, but honestly, who cares? It makes me happier. That's all I need to know!
In many ways, we are a society that is exceptionally good at creating stress, distraction, anxiety, struggle, and despair. But, that does not mean we cannot make personal changes to our lives to counteract the macro level of mindless living.
You can start making changes today that will not only benefit you but will also benefit everyone around you.
I challenge you to take a cold shower. I promise you will learn something deeper about yourself! At the very least, you will be able to say:
"Wow. I just accomplished something I never thought I could."
And that my friends, is well worth it!
Benjamin Foley is the founder of Fully Rich Life and a mindfulness expert.