A year of cold showers
TL-DR; For the past 365 days, I have taken only cold showers (6°C-13°C, 43°F-55°F). It’s been a fascinating experience, during which I’ve flexed my self-discipline muscle, built resolve, practised decision-making, gratitude and improved mindfulness. And yes, it also simply feels great!
For the past 365 days, I have taken exclusively cold showers. Water temperature has ranged between 6°C (43°F) in winter and 13°C (55°F) in summer.
Early in 2016, I was looking for solutions to a couple of problems.
First, I’ve been fighting functional health disorders for over 20 years. As there doesn’t appear to be any identifiable organic issue for which I could take a pill and cure, I’ve had to constantly look and try alternative techniques to improve my daily life. I’ve made a lot of cumulative progress over the years but it has never been linear. There were periods where I’d stay stuck for many months or even years without significant changes and then suddenly, I’d find something I had not yet tried, applied it and climbed at once a few steps towards better health.
Second, I was feeling entrapped in a very comfortable low-risk life and needed to both awake in me some conscious gratitude and make sure I remain aware and alert that everything can change quickly and for the worse. It always pays off to be ready for when the wind changes. There should be as little surprise and chaos as possible when one’s life worsens. On top of that, staying aware of one’s relatively good situation helps remaining humbler about it.
In 2004, I began practising a breathing technique that is half way between holotropic breathing and rebirthing. While there were immediate beneficial emotional and health effects, it took a few years of practise before I closed the loop and felt that the tremendous improvements I had achieved would stay with me for good. Some people in the group with whom I practised were doing the breathing exercises in cold water, but at that time I felt that it was enough of a challenge to just do the breathing properly and so I remained dry.
Breathing like the Iceman
Somewhere around 2012, I began reading articles and watching short movies about Wim Hof, also known as the Iceman. I was fascinated by watching him running in shorts in the snow or swimming in Arctic conditions. Twenty years earlier, I had been caught in the Himalayas at 5000m with inadequate clothing and have remained traumatized by cold ever since. No matter what the weather, I never get out for the day without a spare thermal layer, just in case.
Therefore, I decided that giving a try at Wim Hof’s technique would be a proper challenge that might help bringing health benefits, reconciling myself with cold, flexing my self-discipline muscle and showing gratitude for life. However, whereas Wim Hof’s technique revolves around breathing, with cold exposure and meditation setting up the environment and mental state, I decided to use cold exposure as my focus point, using breathing and meditation to help withstanding the cold.
There are many online discussions that debate about how cold and breathing interact, but I find this interview of Dr. Pierre Capel by Dr. Rhonda Patrick to be the best starting point. It describes how thermo-sensors work and how Wim Hof’s breathing technique can reduce the pain generated by cold.
In summary, Dr. Pierre Capel explains that when the body feels a temperature inferior to 17°C (63°F), it goes into protection mode by triggering pain and anxiety in order to motivate the person to get out of the cold, and by increasing metabolism to produce heat. However, it is possible to at least partially inhibit the pain response by lowering the content of carbon dioxyde in the blood, which is actually one of the consequences of Wim Hof’s breathing method. Therefore, if you first do the breathing until carbon dioxyde concentration lowers, and then expose yourself to cold, you should get the increased metabolism benefits without the associated pain.
I will now describe what I have done and contrast it, where I can, with what I think would be the ideal procedure. After a full year of experimentation, I realize that while I’ve definitely made progress in line with my initial objectives, I have also discovered other aspects of this practice that have sometimes become more important than my initial motives.
Dealing with excuses and obligations
Because I wanted to experience cold repeatedly over at least a few weeks, I decided to define a few rules for the experiment in order to satisfy 2 criteria:
- removing as many factors as possible that would add friction between me and cold exposure and give me excuses no to do it;
- removing as many obligations as possible that would force me to expose myself to cold.
The idea was that there should be no friction from external factors that could be used as an excuse to avoid cold exposure. The path between me and cold should be clean in order to limit to the minimum the number of parasitic decisions that separate me from the experience of cold. Only then, standing in a mental desert with nowhere to hide, am I sure to face my capacity to take the painful decision to experience cold.
It is not possible to remove all excuses because the brain keeps creating new ones as one gets closer to cold. Nevertheless, the easiest frictions to tackle relate to time, equipment and environment.
I decided to consider cold showers instead of other forms of cold because there is no need to plan for it and no need to stop doing anything else to accommodate time for it. It’s not like having to go to the gym or deciding to cook differently for a new diet. Because I shower every day in the morning in the same way, I know that every day I’ll face the possibility of cold in the same conditions.
This is where I depart from how Wim Hof suggests using his technique. Because I don’t want to take extra time in my morning routine, I have reorganized the content and order of Wim Hof’s technique for my personal objective. Instead of doing it before the shower, I wait until I’m under the cold shower to practice the breathing technique that reduces carbon dioxyde and alleviates cold pain. Also, I do a few minutes of stretching before the breathing technique, not after as suggested by Wim Hof. I actually practice the breathing technique, meditate and do physical exercices while I’m under the cold shower in order to keep it all packed in a single time block. This is generally a 5 to 7-minute activity. On top of that, I do more breathing, but in an opportunistic and somewhat irregular manner, whenever I find an adequate moment during the day.
Apart from taking no extra time, I like that in order to take cold showers, there is no need to buy any specific equipment and there is no extra cost. All other things being equal, it’s even cheaper than a hot shower and it takes generally less time. So there’s no need to accept into my home yet another device that will rot in a closet.
But I specifically like the cold shower idea because it presents the least possible friction between a normal hot shower experience and a cold shower. At that fork in the road in my daily routine every morning, the only practical difference between experiencing a hot comforting shower or a painful, but reinvigorating cold shower is turning the water temperature knob on one side or the other. No extra move involved, not a single extra joule wasted that I could use as an excuse.
In terms of environment, I also like that showering is a solitary activity. It’s a privileged moment with oneself, that others don’t see and therefore can’t judge. I’m just with myself, naked, in a familiar environment. There’s almost no room for distraction.
Removing excuses not to expose myself to cold is only one side of the coin. The other side is making sure that I expose myself to cold for the right reasons. Ideally, there should be no external factors that push me into doing it. In its purest way, I should just be there, standing in the cold and accepting it, without the urge to tell myself a story that would alleviate the experience and put a distance between what I’m living and the interpretation I make of it.
Gratitude and awareness are personal endeavours. I think their fundamental nature changes the moment you tell other people that you’re working on these behaviors. After that you’ve told someone about it, are you sure you’re still doing it for yourself? Or are you then practicing only to comply with an image of yourself that you want to project? Or maybe you see some advantages to impressing others? While it might not be the intent at the moment you tell someone, these are ideas that your mind will certainly use along the way as a lifeline to manage the stress of getting into cold water. Therefore, I decided not to tell anybody about this experiment. Not my wife, not my children, not my friends, nobody. As of today, ie a year later, I’ve still not mentioned it to anyone and I don’t plan to discuss it with anyone either, unless I’m being asked. Sure, you could find out who I am in a couple of clicks but don’t lose your time, there’s nothing special about me.
I’ve pondered for some time whether writing this post would not totally break what I’ve just written, but this post was never planned for and I don’t think that many people around me will care to read it anyway. This Medium account has no other post and I don’t have Twitter followers, which means I can chose my public for this post.
I did not set any particular personal objective to the experiment other than following, each day, the steps I had defined. I wanted to be as committed as possible to what I had to do one day at a time, and look as little as possible at what would happen in the future. I specifically did not decide on the duration of the experiment. When I started, there was somewhere in the back of my mind the idea that it would be nice to stick to cold for 4 to 6 weeks, but that was it. Setting an objective more specific than that, like for example sticking for 365 days, would have probably helped me keep doing it just to enjoy the satisfaction of reaching a personal goal at the end.
It might seems strange but even after 1 year of daily cold showers, there’s still a whole spectrum of thoughts that come to mind in the moments before I open the shower door and until 1 minute after I started the shower. Most of these thoughts try to talk me out of taking a cold shower. After the first minute under the shower, as I breathe and meditate, the deterring thoughts just fade away. But at the moment these thoughts come and try conquering my willpower, I often need to use some imagery to get rid of them. I would prefer not to resort to external imagery and being able to just observe these thoughts come and go, but I’m not always successful.
I guess everybody has to find the imagery that works in his or her case. As I’m working on developing gratitude for what I consider a privileged life, I’ve naturally been using imagery of people going through some real hardship in life and managing to get their way through it.
Whenever I’m having a problem that looks terrible, I just take some time to remember Ernest Schackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antartic Expedition. This story is just mind-blowing and there’s no substitute to watching one of the many documentaries about it.
When you ponder the hardship he went through and how he got out of it, there’re very few remaining justifications not to be upbeat about a cold shower and your current life.
Another category of imagery I use is that of men, such as Marcus Aurelius, who have managed to express in very pragmatic and accessible terms constructive perspectives to look at problems.
I also put Bruce Lee in that same category, whose pocketbook was full of excellent insights on self-discipline.
Cold shower modus operandi
Here is the step-by-step description of how I take cold showers:
- On every work day, I get up at 6:30AM, wake up my teenage children and then immediately go to the shower. I minimize as much as possible the time between getting up and starting the shower in order to limit the self-talk that tries to convince me not to go into the cold. On weekends, as I shower after breakfast, I get to practice decision-making without the benefit of being in a hurry, which is often more difficult.
- Opening the shower door is my trigger. That’s when I stop thinking and only act. In most of the things we do, there’s a moment for reflection and a moment for action. When the decision is taken and the steps are clear, proper action must follow without any further interference. I find it very valuable to train that muscle every morning. At the moment I open the shower door, I know that a cold shower is the only possible outcome and that I need to accept it and be grateful for that moment. In order to do that, the best way is to truthfully embrace the cold. This is not just because it sounds nicer, it actually has a very concrete effect because the subconscious mind regulates bodily sensations according to expectations. If you let your self-talk taking over once the cold shower is started but you’ve not yet entered it, odds are the water will feel much colder and aggressive. If on the contrary, you embrace the moment and are eager for the experience, the cold will be much more acceptable.
- I start the shower on the coldest setting without being under the shower. During the first week of experimentation with cold showers, I was taking hot showers for a few minutes and then was finishing the showers with a minute of cold water, as suggested by Wim Hof and many others.
- I put one leg under the cold water for a second then remove it and put the other one in the cold for a second, then I immediately put my whole body under the shower.
- At that moment, depending on how cold is the water, there can be a natural reflex of anxiety and uncomfortable breathing. In order to regulate my breathing, and therefore anxiety, I start breathing slowly and deeply and only focus on the air flowing through my body. After 10 seconds, I’m able to breathe normally and don’t feel anxious anymore.
- For the next 20 to 30 seconds, I make sure all my body parts have been in the cold and get slowly used to the temperature.
- Then, I start performing 1 or 2 cycles of Wim Hof’s breathing technique. During the last portion of each cycle, when I stop breathing and keep my lungs empty, I try not to move too much and I really enjoy exposing my face right in the shower jet. This is a truly exhilarating moment where I actually crave for having even colder water.
- After the breathing exercice, I switch to slow deep breathing. I then wash my body with soap and spend another 2 minutes performing slow-motion strength exercises, like squatting for example.
- I stop the shower and follow normally through regular daily activities.
Repetition is the tough part
The difficult part is not to take a cold shower on a typical day, it’s to take one every day without having an end date.
The problem is that exposing oneself to cold at 6:30AM requires willpower and we don’t wake up every morning with the right mindset. After a night of poor sleep, or during the winter when it’s cold and dark outside, or for whatever other motive, it is always possible to find a good reason for declaring that today is an exception and to refuse cold exposure. As a matter of fact, winter is particularly testing because on top of darkness, cold and rain outside, it’s also when cold water is at its coldest.
It’s been very useful in my everyday life to practice being able to bring back the right mindset every morning even when I feel very disconnected. It allows starting each day with a small victory, which in my opinion is very good priming for the rest of the day.
If I concentrate on the repulsive thought that begs me to avoid the cold shower, I realize that it’s not an avoidance of the whole experience though. The part that my mind most wants to avoid is entering the cold shower and accepting the first 60 seconds. After that, it gets as comfortable as a hot shower but it’s a different kind of comfort. Once my body has got used to cold water, the sensation is reinvigorating, and then when I finish my shower the sensation is awesome for at least 15 minutes. I only need to tell myself that avoidance is about the first minute, but that the following 20 minutes are great and that I’ll actually feel more energized for the rest of the day.
Writing about cold showers, seriously?
Time and again, during or after the cold shower, I was very perplex on the real meaning of what I was doing. Was I really delusional enough to think that I was accomplishing anything of value? Sure, I was going through mild hardship into the cold for a few minutes and building resolve and self-discipline, but my over-privileged life would go on right after. How could I even consider writing a post on the ins and outs of cold showers when billions of people on Earth don’t have access to hot water? Was my experiment just a measure of how spoilt I am?
This inner-debate eventually faded through 2 reflections.
First, finding cold showers interesting enough to write about it is in itself no insult to all the people who don’t have access to hot water and never take hot showers. What might make it an issue is the significance given to this experiment. It’s ok to consider that withstanding cold is a significant accomplishment for me, in relative terms, but I should not extrapolate any further about what it means in absolute terms. Even though managing to take daily cold showers for over a year is something I never thought I’d be able to do, I must remain clear that it most likely has no significance for other people. It is definitely an intimate experience. Therefore, as explained above, it is probably better that I keep it for myself and for unknown people with the same mindset.
Second, I eventually realized that my experiment is not a measure of how tough I am regarding my tolerance to cold. It is more a measure of perseverance and decision-making. Someone who has no access to hot water might long for a hot shower but knows that the only thing available is a cold shower. There is no real choice to make. On the contrary, in my situation, every day I have the choice between taking a hot shower or a cold shower. Therefore, my personal accomplishment is being able to choose the hard path daily over a year, to quiet the self-talk that pushes me away from cold, and to be able to act when no more thinking is necessary. These are the mental muscles I have flexed!
UPDATE: It’s now been over 15 months since I began taking daily cold showers. After completing a full year, I decided to take hot showers to see how it feels. I thought I would like it but I quickly realized that I had actually built a new habit with cold showers and therefore I naturally abandoned hot showers after just a few days. I had forgotten how sluggish one feels after a hot shower. Or at least how sluggish I feel in comparison with how energized I feel after a cold shower :-)