I’m standing naked in the bathroom. The shower is turned on, but it’s not hot water coming out of the showerhead. There is no hot steam filling the bathroom, signaling my brain with anticipation for the pleasurable and comforting feeling of a hot shower.
It’s January, and the water coming down from the showerhead is freezing cold. My mind resists. Aggressively. It summoned all of its power to let me know that this is insane.
I reach out my hand to touch the water. Big mistake. The touch of the water makes my body cringe and only confirms my fear.
I know that it’s going to happen, and my body knows that, too. I can feel it by the way my heart is pounding in my chest. I step in the shower at once, and my body is in shock. I gasp and find it very hard to breathe. The water feels like a jet stream of needles on my skin, and I don’t scream, only because I want to save the little sense of manhood or pride I have left.
After a few seconds, when I realize I’m not going to die, I start to relax, and I’m able to deepen my breathing. The sensation is still far from pleasant but becomes tolerable. I stand there a few more seconds, until parts of my skin become numb, and then I turn the hot water on. This is my first cold shower experience.
The practice of cold water therapy is ancient old. pythagoras and Hippocrates were advocates of the practice in the treatment of various illnesses. Cold baths were used by the Romans, ancient Greek and ancient Egyptians. Native Americans were known to plunge into icy lakes. If you think about it, the norm of having limitless access to warm water is very recent in human evolution. For most of our ancestors, the only option was some natural source of cold water.
Today the practice of plunging into icy lakes is common in places like Russia or the Scandinavian countries. The beauty of it all is that you don’t have to live next to a lake or a waterfall. A shower is all you need.
So why would a sane person choose, voluntarily, to step into an ice cold shower in the middle of the winter? There are some good reasons. The feeling after I got out of the shower was amazing. I felt energized and awake. My mind was clear and sharp, and the effect lasted for 2-3 hours.
Science can tell us a lot about the benefits of cold showers or other methods of cold exposure therapy. All of these benefits are based on the fact that not all stress is bad. A cold shock is definitely perceived by the body as a stressor, but, at the right dose, it can have a Hormetic effect, which means that the stressor triggers physiological mechanisms that create a net gain or benefits that are greater than the damaging effect. In other words, with exposure to this kind of stress, your body becomes stronger and more resilient.
So, what are the actual benefits of cold showers?
Cold showers strengthen your immune system. This is done by triggering your lymph nodes to get rid of waste that has been accumulated in them. It also increases the activity of immune cells.
- Cold showers improve circulation. Especially showers that transition from cold to hot will increase blood flow from internal parts of your body to the externals and the skin.
Cold showers can relieve depression symptoms. One study found that cold showers increase the release of noradrenaline, a hormone that alleviates depression. Another interesting way cold showers are effective for depression is by sending a mild electrical impulse to the brain (1)
Cold showers stimulate muscle recovery. Cold water immersion and cryotherapy have become very popular in recent years among athletes for muscle recovery. Cryotherapy is a short exposure to extreme cold (-166ºF) in a special chamber. Ice baths can have a similar effect. Those extreme cold exposure methods have been shown to decrease inflammation and support muscle recovery. Although cold showers don’t work as effectively, they’re still beneficial in lowering the post workout inflammation. I personally love to take a cold shower after an intense exercise or weight training. It just feels right.
Cold showers burn fat. While cold showers stimulate your metabolic rate, they also activate and increase brown fat cells. Brown fat cells burn glucose in your white fat cells—the “bad” kind of fat that is stored in your body and causes obesity. Brown fat cells slow aging and can prevent diabetes and heart disease.
Cold showers improve testosterone levels. If you’re a man over the age of 40, most likely you’ve noticed that your testosterone level is not the same as when you were 25. Your testicles need cold temperatures to function optimally in producing testosterone. Cold showers can help in regulating temperature and create a better environment for testosterone production.
Knowing that science supports the practice of cold showers is great. What is even better is the immediate sense of achievement you get after a cold shower. We live a very convenient life. We try very hard to avoid discomfort, and that makes us soft. What’s interesting is that the more we avoid discomfort, the bigger is our fear of it. Taking a cold shower is counterintuitive. By deliberately putting yourself in this very uncomfortable situation, you are facing your fears and training yourself to deal with uncomfortable situations.
There’s a great Ted talk by Joel Runyon ( http://impossiblehq.com) about cold showers, where he describes his experience with cold showers and how the practice helped him in building courage and will power.
I love what he says here:
“I said to myself, ‚If you’re not willing or able to be the type of person that’s willing to be uncomfortable for five minutes alone in the shower, where the only negative outcome is you being cold for five minutes and the only person affected by that decision is you, then how will you ever have the strength or courage to be uncomfortable in a situation where the outcomes are much, much greater and the people affected by your decision far outnumber just yourself?’”
The beauty in cold showers is the immediate reward you get out of it. No matter your state of mind and body as you enter, five minutes later, when you exit, you’re a different person. A better one. Sharper and clearer in your mind. More energized.
How To Start
Your goal should be to be able to stand in a cold shower for five minutes, and, no less important, to be able to relax and breathe normally. Here’s a challenge: do you sing while taking shower? Try to sing your favorite song in a cold shower. The results are funny.
You can build your resilience gradually, by starting with hot water, then, when you feel your body’s hot enough, turn the dial to cold. 100% cold. After the initial shock, try to calm yourself down and breathe deeply into your abdomen. Use your mind. Tell yourself that the sensation you feel is good and pleasant. Over time, you’ll get used to the experience. You can alternate between cold and hot water, but make sure to finish with cold.
Eventually, i dare saying; you can even enjoy this.