On the cold

Over the last 18 months or so I’ve used Wim Hof Method breathing and cold therapy as way to improve my mental and physical health.

On the cold
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

A story

Deep breath in... then let it go. Fully in... letting go. I’m sat cross legged in the garden, the air temperature about 1 degree, in only shorts. All there is my breathing... in and out. In and out. My breath is misting in the cold night air. It’s so cold that my body is gently steaming. With every breath in my body feels alive, primed, warm even. With every breath out my muscles relax, I’m so relaxed. Energy in, acceptance out.

When it’s time. No, that’s not right. Time has less meaning now. Time has slowed, or stopped. Who knows.

When I’m ready. That’s better. When I’m ready, I take a deep breath in, fully in. Then out. Then I hold. Hold my breath. Stillness. Quiet. Without the breathing to focus on, my attention goes inward. I can feel my heart beating. My fingers start to tingle. It feels like I’m floating. I float for a while in this in between place. Weightless. Then my body gently reminds me we need to breath again.

I take a deep breath in and I sort of squeeze the beautiful oxygen up in my brain, squeezing, then relax. Relax. I’m even more relaxed now. I’ve unlocked a deeper level of inner peace.

I stand; I’m at peace with myself, with nature, with the universe. And I turn on the outside hosepipe. Even in my blissful state I still flinch somewhere inside. The water is maybe 5 or 6 degrees. As I stand under the flow my breathing increases. It’s a shock. I have to close my eyes. I have to focus. What do I focus on? I think I’m focusing on my breathing, on acceptance, on letting go. There is no ego under that cold shower. I’m bare to all my flaws and foibles. There can be no bravado.

I know from experience not to put my face under the water for too long - the water is so cold that it’s the worst ice cream brain freeze.

Slowly my breathing begins to slow down. The initial shock has passed. I relax into the cold. Practice has determined that the only way to go into the cold is with acceptance and relaxation. Going in with gritted teeth and swagger quickly unravels, and your pumped up ego will be in tatters on the floor.

My cardiovascular system has adjusted to the cold shock. It doesn’t hurt anymore. It’s just cold. It’s bearable. Cold is just another feeling. Another sensation. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is. I just am.

Turning off the water now and I feel truly alive. Truly present. Vitality. That’s the word. I continue with the breathing, this time in “horse stance”. Rhythmic. My inner fire is lit. It’s almost a trance. The paradox of the cold being so beautiful hits me hard. Tears inexplicably well up in my eyes. The cold is beautiful. The universe is beautiful. Everyone is beautiful.

After going into the warmth of the house I’m tingling. And not just my skin. I’m alive. I’m flushed with feel-good hormones. It’s like I’ve been made again. An awakening. I can’t stop smiling. It’s this incredible feeling of contentment and calm. I’m awash in awareness, my heart is beating right there, in my chest, beating on its own accord. Isn’t that incredible? The feeling of glorious serenity lingers for a long, long time. I would pay for this feeling if it didn’t come freely.

But tomorrow it’ll be forgotten and my inner talk will be telling me to stay inside, stay warm. I’ll have to muster my enthusiasm, gather my resilience, and go into the cold, again.

Behind the scenes

Over the last 18 months or so I’ve used Wim Hof Method breathing and cold therapy as way to improve my mental and physical health.

Meditation and mindfulness are pretty well-known means to improve mental health. Mediation is often about focusing on the breath. But that’s harder than it sounds. How do you not get distracted? It’s easy for the mind to wander. For me, cold exposure is a shortcut to the present, to the importance of breathing. And because the cold forces you to focus, to be present, to breath, it has the same mental health benefits as mediation. But cold therapy also improves physical health by strengthening the immune and cardiovascular systems.

Just 3 minutes in the cold is like 30 minutes of trying to meditate. You can’t fake your response to the cold - you breath and focus, or you tap out and fail. You can’t be distracted while in the cold - the whole you is present. There is no room left for the mind to wander.

Whereas with mediation and mindfulness you can fake it, you can pretend. It can be skin deep. The cold cuts through all the BS and tunnels directly to your heart and soul. Wim Hof says it perfectly: “the cold is merciless but righteous”. Like nature itself, there is no malice, or intent, just a perfect mirror into your own soul. You better leave your ego behind, because the cold will soon strip it away.

Wim Hof is a Dutchman, nicknamed the “Ice Man”. He has a method of deep breathing combined with cold exposure. He has set Guinness world records for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice (over 2 hours!).

Cold is a stressor, and being able to stay calm, relaxed, and present under stress is exactly what resilience is to me. Cold therapy is also excellent for the immune and cardiovascular systems.

Hormesis is the term for when the body responds favourably to small stressors. That is, we benefit from exposure to small stresses. Think about lifting weights - it’s the training response to the stress that builds muscle. Small stresses are beneficial. It makes us flexible, resilient, strong. The alternative extreme is that we live in padded rooms held at a constant 21 degrees, try not to move a muscle, have a constant drip of nutrients in place of food... you get the idea. This would make us weak, frail and soft.

Like perceived obstacles in real life, the barrier to embracing the cold is the mind. We create our own mental handicaps, we are prisoners to limits of our own making. We tell ourselves “we can’t”. And sadly most often we listen.

Why can I take an icy shower but another person can’t? For no reason other than I’ve practiced and pushed my mental limits. Professor Tim Noakes (a sports scientist) calls this mental limit the “central governor”. And like a muscle, your central governor, your mental limit, can be improved through practice. “It’s all in the mind” is accurate.

Another interesting observation is that cold discomfort lasts only seconds. By focusing and breathing and relaxing you quickly get used to it. It passes. You get comfortable with cold, instead of trying to avoid it or fight it. The memory of the suffering, the memory of the cold, fades fast. Our minds can’t really recall the feeling of being cold after the fact. And you can apply this approach to other aspects of life - lean into discomfort, it’s temporary. Worried about that work presentation - lean into it, embrace the discomfort, push your central governor on a notch. Being able to voluntarily embrace discomfort, in whatever form, is a superpower.

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, reflected deeply on his time in concentration camps under appalling conditions. He concluded that through suffering we find meaning. And as suffering is inexorable, all we can do is choose how we respond to suffering. In a small way, cold exposure is voluntary suffering, and a route to meaning and personal growth. It’s a way to practice how we respond to stressful situations.

I can only speak personally, but I’ve found a great deal of inner meaning and growth from cold therapy. Not to mention the tangible mental and physical health benefits. And whilst I still see benefits I’ll keep on keeping on.