You are currently viewing Cold water immersion in nature: a therapist’s experience and reflections (Part 1)

Cold water immersion in nature: a therapist’s experience and reflections (Part 1)

This post is the text of a video essay that I made. For most people, I would recommend watching/listening to the video instead of reading the post:

Taking the plunge

I don’t know exactly why I started getting in cold water three years ago.

Carl Jung said that “people don’t have ideas, ideas have people.”  And maybe it’s more accurate to say that the idea of cold water immersion found me, as it was circulating through the ethos due largely to Wim Hof’s “missionary” work, more than I found it.

I had been hearing personal anecdotes and scientific research on podcasts for a couple of years about the benefits of taking cold showers.  I was drawn to the reported health benefits, especially improved cardiovascular health and immune function.

I heard about how it is an ancient practice of people – perhaps my own ancestors included – that lived in colder environments.  And I believe that when something has been done for thousands of years, there is some benefit to it.

I also happened to have easy access at the time to a beautiful and cold alpine lake in the winter, an ideal practice setting.

Health practices like this sometimes go viral, permeating a culture slowly and then exponentially.  I find it humbling to learn that an idea or practice that seems somewhat esoteric or secret to me is in fact becoming widely practiced.  I’m reminded of how I began hiking sections of the Pacific Crest Trail only two years after Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, was released.  After her book came out, the number of PCT thru hiking permits increased from about 2600 in 2014 to nearly 8000 in 2019, tripling in just five years according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association.  And my first through hike was in 2015.  I was one of the many thousands of newly inspired PCT hikers swept up in that passion.  And I think something similar has been happening with cold water immersion in the past several years, which is wonderful for our world.

My first intentional cold plunge was right after reading the book, The Wim Hof Method in late 2020.  

Diving in

I had occasionally done quick cold plunges while backpacking or to show off with friends when I was younger, but this was the first time I was doing it intentionally for health and personal growth reasons.

As a novice at the time, this water looked very cold, and I didn’t know how much time in it was safe for me.  I had not yet seen Wim Hof stay in ice water for 60 minutes, or looked at hypothermia charts to assure myself that a couple of minutes in winter mountain lake water was perfectly safe.

It was probably around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, although I didn’t yet have a thermometer which I would buy a couple weeks later.  

I assumed swimming would be easier than being still, although now I don’t think it is.  More on that later.

I swam for about 50 seconds and was pretty pleased with that.

It was a sunny day and, at the time, I didn’t realize how much that helps with getting in and warming up afterward, compared to less gentle weather that I’d go out in later.  I realized that I was feeling surprisingly warm for what I just did, and the sun felt like a reassuring lifeguard watching over me.  I was feeling suddenly and noticeably alert and energized.  After a couple of minutes I decided to go in again.  

About 30 seconds later I was shivering and ready to be done for the day, feeling a sense of accomplishment.

An older local resident was on the shore watching me walk in and commended me for what I was doing, and we had a nice conversation.  This was the first of many reactions that I’d get from people.

Afterward I started running to warm back up.  My legs felt strong, solid, pain-free, and more explosive than before the plunge, like brand new shock absorbers on a car.  

Trail running is another, related practice that sustains my physical and emotional well-being.  I was on the cusp of discovering the wonderful and synergistic combination of running and cold water immersion.

Correcting overconfidence

The next day, I went in again, and was caught off guard by the fact that after 8 seconds I found myself getting out.  This was a first lesson in experiencing how my fortitude could really vary from one day to the next, based on many variables.  

I think part of it was that I felt some underconfidence on the first day, and that swung over to overconfidence on day two.  The air was probably colder, and that could have made the water a few degrees colder, and also caused me to arrive at the water with a lower core temperature.  Most significantly, my body might not have fully recovered from the previous day, which was a big leap going from zero seconds to 82 seconds in one day.

I decided to get back in and stayed in for about 25 more seconds and called that good, a little confused about the difficulty difference that I felt compared to the first day.

Later in the afternoon or early evening, I went back to try to at least accumulate a full minute for the day.  I got another 20 seconds in.

Building confidence blocks

On day 3, I went in the evening.  The temperature outside was definitely cooler.  There was fresh ice on the ground.  

I endured about 25 seconds.  

Day 4 was similar, with more snow on the ground and some sleet coming down.  I left a lens cap on the wrong camera lens and felt disappointed I didn’t record it.  Little did I know how many other opportunities I would have later to video document this practice.  This habit was going to stick.

I think it was good that I started on a sunny day, which taught me experientially that I can get in water that is around 40 degrees for a minute or so.  That helped me have the confidence to get in on a day with rain and snow.  I don’t think I would have done my first cold plunge on a day it was also cold and wet outside the water.  I was building confidence, one block on top of another.

Differences in energy

Since I’ve been doing this over the past three winters, it’s become clear that some days I have some mysterious energy for getting in the water longer, sometimes multiple times.  One day a minute can feel very challenging, and the next day I can do two or three minutes easily.

The water has been an avenue for developing a cooperative relationship with my body’s energy, neither letting it totally rule my decisions about how hard I will try, nor denying it’s input.  On days when I have a lot of energy, I’ll go hard pushing my limits.  On days when I have low energy, I’ll push myself far less, but still try to stretch my limits a bit.

It’s easy to deceive ourselves in either direction.  We can go too hard on ourselves, and too easy on ourselves, and to know the difference is an exercise in self-awareness and body awareness.

Running out of words

After several days, I was noticing that I was having fewer and fewer things to say to the camera about my new practice while I recorded myself doing it.  I would talk about the initial fear, the shock, the adaptive response, the point at which getting out felt right, the warm and energized feeling afterward, followed by the shivers for a brief time while I jogged to warm back up.

Even though the thoughts were almost the same each time I went in, each plunge felt memorably different.  For one thing, there were so many variables at play in the theater of nature: the clouds, the waves, the wind, the colors… And each plunge built on the growing pool of skill and confidence from all the previous ones.  Physically and emotionally, each day was a unique dive into discomfort for a brief time so that the rest of my day would be noticeably better and to find out what lied beyond the other side of that surface.

So most of the remainder of this video will be overdubbed thoughts that I’m having now while looking back on this footage, and continuing to practice cold water immersion almost daily, reflecting on the past few years through the lens of a psychotherapist and coach, and just an introspective person who’s interested in health and spiritual development.

Semantics

I use different words to describe this practice, mainly for variety.  “Cold water immersion” seems to be the scientific term that doesn’t specify a duration.  

A cold “plunge” seems to be a popular term that refers not just to the act of quickly getting in the water, but also the large, human-sized tanks that people buy to use at home.  

To me, “plunge” sounds like a short time in the water, whereas something for a minute or more sounds more like a cold water “sit,” which I’ve borrowed from meditation terminology (as in, “I’m going to go sit for a mediation session now”).  

And I also like the term cold water “practice”, which implies an ongoing relationship with the water through repeated sessions.

The after-plunge warmth

Something that I think is easily noticed in the first times getting in cold water is a warm feeling immediately afterward.  Before getting in, having skin exposed to cold air feels uncomfortable.  Afterward, it feels quite warm compared to the water, and it’s a satisfying feeling to stand there in just shorts in freezing air for a while and not feel cold.  

The pendulum swing from intense cold shock to feeling warm is due to the body’s fast adaptive response to lock in heat and prevent it from escaping into the water, to preserve it for the body, especially for vital organs.  One of the ways it does this is by constricting blood vessels and capillaries.  I imagine this is the way that the water gives our cardiovascular system a “workout” to keep it healthy, although I’m not sure.  

The warm feeling after getting out of the water is the result of the body setting the blood flow level for freezing water, not for freezing air, which has 25 times less thermal conductivity than that of water.  I think that means we lose heat through our skin in water about 25 times faster than we lose heat through contact with air of the same temperature.  

When we go from cold water to cold air, the body is uncalibrated a second time and has to dial back it’s heat preserving response, and during this time there is a pleasantly surprising warm sensation that usually lasts me a few minutes, depending on the air temperature, the wind speed, the amount of sunlight, and humidity.  I’ve even felt it in light rain after coming out.  During cold and windy storms it’s less noticeable, but usually still there.

After the body gets used to the air again, the warmth fades and often this is when the shivering starts, if I’ve stayed in long enough.  This cold feeling lasts until my body normalizes it’s temperature, from movement, a heater or shower, or just with time.

Taking the elephant for a cold plunge

The experience of cold water immersion reminds me of the Buddhist  metaphor of the elephant (the emotional part of us) and the elephant rider (the rational part of us).  The emotional elephant is like an animal that doesn’t think too much and gets easily scared and excited.  The rider is passionless and uses analysis to make sound decisions, but has no emotional juice or power to implement them.  This emotion/reason mind split has also been efficiently called “system one and system two” by the nobel prize winning economist and decision researcher, Daniel Kahneman.

A well-integrated elephant and rider duo is crucial for success in life.  If we were to only listen to the elephant, we’d be too animalistic and avoid anything hard and addictively indulge in all manner of hedonistic poor choices.  But if we only payed attention to the rider, we’d be in a constant state of paralysis by analysis, having plenty of lists but little action, zest, or pleasure.  When the elephant and rider are in a power struggle, neither are happy with the psychological friction in which opportunities are missed and pitfalls are not, due to an untrained elephant and a passive, or an authoritarian rider.

The cold water is an opportunity to improve the relationship between the rider and the elephant – between our reason and our emotion.  No normal elephant would ever get the idea of doing something so temporarily painful, and no rider would ever have the motivation to make the idea reality.

When I read The Wim Hof Method, and saw videos online of Wim Hof and others demonstrating and talking about the psychological and physical vitality that cold water exposure could provide, my elephant got excited, and my rider became logically convinced of the merits.  Wim says that cold water exposure quickly becomes addicting because of the great feeling we get afterward.  That compounds the elephant’s developing excitement.  Being an animal, it will get scared each time when the rider asks it to get back into the pain of the cold water, but with each subsequent time, it’ll have some of it’s own motivation from the anticipation of the endorphin and dopamine cocktail that the body enjoys afterward as a payoff.  Meanwhile, the rider will stoically continue to steer the elephant’s reins on course for an intense couple of minutes.

This metaphor is sometimes helpful for me when I observe two seemingly distinct parts of myself debating before and during a cold plunge, having a dialogue with each other:

  • Elephant: “I don’t like this, it feels like a thousand needles on my skin.  Let’s get out.”
  • Rider: “It’s okay, this is good for us, remember?  After the needles comes the nice warmth and tingles and energy.”
  • Elephant: “Okay, is that enough yet?”
  • Rider: “We can go more, it’s only been 45 seconds.  We often go two minutes.  Lets try for at least 90 seconds today.”
  • Elephant: “It hurts though, let’s get out.”
  • Rider: “The pain means we haven’t even really tapped into our adaptive response yet.  Until we feel kind of numb, we’re still just getting started in this workout.  We’re not in any danger, it’s just uncomfortable.”
  • And sometimes, 
  • Elephant: “Not today, I’m out of here!”

It’s not always the rider that decides to cold plunge, but I’d say that the rider is more influential at first for someone who hasn’t started the practice yet.  The rider tells the elephant about some podcast, or maybe has read the Wim Hof method and decides they should give it a try.  But after the practice is underway, sometimes it’s the emotional elephant that decides to go into the cold water.  It remembers the endorphins and dopamine rush, the clear mind, the energy boost, and the inner calmness that happens after a solid cold plunge, and it gets excited to have those feelings again, and that becomes motivation to go through the discomfort to get there.  The cold plunge becomes a healthy habit, maintained through passion.  

Wise elephant

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, there’s a concept called “wise mind”.  Wise mind is when our “rational mind” and our “emotional mind” are well-integrated.  They communicate with each other and make decisions jointly, utilizing the strengths of each.  In the rider/elephant metaphor, wisdom is the two of them moving along together in harmony, integrating both emotional passion and conscious direction.  I think that cold water immersion improves the communication between the emotional elephant and the rational rider.  And it makes sense to me that the resulting increased cooperation between our rational and emotional parts creates generalized wisdom, increasing our discipline, determination, and ability to make wiser decisions across contexts and situations.

Conscious breathing

Wim Hof says that his method is based on three pillars: 1) cold water exposure, 2) conscious breathing, and 3) the power of the mind.  I find it simpler to think of two practices — cold water and conscious breathing, both of which involve the power of the mind.

As Wim says, conscious breathing has been done for thousands of years in many ways, places, times, and cultures, so it’s not new.  I think his practices are great, but of course they are just one modern way. 

Wim has some free online breathing exercises that involve some rather intense, deep and rapid inhales and exhales (for 30 repetitions), followed by breath holds (started on the exhale when the lungs are empty) that range from 30 to 90 seconds:

  • Beginner version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BNejY1e9ik
  • Regular version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tybOi4hjZFQ

For a while I was practicing these daily on their own, and I don’t really have a good reason for stopping, because I do believe them to be beneficial.  I still do them sometimes and never regret it.  I find them challenging, especially the breath holds for 90 seconds after a full exhale.  A 30 second breath hold is fairly easy for me, but at around 60 seconds I can feel some natural anxiety and discomfort, and 90 seconds takes some effort and practice.  It took doing the practice for a week or so before I could do the full 90 second breath hold, and that never became easy to me.  

When I put a good effort into the practice, I often feel some pretty strong vibrating and tingling sensations in my arms and sometimes my chest and head and legs.  I don’t know what the exact physiology behind those sensations are, I only know they feel good and help me feel very present and aware of my body.

The breathing and cold water both take significant effort, attention, and energy to complete, because they require that we do the opposite of what feels natural, safe, and easeful.  It takes effort to override the automatic impulses to stay away from, or immediately get out of very cold water.  And it takes effort to override the instinct to breathe normally and moderately when lying down.  Breathing faster and deeper, as well as holding the breath a long time, are both uncomfortable, and require a willingness to turn toward and embrace discomfort voluntarily, as does the cold water.

Describing his first experimentations in cold water immersion when he was 17, he says that “the cold water makes you breathe more deeply and consciously.”  In my experience, cold water plunges inherently involve a deep breathing practice, whereas breathing practices don’t have to involve cold water plunges.  Wim says that he noticed in his first cold plunges that his body would “involuntarily gasp” as soon as he would fully submerge.  I can attest to this as well – so far, no matter how many times I do this, my body immediately and automatically begins breathing deeply for air for several faster and deeper breaths as my body’s various adaptive mechanisms kick in to deal with the sudden environmental shock.

After some time, maybe 30 to 60 seconds, my breathing then slows to a sustained pace that is somewhat faster and deeper than normal — perhaps comparable to a moderate cardio workout.  Around this time, I will often experiment with short breath holds.  Not too long, maybe 10 to 15 seconds at a time.  And sometimes I’ll take faster, deeper breaths.  I like to do what comes instinctively, trusting my intuition.  I don’t know if I would do intuitive breath holds in the water had I never practiced Wim’s breathing exercises on their own.

As long as I stay in the water for over a minute, I consider it as success, no matter what happens with my breathing.

Discipline, delayed gratification, and type 2 fun

Often, the things that aren’t good for us are easy, and the things that are good for us are difficult.  Whether it is exercising, choosing healthy food, addressing a relationship problem, getting to work on a tough project, or sticking to good sleep hygiene, the quality of our life highly depends on our ability to do what’s hard in the short term in order to have some long term payoff, such as physical and mental well being, nourishing connection to others, security, or self-actualization.  

Right now, I’m sitting at a computer to create this cold water essay, and for me, it’s often hard work to put myself in front of a keyboard and reach into my mind to pull out these thoughts.  But I do it because I want the rewards of sharing this story with you as well as improving my communication and cultivating my creativity.

Like creating art, a strenuous workout, a first date, planning a vacation, or anything else that involves discomfort followed by a sense of fulfillment — cold water immersion could be classified as what is sometimes called “type 2 fun” (which is defined as “not fun to do but fun to talk about later”).  It’s probably my favorite type of fun, which some might not even want to call fun.  It’s not really fun to do if fun means pleasant.  But it is fun in that it is adventurous.

Every cold plunge is a small and emotional hero’s journey, involving a call to action, a test of follow through, a deeper connection with our own inner guide, an ordeal stage of pain, a treasure of a better mood and a step toward better health, and a return to ordinary life with a few more drops of the magical elixir — increased wisdom and discipline to share with our self and others from that moment forward.

Adventures like that aren’t always pleasant or fun to do but they are fun to reflect on later because they create the richness of life and our story to tell.

Every time we respond to calls to action to climb discomfort walls, be they large or small, we become better discomfort wall climbers, which expands our freedom and our reach into the world.  Doing one kind of difficult thing translates over into doing other kinds of difficult things.  The specifics of the adventure change, but the common thread among them is the willingness to respond to the call by stepping across the threshold into our discomfort zone.

Most things in life worth having are earned while we inhabit that zone.  The cold water gives us a powerful way to increase our willingness to enter and remain in that zone, where most of the inner and outer treasures are found.

Storms, beauty, and novelty

When weather would get extra cold and snowy, I’d become excited to challenge myself in more intense and varied conditions.  

When the first big storm came after I started, I wondered what it would it be like to get in the lake during a storm.  And after a huge snow fall… and during a huge snow fall.

The days that stand out most to me in my memory were these days, which felt kind of sacred.  Not many people ventured out during snow storms, so there was solitude.  And falling snow creates a sense of pristine and wondrous desolation and simplicity.  

There was a day when the wind was howling fiercely and I went in around dusk.  There was a day when my thermometer took the water temperature of the snowflake catching water at 1 degree Celsius.  There was a time when the lake was covered in a 6-inch layer of slush from a big snow dump the day before.  And later there were the many days of swimming and sitting near, under, and in the middle of thick ice that the slush turned into.

The water temperature didn’t change as much as I might have expected.  If the average was 39 Fahenheit, it might drop to 35 or so.  But it was a big emotional difference between going in sunshine compared to going in a snowstorm.

Other days were awe inspiring due to their beauty.  I remember the first day I went out after a snowfall and the wind was flat, making a perfectly pure reflection on the lake.  Sometimes there would be a spectacular sunset that inspired bold equanimity.  Some mornings there’d be a beautiful mist evaporating off the water in the early sunlight.  And other days the powerful sun in a warm and cloudless sky on a calm day would shine brilliantly on thick white quartz-colored ice all around me.

Novelty was another inspiration variable.  Going to a new spot around the lake, I’d notice more alertness and motivation to do something less routine.  When I switched from swimming to sitting, I noticed a new skillset was needed to pay attention to the sensations at a more refined level.  When I swam again, I noticed the challenge of my head getting cold under the water.  One day I swam out to a big rock and climbed on top and then jumped off, and that became my new challenge since it took an uncomfortable amount of time.  I saw the rock again in a snowstorm… could I do it in a snow storm?  Why not?  What if I did a cold plunge in the dark underneath the stars, what would that be like?  What would it be like swimming underneath the ice?

The energy from the excitement from storms, beauty, and novelty would find it’s way into the cold plunge.  I was exploring, not just doing repetitions.  

Warming up and dressing down

On warm and sunny days, it wasn’t too much of a problem to strip down from jackets and snow pants to shorts.  But when the cold wind was blowing dark and sun-blocking clouds, and it was snowing or raining, I noticed that the discipline hurdles started as soon as I set down my backpack.  The elephant was digging in it’s heels and saying “nah, let’s just not today”.  

My logical rider would offer my elephant the reframe that the cold practice began from the moment that I removed the first layer of clothing.  “Feeling the cold air on our skin before the plunge is part of the cold therapy”, it told the elephant.  I would also remind myself that the air always felt warm after getting out of the water, so it was to be expected that it would feel cold after getting out of three coats and a vest.  And I would also reframe the cold air exposure as transition stage “warm up” — (or is it a cool down?) —  to make the journey from warm to cold a bit more gradual.

When I run or walk to the water, I generally have a warm core temperature which makes it easier to get out of winter clothes.  I would usually overdress on purpose, to work up a nice sweat and build up internal heat to get myself from the shoreline to a deep enough spot.  The decisive moment was always removing my clothes.  I can’t think of a single time that I didn’t get in the water after I had already made the effort to get undressed.

Intensity

Something I find pretty unique about cold water immersion is how rapidly it creates an intense and significant change in my mental and emotional state.   The return on investment per minute is unparalleled in my experience.  Just one or two minutes in nearly freezing water can create an increase in alertness, energy, presence, and embodiment that is comparable to an hour or more of running, resistance training, or other exercise.  A disproportionately large amount of life is packed into those 2 minutes, and during the time afterward while feeling energized.

The return to normality initially reminded me of the first time I took a Bikram Yoga class – 90 minutes of yoga in a room with very high heat and humidity.  I remember feeling spent and euphoric for most of the day afterward, and I’m sure I slept well that night.

I can feel tired from enough cold water practice even if I didn’t do much else physical that day.  I think that substantial physiological processes occur during the therapeutic stress of the plunge and the body has significant work to do afterward.

Wim Hof talks about the cardiovascular system getting into shape, and how our capillaries would circle around the earth a couple of times if they were laid end to end.  If blood vessels are anything like muscle tissue, it would take a lot of energy to repair them after we therapeutically stress them.  Who knows what other kinds of body tissues need attending at a cellular level after cold water immersion.  

A lot of metabolic energy in the form of heat is lost after being in freezing water.  After some hard plunges, I’ve stood in warm showers for ten minutes before my body actually stopped shivering.  It must take a lot of chemical processes to convert our cellular energy stores into heat to maintain our homeostatic temperature, and then replenish the stored energy from food we eat for the next time.  I definitely notice an increase in appetite fairly soon after the practice.

Recovery time

I’m not sure, but it does seem to me that it takes more than one 24-hour period to fully recover from a big-effort cold plunge.  Big effort for me has varied from 2 minutes at 35 degrees to 15 minutes at 50 degrees.  Those are not recommended time or temperature goals for anyone, just what my body tolerates.  I’m sure that therapeutic times and temperatures that constitute a big effort vary widely among individuals.

When I take a day off between cold plunges, I think it’s easier to stay in the water longer compared to back to back days.  But I still prefer the daily practice if my schedule and motivation allow it.  I wonder if my soul’s desire for presence and mental stillness generally takes priority over a full physical recovery.  If I have time and desire to go often, I adjust my expectations of how long I’ll stay in and how strong I’ll feel doing it.  If I don’t have time or feel too tired or need the energy for other things, I take days off.

I also think that our rate of recovery from a given physical activity tends to increase the more we do it.  The more running I do (without pushing too far into injury), the faster my legs and joints seem to recover from subsequent runs.  Athletes often change workouts frequently to keep the body from fully adapting.  I also know that anything done too much can cause injury, so I don’t ignore the messages my body is giving me.  I just try to discern between reaching a true physical limit, as opposed to arriving at another discomfort wall that is just intimidating at a psychological level.

Sleep improvement

I noticed early on that hard cold plunges during the day preceded a later reward of sleep that was better than usual.  It sometimes feels comparable to the level of sleep improvement that I might enjoy after a long endurance work out.  I find it remarkable that this can happen with just a couple minutes of exposure.  I’m not an expert on the physiology behind the better sleep, but I would guess that the body has important restorative work to do, replenishing energy and adaptively strengthening tissue.

I think it’s very possible that cold water immersion can improve sleep by reducing insomnia — making it easier to achieve sleep after the activities of the day are finished and we lie down.  

A lot of times insomnia is driven by an active mind that is an unconscious distraction from uneasy feelings in the body.  The mind doesn’t turn off because that means facing and leaning into those unpleasant, restless sensations.  

The cold water teaches us to tolerate a difficult physical state, which teaches us the general ability to be with and surrender to other, more subtle difficult states, including emotional ones.

One technique for dealing with insomnia is to “go toward” the restless body sensations, and remember that they are probably easier to be with than the sensations in cold water.  

When those feelings are leaned into and surrendered to without resistance, they tend to subside, sooner or later.

So I think the combination of a quieter mind that’s more willing to power down and allow attention to move toward the emotional residue of the day, and a body that needs rest for recovery, are two reasons that cold water immersion can really improve sleep.

I have used a Garmin watch that takes some rudimentary sleep data based on my heart rate variability and movement during the night.  While my REM sleep is quite good according to the watch, my deep sleep was definitely lacking, often averaging only 15-20 minutes per night.  I don’t actually know how accurate the watch is in these measurements, but when I’m solidly practicing cold water immersion, I get about double the deep sleep than before, according to my watch.

On top of the data, I’ve noticed that I wake up less often during the night and also wake up earlier without an alarm, and with less grogginess.

Crest experiences

I found cold water plunges at a time when I had been heavily into trail running, which sometimes would lead me to what I might call “peak experiences”.

Abraham Maslow described peak experiences as moments of self-actualization and personal growth, characterized by joy and transcendence — a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves.

Peak experiences may be rare, but I think the level of joy and transcendence we can have lies on a continuum.  More frequently, I had what I might call a “crest” experience — not quite at the peak, but high up and very nice — times of feeling highly present, alive, energized, and alert, without thoughts or emotions pulling me into past and future.  

That was often after jogging steadily for a few hours in the cardio zone 2 range, a moderate intensity endurance training.

Those long runs felt healing and nourishing to my soul.  I would come down from those actual and experiential crests, feeling like I had stepped a foot into Nirvana and was still glowing with a bit of the supernatural energy I absorbed there.  

But hours of jogging is not something I had the time and energy for every day.  

The cold water came along and offered me a way – albeit a difficult one – to have a similarly grounding, “crest experience”, when I didn’t have a ton of time to get out.  

The routine of jogging to and from the lake for the cold plunge took less than an hour and bestowed a level of mental reset and embodiment similar to a long trail run, but in a fraction of the time.

There were periods when I was in the habit of running to my favorite spot to cold plunge first thing in the morning.  On the way there, I’d often feel sluggish, half asleep, uncomfortable, and slow.  Afterward on the way back, I noticed less pain in my legs, a more powerful stride, more mental sharpness, and more energy.  By the time I was home I’d be warm again from the run, but fully awake.  The routine was a great way to wake up and get in a good state for the day.

I think it also helped with faster recovery from running and other exercise, probably reducing inflammation with an ice-pack like effect.  

Physical benefits and hormetic stress

“In the absence of environmental stress, the things that have made our lives easier, have actually made us weaker. But what if we could awaken the dormant physiological processes that have made our ancestors so strong?”

Wim Hof

In this video I’m going to mostly focus on the psychological and spiritual benefits of cold water immersion, because that’s my area of interest and expertise.  But no cold water article would be complete without some mention of the anecdotal and empirically proven physical benefits.

Hormesis is when exposure to low levels of a stressor can actually stimulate beneficial adaptive responses in an organism, leading to improved health and longevity.  In other words, we can actually be deficient in a given stressor by having too little of it.  Too much stress results in damage or toxicity.  There is a therapeutic range of a given stressor that is just right, in between too little and too much.

Physical exercise, for example, is a self-induced stressor that is favorable in the right amounts, but unhealthy if there is too little or too much.  The same is true for exposure to oxygen, sunlight, various vitamins and minerals, and even radiation (small amounts of which have been shown to decrease vulnerability to cancer). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hormesis)

Hormesis refers to the same concept as other terms such as the “region of homeostasis”, “therapeutic range”, and “eustress”.  It is the biological  goldilocks principle, which says that the “just right” amount of a stressor is healthy.

Most of the time people aren’t thinking that they are experiencing a “cold deficiency”, but that appears to be the case, if we observe that cold water exposure in hormetic amounts makes people stronger, which it certainly seems to.

What the “just right” amount of cold water is for each person depends largely on how adapted they are to cold water through practice, as well as the overall condition of their health.  Just like with physical exercise, we vary with regards to our therapeutic range, but for all of us, at any given time, there is some amount below which our health suffers, and some amount above which our health suffers.

Two benefits in particular stood out to me as motivators to get started: improved cardiovascular health and stronger immunity.  

I started the practice in late 2020, when COVID-19 fears were still high, and keeping a strong immune system was a popular topic.  Wim Hof mentions that a byproduct of regular cold water practice is not getting sick.  One chapter of his book is called “a cold shower a day keeps the doctor away”.

I actually did have a 3 year streak of not getting sick with a cold, flu, COVID, or any respiratory or sinus infection, that ended just a few months ago when my girlfriend came back from a trip to Columbia and brought back a microbial guest who visited us both for a while.  Before 2020, I was used to getting some cold or flu once or twice per year.  I did change several other things besides starting a cold water immersion practice though – including moving back to the mountains, running and exercising more, and generally reducing stress.  So I can’t say for sure it was the cold water immersion that made the difference.

But fortunately we have some empirical research now so we don’t have to depend on anecdotes alone.  Even fairly low amounts of cold water exposure – from 1 session to ten days of training – has been shown to increase white blood cell counts, decrease upper respiratory tract infections, prevent symptoms when introduced to endotoxin (a substance that normally causes fever and inflammation), alleviate pain and improve recovery time from injuries.  

I won’t go into depth on the lab research that’s done because I frankly like to get a summary to convince me of the decision to invest the energy into a practice, and then rely on laboratory of my own first-hand experience and the data I feel experientially from my own body.  But I have found it motivating to hear about the unequivocal benefits of cold water immersion from sources like the Huberman Lab podcast or the book The Wim Hof Method.

Exposure to cold water has also been shown to improve circulation and increase blood flow throughout the body.  As Wim points out, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in developed countries, and cold water immersion can do wonders for healing a damaged and out of shape cardiovascular system.  I think of our cardiovascular system as one way that energy flows around the body through the blood.  If the flow is constricted and our hearts have to work overtime, we’ll feel more tired and unhealthy.  Our brains won’t work as well, and that’ll affect our emotions and our moods, which increases stress and hurts our health in a vicious cycle.  All the bodily systems are related.  

This means we can also leverage healthy practices to create a virtuous cycle.  Cold water exposure causes balancing of our hormones and increases in endorphins and dopamine, which causes improvements in mood, energy, and motivation.  Those in turn lead us to engage in healthier, more productive, and wiser actions, which improve our life situations and the way we feel about ourselves and our relationships.  

This reduces stress and anxiety, which further improves the functioning of our body’s crucial “rest and digest” parasympathetic systems that create long term health and prevent chronic disease.  It reduces our autonomic stress reactivity, which is the involuntary increase in functions like heart rate and blood pressure in response to a stressor, and which is usually turned up too high for most of us living in modern society.  

Cold water immersion has been shown to aid in cellular autophagy, the process of replacing old senescent cells with new ones, which gives us more energy as a result of having newer cells with stronger mitochondria.  This improves our cognitive function, alertness, and physical capacities.  

Cold water immersion increases metabolic activity which leads to a healthier metabolic system which underlies good health in general.  It has been tested and used by people with injuries or who are older, for whom it’s difficult to exercise safety, as a way of keeping their bodily systems strong and reducing chronic inflammation.  It’s also been shown to decrease cellular markers of aging.  

Finally, it helps with getting quality sleep, which Matthew Walker calls the “swiss army knife of health”, in his book Why We Sleep that covers the myriad reasons that we need good sleep to be healthy.

Did that list motivate you?  It motivates me when I hear it.  These facts are something that the elephant rider can say to convince the elephant to get in the uncomfortable water.  It doesn’t make the experience itself easy, but it can be a catalyst for taking the plunge.

Witness reactions

Most days that I went out, I didn’t have an audience that I was aware of.  I actually prefer not being watched in real life, so I’d try to find a secluded spot.  But occasionally people would notice and react to what I was doing.

On my first day I got a thumbs up sign and applause from someone watching.  

About a week later a woman said, “that looks beyond refreshing!” and “that must just take your breath away!” and asked questions about the temperature and the feelings it induced, and suggested I watch the movie “My Octopus Teacher”.  

Another woman spontaneously offered to take my photo and text it to me (although I never received that photo…).  

A man who walks his dog often in the same spot talked to me about the practice and watched me do the entire plunge and I stayed in for 5 minutes with the help of his audience.  

On a day with a ton of fresh snow, I heard a “you’re crazy man!” with what I hoped more admiration than judgment.  

On a sunny day a lively group cheered loudly for me when I got into an ice hole.

I’ve found it interesting to ask why people express admiration and interest when they see someone getting in cold water.  We don’t feel inspired when we see people doing painful things that have no benefit, nor do we feel admiration when we see people doing pleasant things that are beneficial but don’t require effort.  But somehow it seems that many people can intuit and recognize a practice of spiritual purification when they see it, even if they haven’t yet tried it.

Do we all have some inherent neurological circuit that has both a fear of — and yearning for — cold water?  It’s been shown that primates have an innate biological fear of snakes and other potentially dangerous animals, and an innate draw to smiles and sweet tasting food.  We’re hard wired to notice faces, bright colors, movement, and novelty, because such stimuli often carry information relevant to our survival.  Why couldn’t we have innate circuitry that recognizes the fusion of danger and health benefits of cold water, creating a captivation of perceived risk and opportunity?  Humans seem to simultaneously recoil from the imagined pain of the experience, and yearn for whatever might be on the other side of it.

Do we have an instinct that certain types of pain may be beneficial to the body or spirit, and somehow know, deep down, what they are?

I didn’t know what would happen if I walked with a heavy backpack over mountains in nature on the Pacific Crest Trail with minimal possessions for 10 hours per day for 60 days straight, but I sensed somehow that there was spiritual treasure there.  And it took hearing about the experiences of others, notably Cheryl Strayed, that gave me the nudge to take some day walks at PCT trailheads, to get a taste of the buffet of nomadic trail walking, which led to an eventual thru hike.  

I hope that the people who saw me do all my public cold plunges — whether they said anything to me or not — felt a little bit inspired to dip their own toes into some uncomfortable water one day.  Or perhaps even to try something else — such as an exercise routine or some challenging project — that they had been avoiding.  I like to think that a few people saw me get into icy and snowy water in bad weather and think, “I’m going finally do ___”, referring to something important but hard, whether they consciously connected that to seeing me do something hard, or not.

I hope that this video can similarly serve as some bit of inspiration to people in that way to try cold water exposure and experience the treasure there.

I’ve questioned whether or not my cold plunges are worth seeing by others.  I know there are many people who routinely do far more uncomfortable and challenging practices than this.  And there are others who will immediately dismiss it as odd or uninteresting.  But I’ve had enough people react strongly in real life and seeing photos or short clips to know that it makes an impact on lots of people.  And I know that I like watching other people strive for excellence and personal growth, or demonstrate some skill that was obviously forged in the furnace of discipline and determination.  When we do anything hard and good for us, it attracts attention and inspires.  Sometimes the practice itself is admired, and sometimes it’s just the results of the practice.  

Maybe that’s another reason that cold water immersion — or any disciplined pursuit — is noble to do and to share.  It heals and strengthens us, making our experience of life better, which makes others’ experience of us better, which in turn makes others’ experience of their lives better, and so on, in a virtuous cycle.

The spirituality of physical challenges

I’ve always been drawn to physical challenges.  I’m no record setter or elite athlete.  I was okay at sports growing up.  But I have always felt a value in physical activity as a means to health and happiness.  From spending all day as a kid rollerblading figure 8’s around an abandoned tennis court, to cross country running in high school when my coach would praise us for leaving our “guts on the course”, to backpacking for months at a time as an adult, the body working has always been a gateway to my spiritual development.  

I say spiritual because exercise teaches me to be in the present moment, and not focused on egoic mental activity.  At a certain point, there’s not that much room for thinking.  There is sensation, the beginnings of fatigue, deeper breaths, becoming winded, settling into a second wind, a steady burn of stored energy, and access to primal functionality of the incredible machine that is the body.

And when all of that is paired with a peaceful, beautiful, and sacred natural environment, like a trail in the forest, there is little need for the past or the future, for personal narratives or worries, at least for a time.  The practice of continuing to stay present through a physical challenge is a practice of being in control of what my body and mind do at any given time.  And I think that ability to make the bodymind a servant rather than a master is a key part of living a happy and healthy life.

Continued in Part 2…

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