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:
Keeping your cold seat
In standard meditation practices, a common instruction is to “keep your seat”. People who say they “can’t meditate” are generally saying that they have a hard time staying with the meditation and not aborting after a few minutes. The urge to stop meditating is common and normal, and that’s where the interesting part is. Why can’t we just sit still and be comfortable?
The answer is generally that our thoughts and emotions are unpleasant, and that this makes our bodies uncomfortable. It’s also the case that our uncomfortable bodies make our thoughts and emotions unpleasant. And I tend to agree with the supposition that this is related to how much we chronically push away our difficult emotional energy through all kinds of business and distraction. So at the moment that we stop all activity and just sit, the suppressed restless energy is there in the foreground rather than following behind us.
With cold water immersion, it’s a lot more clear why we don’t want to just sit there. Our survival brain circuits are telling us to get out to preserve our energy and not get hypothermia, and it uses any convincing emotion or thought needed to get us to comply. But as long as energy and time are sufficiently abundant, there is no survival danger to us if we stay in the cold water for a brief time. And I am sure that the temperature and duration that is safe is particular to each person.
The difference between normal meditation and meditating in cold water feels to me like the difference between lifting a light weight for endurance and lifting a heavy weight that we can only move once or twice before our muscles fail. It’s far more difficult to stay seated, but we only have to do it for a minute or two. And like lifting heavy weights can create muscular and neural strength that makes lifting light weights feel like a piece of cake later, staying in the intensely cold seat for a couple of minutes is a practice that can make the comparatively mild discomfort of a meditation seat feel significantly easier to stay in.
I don’t think one practice is better or more important than the other. With exercise, I try to balance strength and endurance workouts, because I want to have a blend of both, to have a well-rounded physical condition rather than a narrow set of abilities.
I also try to balance the short duration and high intensity of cold water sits with the longer duration and lower intensity of meditation.
And my meditation is often some sort of meditative activity, like walking or working with my hands. To me, the point of these kinds of practices is to marry them with life, which brings both big and small challenges. I think that cold water practice can help us prepare for the more intense feelings of those larger challenges. It also helps us learn how to simply be, which requires an ability to surf some discomfort waves, before stillness sets in and rest takes hold.
Cold water and happiness
How psychotherapy works is complex and mysterious. There might be thousands of books written on what good psychotherapy consists of and how it works, often in ways that contradict each other.
If pressed to simplify psychotherapy into a few core foundations, I’d say that one of them might be that psychotherapy is a process of assisting someone in facing difficult emotional states by providing a context and relationship in which they feel confident that it will be beneficial on the other side of those difficult states.
What does this have to do with cold water immersion?
Cold water immersion is like a steep hill, on the other side of which is a nice downhill ease and lightness. But to get to that downward slope of increased energy and aliveness, we first have to face some pretty intense discomfort and even pain, the colder the water is.
And the discomfort of cold water is not merely physical, but also emotional. Submerging our bare skin in very cold water immediately induces anxiety, which is a survival response to prevent losing too much energy or dying. Evolution presumably favored the survival of those of us who felt some anxiety in response to cold water more than those who had no anxiety about it.
This presents a great opportunity for learning how to tolerate some very hard emotions in a safe and controlled way. According to hypothermia charts, the expected survival time in water that is 40 degrees Fahrenheit is about 30 minutes. I am assuming this is an average time and the number for any given individual could be far higher or lower. A long cold plunge for me is probably about 1/10th of that time in that temperature. Often it’s more like 1/20th of that time. I am cold when I get out, but feel good and quite safe, because I listen to my body, which I would always recommend, along with starting easy and conservatively with both time and temperature. The point for me is to have a challenging and positive experience – not overly stressful. The goal is to heal, not get injured.
I try to stay in long enough to practice facing some difficult physical sensations and emotions, staying with the experience by not immediately getting out. It’s a brief but powerful few minutes. A heavy emotional lift that makes the lighter emotional stresses of every day life easier.
I’m not completely sure if the tolerance of purely physical pain directly transfers over to the tolerance of emotional pain. In my experience, physical pain usually involves some emotional pain as well. For example, if I go running for long enough, I feel some emotional discomfort by the end of it. Knowing when to push through discomfort and when to back off in any domain is a discernment that I think grows from experience, walking the line between too hard and too easy.
I think the skill of finding the “just right” range of stress in one domain, such as cold water immersion, tends to transfer over into other domains.
Therapy is often about wading into uncomfortable emotions, but not too uncomfortable. I might call this “just right” amount of emotional challenge “emotional hormesis” – not too little emotion that we are avoiding and repressing it, but not too much emotion that we are overwhelmed and thrown out of balance.
Therapy is similar to the water in that way, which is why people are often both excited about it and scared of it at the same time. We get uncomfortable on purpose because we know there are mental health benefits, but we don’t go overboard and get emotional hypothermia or hyperthermia.
After a cold water plunge, almost everything else feels easy for a time. That effect passes fairly quickly, but some small remnant of it stays with me. Maybe only 1% of the increase in resilience is there when I wake up the next day, but then another 1% can be built on top of that by continued time in the therapeutic range.
Cold water and emotional regulation
Emotional regulation is the process of managing and modifying our emotional responses in order to adapt to situations. I would say that it has always been a key goal of psychotherapy, and a key skill for a successful life.
Cold water helps us learn emotional regulation because we need to manage and modify our emotional response (anxiety before and during the plunge) in order to adapt to the extreme environment of cold water for longer than our ancient lizard brains want us to.
Two emotional regulation levers
One route to emotional regulation is observing, challenging, and ignoring thoughts that exacerbate the emotions. I sometimes call this cognitive work, or DIY Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Before cold water practice, I’ve noticed dread-fueled thoughts ranging from “this might be dangerous” to “I should save my energy for other things.” These thoughts stem from uncomfortable emotions and also feed back into the body to amplify the emotions, in a thinking/feeling loop.
The thought side of this cognitive-emotional loop can be managed by introducing preferred thoughts. For example, I might choose to willfully think about…
- how present I feel during the plunge and how alive and energized I feel afterward
- the empirically demonstrated health benefits
- Wim Hof’s adage that “a cold plunge a day keeps the doctor away”
- the other times that I’ve gone in the water and it’s felt dangerous but I didn’t even really shiver afterward and that I probably didn’t explore my therapeutic range as much as was possible
I tell myself to focus away from resistance thoughts like “I don’t want to be doing this”, and toward the raw physical sensation of the icy water on my skin, reminding myself that it’s only physical discomfort, not a true lack of safety — that my body is getting stronger from it, and that I can get out any time I want to. I remind myself of how, the more effort I put into the plunge, the greater the reward is on the other side.
The other side of the thinking/feeling loop can be managed by turing our attention toward the physical sensations of the emotions and open to them, accepting them for as long as they last, and trusting that they will pass in their own due time. People sometimes think that turning toward unpleasant emotions will perpetuate them, but in fact it helps dissolve them.
What perpetuates them is turning away from them and indulging negative narratives that attempt to resist reality, minimize, or problem-solve away our feelings. Feeling hard emotions makes them eventually dissipate, while thinking about hard emotions tends to make them continue and sometimes increase. Running away from them with our minds, rather than facing them in our bodies, creates psychological suffering.
I believe that emotions are often messengers that continue to visit us until we receive the message. Our bodies respond to life events in ways that our rational and cerebral intellects don’t understand. Our guts, our hearts, our spines, our brainstems, and our cells undergo processes that are more removed from our fully formed thoughts. It takes time for the meaning of the complex symphony of body sensations to “bubble up” into our awareness as a real and genuine intuition.
As Rumi wrote, “this being human is a guest house(…)be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
But because many of our emotions — like anger, sadness, fear, disgust, hurt, guilt, and shame — are unpleasant, we collectively tend to shut them down — through compulsive, addictive, and numbing behaviors and thought patterns. It only works partially in the short term though.
The cold water provides a powerful opportunity to voluntarily practice choosing to stay with difficult physical sensations. Every second we stay in, we choose turning toward them because we trust it has virtue. While feeling sad, hurt, angry, or afraid are not the same as feeling cold, they all ultimately take place as a challenging and painful physiological experience.
The cold might be experienced as pain on the skin surface, an ache in the hands, or shivering, whereas an emotion might feel like a contraction in the heart area, a throbbing in the head, a lump in the throat, or any other sensation. But I believe that the skill of boldly facing specific tough physical sensations is — to a large extent — generalizable to facing any tough physical sensation.
At the very least we can learn that feeling pain is sometimes useful and necessary in order to learn and to heal. I’m reminded of Wim Hof saying, “if you die each day, then you’ll know what life is about.”
Shifting from thinking to body sensation
It’s fairly difficult to be in very cold water — say, close to freezing — and have that much focus on the mind and thought. A therapist I saw often said, “pain calls awareness”. The pain of the water demands what’s called interoception: awareness of the internal state of our body. A friend of mine who also does cold plunges told me of his experience, “it’s pretty hard to make a shopping list when you’re in cold water.”
Complex and creative thinking is a wonderfully adaptative tool that humans have, but it can be used for good or for ill, and a key skill of a good life is learning how and when to use the tool of thought. Stopping it’s use is as important as learning how to use it. I don’t remember anyone in school ever telling me how to put down my thinking mind. Cold water is a way to learn how to turn off the tool of thought by turning up the levels of physical sensation.
Thinking has momentum to it. Once our minds get going, it can be tough to stop the inertia. Shifting focus from the mind to the body can be like pulling a train off one track and getting it on to another one. I think that most people most of the time are pretty firmly on the thought track, dissociated from their bodies to a large degree. I include my self in this more often than I’d like to admit. This is why we overeat, undereat, don’t move enough, move too much, and indulge in all kinds of addictive behaviors and substances. I believe that we would all immediately refrain from 99% of unhelpful or untimely behaviors if there was perfectly clear communication between our conscious minds and all the signals of our bodies.
Perhaps the most common and insidious addiction is thinking — planning, worry, reflection, rumination, abstraction, perseveration, catastrophizing, strategizing, obsessing, fantasizing, imagining — even healthy thinking is unhealthy in excessive amounts, which seem to be what our collective psyches produce and consume much of the time, which dissociates us from the life and wisdom of our bodies.
Despite the fact that disconnection between our body and our awareness causes a ton of suffering in the long run, we stay on the mental track because we don’t know how to shift over to the embodiment track. When we do shift, it’s uncomfortable in the short term because we’re not used to feeling the unpleasant emotions that have been swept aside and repressed, there waiting to be cleared out when they are finally attended to.
The cold water is like a powerful lift out of the thinking rut that numbs emotions and builds repressed anxiety. Of course, the other rut that the water drops you in is one of intense physical discomfort, but in that rut the mind is far emptier and the body comes alive. Once submerged in the water, I find that it’s easy to surrender to the shift from a busy mind to an empty, more present mind that takes in my natural surroundings and all of the interoceptive — emotional and physiological — signals of my body.
Out of curiosity, I’ve experimented with trying to think about something else besides my body sensations while I’m in the cold water. It’s not easy or fun. My body yells to me that whatever past or future concern I thought was worthy of attention a few minutes ago is definitely not what needs attention now. It’s as if my body negotiates with me, “okay, I’ll sit in this water for a bit if you really want me to, but in return you’d better keep a close eye on me. No dissociative mental trance stuff right now. Make sure I’m safe.”
Once out of the water, the shift tends to last a while. It’s not like I’m suddenly and immediately back to thinking about my to-do lists that were stressing me out a few minutes earlier. It’s kind of like a reboot of a crashed computer.
As I warm up, my mental activity becomes more engaged and online, but the cache and junk files are cleared. I access just what I need from scratch. What’s essential comes more clearly into perspective. I can more easily identify what needs my attention the most, and focus on one task at a time.
My body is in a shifted state now, having been forced with a perceived survival concern, to put aside the quotidian and mundane imaginings and memory lane strolls of my brain’s default mode network. And that state feels good emotionally, at the same time I’m likely still physically uncomfortable, often shivering. A good shiver that lasts for several minutes afterward is a sign to me that I really did the work. If I’m not shivering, I know that I could have done more, but I still consider it a productive achievement that I got in for a while.
Freezing out depressive moods and anxious states
There were some days when I’d feel a lot of stress from something going on in my life, and it almost felt like getting in the cold water that day wasn’t a choice. It was something I knew I needed. A requirement. The greater the stress, often the more urgency I’d feel to do the practice.
I believe that the majority of my stress comes from the way I’m thinking about a situation and not from the situation itself. The tricky thing is that when we’re in the middle of an ordeal, it really does seem like it’s the situation that is the source of suffering. It’s usually on the other side of the suffering that we tend to see more clearly how we were creating suffering through some sort of resistance to what is — to physical or emotional pain of some kind.
How many times do we go to bed worried about a problem, and then feel energized the next morning by some clarity of what needs to be done about it? How many times does a problem simply work itself out if we’re patient and have faith that an answer will reveal itself in time if we stay focused on our experience and observe reality with curiosity for long enough? How many relationships and friendships simply need some attention to either improve or compassionately create needed distance? Our life obstacles are either solvable, in which case we solve them, or they aren’t, in which case we grieve and move on.
We’ve chosen words like “depression” and “anxiety” to describe states we all get in from time to time in which we feel defeated or overwhelmed from either not facing our problems, or staying with them for too long. We get stuck in our thoughts — in the past, and in the future — resisting reality… grasping onto a branch on the bank of the river of life, instead of going with the flow.
The cold water is a mental reset that pulls our attention – the essence of who we are – out of these mental trance states and into our body and the present moment. I think of Eckhart Tolle often saying that there is no problem in the now. He often says this as an answer for how to deal with physical pain or with anxiety. My definition of worry is an excessive and unproductive amount of thinking about the future in an attempt to shield ourselves from pain down the line. Often, deliberate thinking and strategizing isn’t even what’s needed.
The cold water’s central lesson is that when we are present with discomfort, there is no problem. Wonderfully beneficial hormetic stress is being provided to the body to make it stronger. Emotional hormetic stress is there to make the mind and emotional heart more resilient and confident. The pain is there, but the pain is not a problem.
Multiple doses of presence
Sometimes it would take me more than one cold plunge to get me back to a grounded and centered place after a really stressful event. But every single cold plunge I did would substantially shift me into a more clear and peaceful mental and emotional state. The short cold water ritual was a reminder to me that peace is available from within, and did not depend on some change in whatever situation was stressing me out at the time.
It’s a lesson that I think we all need to be reminded of — experientially — again and again. It’s easy to forget that truth when we get swept up in, and attached to, the tasks and goals that we set for ourselves and pursue. And it’s easy to remember when we get in very cold water and all of that stuff immediately flies out the window.
There is just the immediate concern that we’re in an extreme physical situation, which pulls attention to it like a super magnet — away from our troubling life situation — concerns about relationships, career, status, finances, goals, and obstacles — for a few minutes.
It takes us out of the burdensome driver’s seat of our long-term ambitions and gives us the relief of a very cold passenger’s seat in which we can simply be present and observe the icy and serene scenery passing by.
This is a reminder that the passenger’s seat exists. We don’t always have to be white-knuckling the steering wheel, trying to control too many things that we have so little control of. It’s healthy to sometimes move over into observer-passenger mode and trust in the higher intelligence of our unconscious minds and bodies.
The aggravating mental static is dampened to a whisper. The cognitive doom loops are short-circuited. The intense body sensations wash over the inflammatory mental monkey chatter like an icy tsunami crashing over an out-of-control fire. What is left is a mysteriously blissful pool of pain and presence.
All of this familiar wisdom comes rushing back to us each time we brave the cold water.
Discomfort as a gateway to a richer life
One of the most common questions I’m asked by clients is how to deal with very difficult emotions. To me, this one of the most important questions anyone can ask in life. They are asking how to deal with an emotional elephant that is frightened or angry or grief stricken. They are asking how to have inner peace in the face of outer struggle. If the answer to this question is sufficiently learned and mastered, therapy is probably over.
We’ve all noticed that our sense of peace and contentment tends to vary along with our context: whether we’re at work or on vacation, hungry or full, rested or fatigued, looking at a beautiful landscape or an urban eyesore, hearing a sweet sound or an irritating cacophony, feeling loved or feeling unloved, enjoying significance or feeling unimportant. Our emotions respond to our context.
On the other hand, we’ve also noticed that our sense of peace and contentment does not perfectly correlate with our context, and we’ve all felt unhappy or happy in surprising situations that didn’t account for the peace or angst that we felt. We’ve all had the disturbing thought that we “should” feel happier or less happy, given what was going on at the time.
We know that our context affects our emotions, but we also know that it far from determines our emotions, and it’s not exactly easy to comprehend what mediates the extent to which we can have a pleasant inner experience in the midst of an unpleasant context. It’s another thing I don’t remember being taught in all my years in school.
Cold water exposure shows us repeatedly and experientially that we can be in a pretty painful context physically and experience sharp alertness and presence. Part of us wants to get out immediately. That part of us believes that we are victims of our context. Another part of us wants to stay in. That part of us believes that we are in control of our peace, like the deep still ocean that is far below a violent storm on the surface.
We hold that tension between those two parts. Our emotions and bodies say “ouch”, but we don’t react to the aversion to pain and the craving to have relief. It’s a practice of allowing what is, knowing that it’s just temporary unpleasant experience and will end. And more importantly, that there is a deeper part of us that doesn’t even need it to end.
Of course our bodies need the cold to end in order to survive, and in order to love and take care of our body we should not stay in for dangerously long times. But on another, spiritual level that transcends the body, I think that the core of who we are, our pure consciousness, has no preference.
This belief underlies the practice of non-attachment: learning to let what comes come, and let what goes go. It turns out that practicing non-attachment — or reduced preference for a particular context — is a primary key to a rich life. It lets us have a rich life rather than a restricted life.
A restricted life involves fewer kinds of experiences and therefore a more narrow band of emotion — generally those that range from neutral to hedonic pleasure. A rich life involves more kinds of experiences, and therefore goes hand in hand with the full range of emotions, including those on the unpleasant side of the spectrum. They are the price to pay for freedom, strategic risk taking, adventure, and responding to the call of your hero’s journey. They are the price to pay for growth, evolution, and healing. So in order to have a rich and free life, we can consciously practice voluntarily moving into discomfort, as training for the times we will be involuntarily thrust into it, or the times in which we approach a crossroads — with one path involving little pain and little reward, and another path involving more reward and more pain.
I try to convey this option to anyone asking about how to deal with overwhelming emotional states. Stay with it. Don’t turn away with a compulsive behavior or pattern of thinking to escape it. Don’t even swap it out with some other less unpleasant emotion or mental story. Stay with the pure body sensations that are hard to be with, for as long as you can. It’s a bodily state. Your body and heart know how to handle it, they’ve just forgotten how.
These are all things I have to remind myself of over and over again.
Hard emotions pass with time — like the discomfort from cold water — and we become less and less afraid of them each time we allow them in. Difficult emotional energy can run it’s natural course rather than being blocked. Blocking emotions is like blocking the colon – nothing good comes of it. The way to get emotionally unconstipated is to let the emotions flow through us, which feels good when they are nice emotions, and feels painful when they are painful emotions. Either way it’s the tunnel to freedom from a prison cell of suffering.
Peace comes from the cessation of resiting reality, not from feeling pleasant sensations.
How many times have we felt discontented in a pleasant context? I almost always use a timer when I cold plunge, not so much to keep a record, but to set a goal for myself for a certain amount of time I am going to practice “embracing the suck”, in order to teach this body of mine experientially how to surrender to the broadest range of experience, out of a conviction that peace is fundamentally found in surrender, not in pleasantness. Pleasantness only tends to accompany peace because it’s easy to surrender to pleasantness.
Surrendering to painful contexts and painful emotions is a crucial life skill. If we can only surrender in easy contexts, we’ll spend our whole lives seeking out easy contexts, which limits us. Easy contexts are not always feasible.
Our bodies evolved to function best and live longer with some degree of food restriction to allow for important processes that are incompatible with digestion. So if we optimize for easy by always obeying food cravings, we sacrifice health, and then we’re right back at hard again, because it’s hard to be unhealthy.
Our best personal growth and contributions come from challenging, tiring, and sometimes uncomfortable hard work and sacrifice. So if we take the path of least resistance by avoiding hard work, we sacrifice our growth and sense of being useful to others, which are essential human needs. Not having those needs met is pretty hard.
Hard outer and inner contexts aren’t so easy to avoid, it seems.
Voluntary pain is practice for involuntary pain
As we figure out this law of being human over the course of our lives, we get wiser. Instead of asking how to avoid hard things, wisdom guides us to increasingly ask how to have a peaceful experience of hard experiences. Well, cold water is a hard experience. When we voluntarily enter it, we declare to ourselves and to “the universe” that we are seeking peace rather than avoidance of difficulty.
Surrender doesn’t mean that we have to live with pain forever, and it doesn’t mean we should necessarily choose pain when we have a choice. Sometimes we have a choice (when the pain is voluntary) and sometimes we don’t (when the pain is involuntary).
With cold water immersion, we choose pain for a short time, then we choose to leave the pain by getting out and warming up. That applies when the pain is a choice — we stay within our hormetic, therapeutic range.
In this way the cold water practice is easy compared to many other potential situations in life, in which the duration and the degree of pain is not within our immediate or even our eventual control.
I think of surrender as the absence of narratives about how long some involuntary painful situation or experience will last. Surrender is agnostic, not drawing any conclusions about how long we’ll feel pain or when we’ll get relief. Surrender is just a willingness to not seek escape — either because life forces us into a challenging situation that requires surrender, or because we voluntarily choose a challenging path that we believe leads us to some treasure (such as a cold water exposure practice).
In a different way, surrendering to involuntary pain is simpler, since there’s no second part of us that’s choosing to subject ourselves to the pain. An example might be fighting a flu virus with a high fever. We can’t simply step out of the illness when we feel like we’ve found our hormetic, therapeutic range of challenge. It’s not up to our voluntary control, it’s up to the interplay between the microbial invader and our immune system. We only have one job in that case – open to the experience.
With voluntary pain like cold water exposure, I notice I have two simultaneous jobs that feel like they are done with two different parts of myself: one part of me, very much in control, forces myself to get in the water and stay in. And a second part of me lets go of control and opens up to the pain. The second job is the surrender part — I think the more important one — to prepare for both the voluntary and the involuntary challenges of life. Any voluntary discipline practice — such as exercise, fasting, meditation, or committing to a project — is a paradoxical practice of control and surrender. We use control to create a container of discomfort, and then we surrender within that container.
Emotional trauma ice packs
Choosing to get in cold water is a metaphor for choosing to lean into emotional pain, because it is literally a choice to lean into physical pain. But it’s not a given that surrender to a tough situation always goes hand in hand with surrender to the tough feelings that naturally accompany a tough situation.
One way of looking at trauma is that it is getting stuck in the protective habit of resisting feelings that are natural to feel from tough situations. The resistance may have been necessary during traumatic events, similarly to how inflammation is necessary for some time after a physical injury. But chronic inflammation is a problem, as is chronic emotional resistance.
Metaphorically, emotional resistance would be like never going into the cold water. The cold water could represent the scary and painful emotional energy that wants to be felt and released by diving into it.
On a literal level, it is possible to go into the cold water or any other hard situation and be emotionally shut down, clenched up, and zoned out, just like it’s possible to go to the gym and resist every minute of what could otherwise be a healthy and cathartic work out.
It’s possible to emotionally resist just about any activity or event in life. But the fact that cold water immersion is not typically dangerous if done safely — at the right temperature and for the right duration for a given person — and the fact that we are in control of how long it lasts by getting in and getting out, I think can make it a good candidate for building resilience, which is what is lost when trauma occurs.
Trauma results in a sort of emotional cyst that gets energetically trapped inside the body for self-protection from the pain of it being opened up and surgically cleaned out. But stress kept inside manifests as edginess, dissociation, avoidance, negative thoughts, poor focus, and the many other potential trauma symptoms.
In general I believe that most mental illness symptoms stem from resisting difficult feelings that would be natural to feel as a result of various hardships.
Voluntary exposure to cold water can be a do-it-yourself method of systematic exposure therapy and response prevention (known as ERP). The exposure is to the cold and emotional stress that results from it, and the response that is prevented is resistance — also known as shutting down or closing off the emotional heart. We can prevent the resistance response in the cold water by taking deep breaths, remembering that we are safe despite the discomfort, and practicing relaxation — yes, I said relaxation in cold water.
This is exactly what I think we need to do in the midst of our emotional pain like grief, sadness, anger, and even fear — relax into it. Surrender into it.
The result could be a form of posttraumatic growth. The growth is the ability to open up to all of life. To go with the cold flow. To be with what is. To be present in a much broader range of possible experiences, not just the easy ones. Without the trauma, we likely would not have embarked on the healing journey, which ironically leaves us stronger at the end of it.
In my experience, the cold water naturally elicits a surrender response, as long as I don’t overdo and stay in control of my body’s needs and ability to stop the practice when I’m ready. But I do think there have been times when I’ve been more emotionally open to it than other times, and I try to remember that it’s not just a ritual of getting my body cold — it’s a practice of opening my heart as well.
Polar bear training
Around February of 2022, someone sent me a flier for a local “polar bear swim” — 250 yards in approximately 39 degree water. I had one week to prepare.
Based on my swimming pace, I estimated that I’d be in the water for about 5 minutes. I felt disconcerted when I’d find myself stopping after 50 yards, about 1 minute. I was used to sitting still with my head above water for 2 or 3 minutes. But when I swam with my head under water, my head would get a painful “brain freeze” that compelled me to come up and stop. The combination of the sub 40 degree water and the swimming exertion would wind me in one minute as if I was sprinting all out for 400 meters around a track.
This week of practicing for the polar bear swim convinced me that swimming was much harder than sitting still in the water.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do the swim. I was pretty sure that the event would just stretch me to “rise to the occasion”, but there was doubt. I also found out that the even would have many lifeguards and the coast guard watching, but the water level was well over my head. I imagined the danger and embarrassment of needing to be rescued. I watched myself vacillate between “I will try it” and “nah, too risky” many times, after each training attempt on the shore.
In the end, I wound up choosing to do the event at the last minute, and it was a fun confidence boost in hindsight. The energy of the big crowd and the group of about 20 other swimmers helped me tap into some kind of adrenaline-fueled excitement and determination so that the 250 yards and 5 minutes in the 40 degree water went by quickly. I remember feeling strong and well getting out. It took quite a while to warm up afterward, but it didn’t feel dangerous.
Being socially encouraged past my individual comfort zone like that also showed me that I was capable of longer cold water immersions than I thought I was.
Transferring cold tolerance to emotion tolerance
It’s counterintuitive to turn toward difficult emotions. The reason we aren’t taught this much by family or society probably has a lot to do with collective trauma. It also strikes me as spiritual and existential. When mystical and religious experts are asked why there is pain and suffering and death and injustice, if God, or the Universe, or the higher power out there, is benevolent and cares about us, we are told that “God’s ways are not our ways”, or some other form of “that’s just the way it is”. One teacher I know called it the “dance” that universal consciousness plays with itself, to “forget” our true nature and then remember through the pain and loss of the material world.
I’m not saying I have a better answer. To me it’s a giant mystery why – at an absolute, spiritual level – that there is pain and that we can’t avoid that pain, and that in many ways going toward the pain is how we find peace, and turning away from pain is how we suffer, which makes the pain find us anyways. It seems that life is an oscillation of pain and absence of pain, and that voluntarily going toward the pain is the difference between a life of peace and one of fear.
It’s been my experience that practicing turning toward one type of pain can be used as a template for turning toward other types of pain. Maybe that’s why physical challenges can build character, which is what we call it when someone doesn’t run away easily from difficult situations due to the challenging emotions involved.
But it’s also not totally obvious how to bridge the two different skills of turning toward physical pain and turning toward a tough emotion. They are connected at the level of raw physical sensation.
It’s common practice for a therapist to ask a client questions like…
- “What does this emotion feel like in your body?”
- “Where in the body does it feel uncomfortable?”
- “How would you describe the sensation?”
This key intervention is guiding a client to turn toward emotional pain, rather than turning away from it by dissociating, repressing, analyzing, or some other defense.
When we’re not used to opening up to uncomfortable physical sensations, this can feel like the wrong move and provoke a lot of anxiety. That’s where I think the cold water practice can come in. Someone who is used to intentionally sitting with the physical pain of the cold can simply face emotions in the same way, saying, “this is just like when I wasn’t used to the water and it scared me”, or “this is just another painful sadness plunge or anger plunge or fear plunge.” Each emotion is unique to the person in how it shows up in the body, but the foundation of courageously venturing into pain is the same.
Just like the cold plunge lasts a short time and then passes (when we get out), strong emotions tend to have fairly short lifespans when we fully open to them.
Why we hesitate to be uncomfortable
Here’s a question…if doing hard things is so good for us and leads to a better life, then why aren’t we all doing them all the time?
I can think of at least two answers.
The common sense answer is that we need time to recover from hard things. People can be in real danger in cold water for too long. We can exercise too much and cause injuries. We can put ourselves into all kinds of physical, relational, or emotional situations that are outside of our therapeutic range.
The more interesting and less considered reason is that we simply don’t believe in our bodies and hearts that the hard thing is good for us. We might hear about some research that says the cold water is good for physical and mental health, but that understanding will stay very compartmentalized in our intellectual minds until we experience it for ourselves first hand.
I heard about cold water many times before I finally got into an alpine lake in December with the intention of discovering the benefits for myself. The cognitive understanding is an important first step to “taking the path of most resistance”, as David Goggins calls it. The book The Wim Hof Method was the final cognitive push that I needed.
I hope that this video can transmit some inspiration and experiential learning to others, not just cognitive understanding.
Exploring uncharted waters
As kids, we learn about what’s good for us and whats bad for us through the modeling of our parents, other family members, and members of other families (also known as our society) that we observe and interact with. If the grown ups around us eat meat with every meal, we become little carnivores. If our parents are vegetarian hippies, we’ll likely — at least for some time — listen to classic rock and eat a plant-based diet. We just learn, “I guess this is what I should eat” because little humans are neurologically destined to assimilate into whatever culture they’re raised in.
Athletic or sedentary, technology-obsessed or luddite, passive or outspoken, we absorb the habits and beliefs of our “tribe” like good little sponges. This is how we survive in whatever epoch and region that fate plops us into along the space-time continuum. If born in ancient Sparta, you’re probably best off absorbing the Spartan culture.
This allows human societies to be incredibly adaptable by changing in just a few generations, to an unprecedented degree in the animal kingdom. Biologically installed hypnosis of youth is conducive to a society dealing with fast changes in geography, climate, and technological breakthroughs.
To the extent that our inherited beliefs and habits are good for us in the long term, our propensity to be easily programmed also blesses us individually with preparation for a healthy and satisfying life.
The downside for individuals is that, to the degree that we’re programmed with suboptimal habits and beliefs, we tend to myopically retain them and eventually suffer physical and mental problems as a result.
As Aristotle said, “give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.”
It takes significant energy and attention to reprogram ourselves with improved habits and beliefs. This is another way of seeing the arduous and worthwhile road of psychotherapy and psychological healing more generally.
Part of the plight of modernized humans is that we have nearly limitless access to pleasure and comfort, and aren’t forced to maintain our bodies or our minds through daily modern work and life. We aren’t physically challenged in healthy ways by our livelihoods. We are offered virtually endless, inexpensive, and addictive methods of escapism. Eating cheetos while watching TikTok in an Uber might be easy and save energy, but it makes us mentally and physically weak, which eventually leads to stress. We live in such an energy and stimulation abundant world that we are at high risk of poor mental and physical health, which biologically requires moderation and periods of austerity.
We are lucky to the extent that our models teach us the wisdom to refrain from excessive hedonism, either due to their own healthy programming as kids or their own hard-won personal work to break the intergenerational cycle of mental and physical atrophy in our brave new world.
To whatever degree we were programmed to seek comfort or to seek healthy discomfort, our programming will feel emotionally correct, whether it leads to strength, confidence, and ability, or to weakness, anxiety, and limitations.
Until we find and then practice new habits and beliefs — usually in adulthood but sometimes in adolescence — we will have trouble linking the painful effects of poor health and low self-esteem to the dysfunctional and unadaptive habits that can be behavioral, cognitive, and emotional. We’ll just assume that our problems are unavoidable facts of life.
We’re like a bird or insect trying to escape by flying into a window again and again, totally unaware of why our head hurts afterward. We don’t experientially know of an existence in which we feel better from better thoughts and actions.