You are currently viewing Cold water immersion in nature: a therapist’s experience and reflections (Part 3)

Cold water immersion in nature: a therapist’s experience and reflections (Part 3)

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:

The River

Eventually I wound up moving, so my access to the lake became a rare occurrence.  But there was a river nearby where I went.  It took longer to get to, so I went less often, but it became my new practice spot.  

In the fall, the flow was so low that I had to lie down totally flat on rocks and would stand up with silt and debris on my skin.  Not super motivating.  But as winter arrived, the level rose to where there were spots where I could sit or mostly stand, and be up to my neck.  And the water temperature fell into the 30s.

The current

The river water moved fast around my body, and that showed me how much of a difference that makes.  In very still water, I think that the water around the body gets a few degrees less cold as heat from the body is pulled out, and a dynamic sheath of less cold water is maintained by that heat.  Even with slow moving water I think body heat dissipates more slowly.  But with a fast flowing river it feels like maximum heat transfer out of the body with fresh cold water touching the skin the whole time.

At first, staying in for even one minute was very challenging.  I was also out of practice since the previous winter.  I noticed the pain largely on my skin rather than deeper at my core.  I’d feel like I was in excruciating frozen hell and find myself getting out after 45 seconds, but not even shiver much afterward, which told me that the cold didn’t reach my core.

Temperature and water speed seem to be the two variables that most affect whether the cold will be a fierce superficial surface pain or a slowly penetrating, deeper core cold.  The river only had one setting: very cold and very fast.

To assist me in staying in long enough to get the cold to go deeper, I bought some thin wet suit gloves and boots for my hands and feet.  It was mostly sharp pain in my extremities — feet, forearms, hands, and fingers — that would cause me to eject the practice prematurely, before my core had reaped the full benefit of the cold.  The boots also helped with walking over slippery and jagged roots and rocks on the shore and on the bottom of the river.  Part of me felt like I was cheating, but I ignored that voice because I was also able to immediately increase my typical time in the river from 1 to 2 minutes, getting out with a feeling that, overall, my body had benefited a lot more, and that the largest parts of my body, like my torso and thighs, had been more deeply challenged and exposed to the cold, since my fingers and feet were no longer the weak links that prevented deeper and more full body cold exposure.  I saw using the gloves and boots as analogous to doing full body exercises with weights rather than single muscle exercises.  By shielding my hands and feet, they helped me target the bigger, main parts of my body for longer, rather than the smaller parts.

Thought habits

Habits of thought are like behavioral habits — they can be paths of least resistance that lead to stagnation and stress, and they can be difficult paths that lead us to success and health.  We also largely absorb them from our tribe as fledgling citizens.  

It’s easy in the short run to think distorted thoughts — to simplify reality into black-and-white categories so that we can feel false certainty, to zone out into the default monkey mind to escape from our bodily emotions, to indulge in self-serving biases that avoid responsibility, and to create simplistic drama triangles to feel self-righteous and cling to comforting beliefs.

The essence of any spiritual path is to fight against these natural evolutionary tendencies, to transcend our primate and lizard brains that are narrowly concerned with our survival and gene propagation through pleasure attainment and competition.

But changing our thought patterns from the primitive to the transcendent is hard work.  It’s the goal behind meditation, prayer, contemplation, generosity, and discipline.  We try to feed the good wolf and starve the bad wolf in our mind who are fighting it out.  

When Luke asked Yoga if the dark side of the force was stronger than the light side, Yoda said, “no no no… quicker, easier, more seductive it is.”  The dark side of the force is a metaphor for dark thoughts in our minds and feelings in our hearts.  They are the thoughts of depression, anxiety, and hate of self and others.  As Yoda also said, “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”  These thoughts and feelings are often easier in the short term because they were installed in us by evolution to survive in hard times, and sometimes we are born into contexts in which we are programmed by heavy doses of dark energy.

Dark thoughts are indeed seductive, perhaps because they give us a temporary boost of energy, as in the case of anger, or they give us the illusion of safety, as in the case of fear.  The light side is within all of us but it often takes effort and discipline to access.  In this way it is like the cold water.  It takes holding on to the continuous choice to stay in the discomfort for another few seconds… and another few seconds… and another few seconds… just like it takes conscious control to keep our minds engaged in healthy patterns of thought and belief that create positive relationships with ourselves, with life, and with others.

That is, in my view, the main reason that we all continue to make suboptimal choices.  We may try new things that we didn’t learn in our upbringings if those things are easy, the same way that water flows downhill naturally.  But we tend not to flow uphill until we learn through enough pain that some of our programmed habits and beliefs don’t lead us to where we want to go.  In order to invest the energy and face the discomfort to climb behavior and belief walls, we need some inspiration from others who have been on the other side of them and can at least tell us as best as they can what is was like on the other side.

Cold exorcisms

A long ago, the predominant theory on mental illness was that it was the result of demonic possession.  Seductive and dark thoughts and feelings can indeed feel like an evil spirit.  Eckhart Tolle calls them “the pain body”, and teaches that the pain body is not who we are, but energy that stays dormant in our bodies until a catalyzing situation causes it to become activated.  

In my experience, the emotional pain body does not thrive in very cold water.  And I don’t think that it is entirely pushed back under the surface either.  I think that there’s a partial exorcism of the pain body every time I go in the water.  A little bit of permanent healing.  

My best theory about this is that the physical pain from the water calls our awareness to the body, which is not only where the cold water effects are, but also where the emotional energy is.  The awareness that rushes in to attend to the body with love gives us a sort of two-for-one benefit: it activates all the miraculous mechanisms of cold adaptation that strengthen our body through the magic of hormesis, and it also cleanses much of the active and awake dark energy that we might be feeling.  For that reason, I might be even more inclined to do a cold plunge if I’m feeling some painful emotion — especially fear or anger — but possibly sadness as well.  Not as a main way for dealing with feelings, but as an option for an exorcism of dark moods and emotions that might be especially tenacious.

A partner in cold

To my delight, my girlfriend started showing some interest in doing cold plunges with me.  

It was fun to share it with her, and to remember my own progression of easing into the practice.  I think her first time in, she dunked her head under and was out right away.  Maybe she did this a couple times, and built up the courage to stay in for 15 seconds.  Then eventually 30, and then a minute, when the sun would lend her some encouraging warmth.  

Sometimes her dog Yeti would watch me intently, or come and check in from time to time while he made the rounds on his scent survey of the area.  I wondered what he was thinking.  In other times of year, he’s the one in the water, but when it’s this cold he only goes in for a really good reason, like a particularly great stick.


Sometimes we would stick to our routine of going to the closest spot that was the most convenient to do the practice, and other times we’d venture out to a new and exciting area.  Sometimes it was primarily for the purpose of cold plunging, and sometimes it was a magical spot we happened upon unexpectedly.  

I remembered the novelty effect of storms and beauty at the lake.  There is something about wandering to a new area and seeing a gloriously cold and pristine oasis, that just makes you think, “man I really want to get in that…”  

Well, maybe that’s just me.  If you are a cold water immersion practitioner, I’m betting you know what I’m talking about.  

Cold showers vs cold water immersion

I loved the river, but it wasn’t as convenient as the lake to get to, nor as beautiful to me.  I missed the endlessly varying cloudscapes and sunsets on the open horizon of the lake, the space to swim around, the rocks to climb on and jump from, the birds who shared the space with me.  

I also didn’t always feel that I had the time for the daily routine of packing and walking to the river and back.

I started experimenting with cold showers, to see if I could substitute them for the daily river trips and still feel a comparable benefit.

After a few weeks of experimentation, I’ve found that, while I do think that cold showers are beneficial, they don’t compare much to total immersion in cold water.

There are already a lot of variables to adjust with cold water immersion, including time immersed, the water temperature, and the amount of movement of the water.  Showers introduce yet more variables, including the amount of water that comes from the nozzle, and where and how much contact with the body it makes.  

I found that I’d have to continue to spin around in circles to get all sides of me, and even the coldest water didn’t easily reach my core, but mostly created pain on my skin’s surface, which felt less beneficial than a deep penetrating cold.  Standing and spinning in a shower is a very different experience from sitting still submerged, which I find far more meditative.  I see my cold water practice as an intense meditation practice, but it’s harder to surrender to sensation or to place my attention on the experience of being aware when I’m focused on maximizing the amount of surface area that the water hits in a shower.

I’m not sure that cold showers are really easier than immersion.  The pain of immersion is largely psychological and also generally diminishes after a few minutes and numbness sets in – a numbness that I’ve not been able to reach in the shower.  Cold water from a shower head is intermittent enough to maintain a pretty continuous, painful feeling for as long as any masochist’s heart could desire, while not pushing oneself past the pain-numbness barrier where the cold can do it’s magic at a bone-deep level.

That is just my experience, and if cold showers were my only option, I would definitely do them.  In fact I do often make part of my showers cold just because a little bit feels good to me.  And I can see an argument that the more enduring pain of long-enough showers could also be channeled into a deep spiritual practice of discipline by honing the ability to hold attention there without finding as much relief from numbness.

But for me immersion is what calls me and feels like it provides the greatest benefit.  I remember a day that convinced me of this, when I went to the river after a couple weeks of doing showers, and after three minutes in the glorious and cold flowing water under the sun, I immediately felt like a new man.  My energy, focus, clarity, and inner peace spiked almost instantly, and I knew that the hour it took me to get to and from the river was worth every second.  That moment planted the seed to find the next step in bringing the cold water practice even closer into my life.

Braving storms together

I remember the day when my girlfriend became excited for the first time about going to the river during a moderate storm.  Watching her, I could vicariously re-live the thrill of the extra challenge, the test of courage, and the connection to a wilder side of nature.

One day, after several weeks of a 70-year record-breaking snowfall, we tried a plunge in which the slush on the river was about a foot deep, thick enough to crawl on top of it and not fall through.

Before we got in she told me I was a bad influence on her for inspiring her to do such crazy things.  I was very proud of her.

I remember feeling strong during this plunge, and feeling especially energized afterward.  The water was just a little colder than usual, but the emotions were far larger.

Whenever we break through a barrier, there’s a surge of energy and excitement.  I had only been in a similar amount of slush once, on the lake, and it wasn’t snowing then.  Beyond the border of intimidation, is a sense of triumph.  That pride fades quickly, but the memory of overcoming a fear remains.  Decisions to face our fears can solidify our self-image as a person who doesn’t let fear hold them back.

Walls vs minutes

An idea I heard on the Huberman Lab podcast was measuring the plunge in terms of “walls” rather than minutes.  I knew intuitively what he meant by “walls”.  

I still time just about every plunge I do, so I observe both minutes and walls.  

I think of four basic walls that tend to follow each other in my experience: initial shock, pain, numbness, and sometimes warmth or pleasure.

The height of the walls depends on the temperature of the water.  In 35 degrees, the shock is intense and I might never get past the pain wall, especially if I’m farther from home and being cautious.  In 55 degrees, the shock wall is mild or non-existent and I can more easily get to numbness and pleasure.

I’m not sure, but I think that feeling warm in cold water can be a sign of early stage hypothermia.  According to hypothermia charts, exhaustion in 50 to 60 degree water takes between 1 and 2 hours.  But it seems obvious to me that the ranges are going to vary wildly from person to person.  Wim Hof, well over 60 years old now, somehow does ice baths for an hour, a duration that the typical hypothermia chart would probably say is life threatening.  I don’t rely on charts to decide how much time to stay in, I just take them into account.  I have done hundreds of cold plunges at a wide variety of temperatures, so I know what works for my body, and I don’t believe that I’m in any danger from the durations I do, since I’ve done them many times and feel great afterward.  I always try to be cautious by gradually feeling my way past “walls” in the various temperature ranges, so I know pretty well from experience what is safe for me.

There is also the wall between what we think we can do and what we actually can do.  Our minds generally lie to us about what we are capable of because it is optimized to save energy unless a situation makes it imperative.  In our environment of evolutionary adaptation(EEA), we were required to go beyond our perceived physical and mental limits far more often in order to survive, as we dealt with the harsh and unexpected surprises of nature, such as extreme weather and scarcity, without the aid of technology and advanced civilization.  We evolved a mental “governor” (to borrow David Goggins’ metaphor) which helps us conserve energy by making a 50% effort feel like 100% most of the time.  I’ve experienced this first hand many times with cold water, getting out after one minute of agony only to find that I barely shivered afterward.  

We also evolved the ability to shut off the governor to some extent when required to meet unusual challenges.  I felt this when I finished the polar bear swim in 5 minutes, which was about 4 minutes longer than I could stay in during my regular solo practices.

Our modern life doesn’t often require this of us, and in many ways that is good – it’s certainly safer.  But many of us are finding that life is more adventurous and vibrant when we voluntarily do something that disengages that governor at least a little bit, and open up the throttle of our effort to an uncomfortable level that is totally optional in modern life.  Rather than injuring us as modern medicine might caution as a near guarantee, going past mental walls can often unlock our antifragility and expand our beliefs about what we can do.

It’s also possible to be unsafe in the art of wall breaking, if we shut down the wisdom of our body and act from ego.  The elephant rider shouldn’t sedate the elephant and ignore its legitimate warnings.  

It seems evident to me that having an easy and ready exit from the water is important, so that when the body decides “that’s enough”, it can immediately act on that decision.  So practicing in a body of water that is far from shore or difficult to get out of seems unwise.

I’m also not too well informed on risks that cold water immersion could pose to someone who has serious existing health issues.  In Wim Hof’s book, there are some contraindications for cold water practice.  For example he advises against practicing by people with certain heart conditions, epilepsy, and pregnant women.  

I remember David Blaine sharing about how his 44-day fast in a glass box in the sky permanently damaged his body.  He has an unbelievable iron will, but he broke through so many walls that he hurt himself.  The longest I have fasted is 3 days.  I’m not the kind of person who breaks myself while breaking walls, and I don’t recommend that.  I sometimes try to find the next wall when I’m feeling strong and see what’s on the other side of it.  For me this comes down to noticing when I feel a strong urge to quit, and stay with it just a little while longer, to feel what’s on the other side of that wall.

The trough

I soon found myself eyeing a product on the ACE Hardware website that I never would have guessed I’d wind up purchasing: a 100-gallon livestock trough.

I also ran across some more expensive options, including multi-thousand dollar tanks that involved electric refrigeration and chlorination, and a $1000 simple plastic barrel that had no refrigeration, just a fancy cover and the words “ice barrel” molded on the side.  But the trough I bough was $110 dollars plus tax and seemed easier to get into and more conducive to a natural laid back position.  I was confident in the purchase because most of the numerous product reviews weren’t related to quenching the thirst of animals, and said things like “perfect for cold plunging!” or something to that effect.  

It took about a week to arrive at the local store for pickup.  I’ve never been so excited about a large hunk of plastic before, and found myself tracking the delivery several times.

When we brought it home, I filled it with cold water and then felt a little less excited.  But the first day, I was able to do about 10 minutes of cold water exposure over 4 sets, in less than the time it’d take me to trek in snowshoes to the river for a 2 minute sit.

Cold start

It’s been really great to have the trough available to get in first thing in the morning.  I remember hearing Andrew Huberman sharing research evidence that cold water immersion creates a significant boost in dopamine that lasts for several hours afterward, having the effect of increased motivation and energy to pursue goals.  There was a good month and a half when I was using it almost every day, usually right after I woke up and then again sometime later in the day.

Each time, I notice my body’s mixed emotions of it: the dread of the pain and also the desire for the boost in energy and presence that it knows will follow from so many times going over the hurdle.  And while I don’t know how to measure my dopamine levels, I do notice a state change that’s consistent with a dopamine increase: more motivated, focused, and peaceful.  I’m not always 100% awake immediately afterward, but far more awake than before the immersion.  It feels like a really healthy way to start the day or do early on in the day after some initial work.  

Psychological safety shower

I’ve found myself pushing through far longer sits in the trough than I have before, which has made it a big boost for my practice.  One reason for that is having the house and warm shower available if I need it.  When I practiced farther from home, like at the river, I’d face the prospect of dealing with numb fingers and a body that struggled to warm up for a long time on the way back, even with warm fur mittens and many layers of coats.  There were times that those walks back in winter storms felt a little too far out of my therapeutic range, so I’d find myself holding back during plunges to make the trek back more hospitable.  But with hot air and water just 20 feet away from the trough, I can put my all into the immersion itself, because I have a relief valve to turn in the warm shower.

Warming up naturally

I believe that Wim Hof has said that there’s a benefit to warming up naturally rather than with a shower or sauna.  I also saw him go into a sauna after doing one of his impressive hour-long ice baths to celebrate his 60-something birthday.  I think that if the promise of a hot shower or sauna afterward can facilitate a stronger than usual effort in the water, then it’s not a bad thing.  Other times when I’m giving a more average effort, I’ll let my body warm up on it’s own, to “let my body work”, as Wim suggests.

Warming up without a shower does feel like an attenuating extension of the practice.  Fully warming up without hot water or exercise can take up to an hour or two for me after a long cold sit, although I’m usually pretty comfortable after 10 or 20 minutes.  The time depends on how warm the air is, and the sun being out makes a big difference.

Warming up with exercise

I’d often run after going into the lake, but it’s not always feasible to run in the winter with deep snowfall that requires snowshoes.  Sometimes I do a combination of high repetition resistance training and calisthenics to warm up after a plunge, which is challenging but feels great afterward.  It’s pretty hard to beat the mood lift from a combination of cold water immersion and endurance exercise — which can also double as a breath practice — outside in the sunshine.

I’ve even used Wim Hof’s breath practice video to mark the beginning and end of workout sets.  During the 30 fast and deep breaths, which lasts about 90 seconds, I’ll do an exercise such as push ups or squat jumps, breathing in time with the recording.  During the breath hold part I breathe freely to recover, and just stretch or hold an isometric position.  I’m sure Wim wouldn’t mind that I’m using his recording this way, which helps me remember that every endurance workout can also be a spiritual breath practice!

Cold plunge sets

Another practice I’ve been experimenting with is alternating short cold plunges with a circuit of exercise.  An example might be something like a one-minute cold plunge, a set of pushups, a set of squat jumps, a set of pull ups, a set of lunge jumps, a hand stand, and then repeat that 3 or 4 times or as long as feels beneficial.  Sometimes it feels good to do all the cold water immersion up front and then all of the exercise, and sometimes alternating feels good.  I imagine that switching it up keeps it interesting and challenging for the body.

Mental resets

Having the trough right outside also makes it convenient for doing cold plunges more than once in the day, if that feels needed.  The whole process only takes about 10 minutes more than the length of the plunge itself, and as long as a bit of shivering and feeling cold isn’t an obstacle to whatever I’m working on, it’s a small amount of time to sacrifice for how much of a quick mental reboot it provides.

I do think that doing cold plunges multiple times in the day can be physically tiring however, perhaps like doing multiple exercise sessions.  There’s an initial boost of energy and alertness after a plunge, but I might find myself needing to go to bed earlier that night and generally need more rest.

I tend to think of the increase in tiredness as a price to pay for the physical, emotional and spiritual well being that the practice brings.  Similar to how we accept tiredness as a concession for any other pursuit that makes us healthier or serves some higher purpose.

Strength in numbers (group cold plunges)

A friend of mine had been showing interest in cold plunging for a while after hearing about it from me.  He wanted me to guide him through it.  We met at a river that was full and fast moving in the springtime, that I measured at about 48 degrees Fahrenheit.  I thought back to my first day, swimming around for 80 seconds in two back to back sessions.  I figured that my friend would stay in the water for perhaps a minute or so.  I knew I could do five minutes in this temperature from all the recent practicing in the trough.  So I wasn’t expecting to be pushed that hard.

I totally underestimated him.  And maybe I underestimated the power of group cold plunging.  At about the 3-minute mark I started to get impressed.

“Nice job man!” I said.

We kept going.  5 minutes rolled around and I was starting to shiver. I said I was going to go for 7 and he said, “okay me too”.  We were both happy to get out then.  After a half hour of push ups and stretching in the sun, we were warm again, but relaxed and clear-headed.  He later told me that he thought that he’d have stayed in much less time had I not been there to assure him, with my continued submersion by choice, that everything was “normal”, including the phases of shock, pain, shivering, and discomfort.  

Is my friend just a tougher man, doing a 7 minute plunge in a 48-degree river for his first time?  Maybe.  But I also think there was some strength in numbers solidarity happening that helped both of us go farther together.

Further evidence for this came an hour or so later when two other friends showed up.  The four of us got in and after a couple of minutes, one of them (recovering from a cold, got out).  The friend who who’d been in already and I were good with just a few minutes.  But the other new guy kept going, so I figured, what the heck, I’ll stay in with him.  After a few minutes, both other friends were back, and all four of us stayed in about 8 minutes this time.  The one with the cold later said he felt that the plunge super-charged his immune system and helped him finish off the virus.  

And after warming up, some of us went back in and I stayed in for 10 minutes that time, totally 25 minutes for the day.  Normally 10 minutes in still water in 48 degrees is a challenge for me, but this was moving water, after two other longer plunges.

I think that last plunge was another rise of the new bar that was set by the four of us challenging each other and combining our strength and confidence.

Going through challenges in a group is generally easier than alone, if the group consists of people who we trust.  If we don’t trust them then it might be easier alone.  

There’s another parallel with therapy here.  A trusted therapist is that person who has been through the hard thing and who we can look at like my friend looked at me in the water and think, “okay, this person isn’t worried, so it must be okay”.  Only instead of wading into and staying in cold water, we wade into and stay in difficult emotions.  We can go into colder water and stay in it longer with social support, if that person isn’t deterred or scared or making it worse by fearfully saying, “hey maybe we should get out of here!  This could be dangerous!  I don’t like this!”  Similarly we can go into darker emotional shadows and remain there longer if person who’s there with us is confident rather than scared.  

In group therapy, or any interpersonal group that’s focused on self-awareness and healing, there are multiple people — not just a single therapist or guide — who are resolved to go to difficult psychological and emotional places, because they believe that is where the gold is found.

Temperature control

The 90 or so gallons in the trough is a small enough amount of water that my body will actually change the temperature of it after a few minutes.  I’ve sat for 20 minutes and measured the temperature increase from 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit during that time.  There is something about knowing how much heat is being transferred to the water that gives me a sense of accomplishment and awe for my body.  I can warm up 90 gallons by five degrees and still feel fine afterward.  The thermometer reading difference is measurable and visible evidence of what an alive and amazing machine the body is.  It is continuously transforming molecular structures in ways that store and release heat and energy to deal with a changing environment.  I warm up the water with my body and then go eat some food, and that food gets changed into energy to do it all over again.  And the body benefits from this process.

I didn’t really have much say over the temperature of the lake or the river.  

With a contained vessel of water like the trough, the difficulty of the practice can be adjusted by changing the temperature of the water and the time spent in it.

I know there are fancy cold plunge tubs that will maintain a cold temperature through refrigeration.  The top search hit I just found at was $5000 before tax for the standard version, and that of course doesn’t include electricity over time to keep it cold.  So I’m talking about the super economic, $110 dollar livestock trough from ACE Hardware version of temperature control.

The trough has a predictable arc of being coldest first thing in the morning and gradually warming up, peaking in the late afternoon.  So one way to control the temperature is to choose when in the day to get in.

I’ve had the tub for a couple of months now as I write this, and the water temperature throughout the day has ranged from mid 30s with a frozen surface in the morning on cold days, to mid 60s in the afternoon on warmer days.  There was a hot week when I got busy and just left it drained because even in the morning the water was in the high 50s.

I sewed a cover from nylon fabric for the trough that slows down the temperature increase somewhat by deflecting the sunlight.  If that cover is off and it’s full sun, the water can warm up quite quickly.  

I can also replace the water any time of the day with fresh tap water.  Usually this is colder than the water in the trough, but not always.  I’ve measured the tap water coming out in the low 40s in early spring, and more recently (late spring) it’s been coming out in the low 50s.  

I’m currently experimenting with using frozen water bottles to see how much I can lower the temperature.  So far the results are fairly modest.  I’ve been able to lower the tub water a few degrees with about 50 eight-ounce bottles.  Right now that’s about all the extra freezer space I have.  

That isn’t going to be a viable solution for people who have very limited freezer space and water that starts the day at 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  Where I live, the highest summer temperatures tend to get in the 80s and sometimes 90s, so I think there will be at least a couple of months when the trough generally isn’t cold enough, and I’m okay with that.  

The past few years it has been a practice I’ve done for about ⅓ of the year, and I think that with the combination of doing the plunges in the morning and adding some frozen water bottles, I can probably extend my cold plunge season a couple of months, at least for moderate plunges.

I can also, of course, control the time I spend in it.  Even if the water doesn’t get lower than 55 degrees at night, a twenty minute sit in that temperature for me is a great practice.  It’s longer and more mild but still a nice challenge and presence practice, analogous to an endurance workout rather than a high intensity workout.

Endurance vs intensity plunges

These endurance plunges feel to me like a lower “dose” of cold that’s more sustained over time.  It doesn’t stop my thoughts in their tracks like a 2 minute plunge at 37 degrees.  But it does slow them down nicely, enhancing the meditative aspect of it.  It chills out the monkey mind, making his frantic hops around my head slower, less frequent, and less abrupt.  This creates a nice opportunity to observe my thoughts, since they pass by slowly enough to study them more carefully, without getting sidetracked by the immediate next one.  It might be compared to turing the difficulty level on a video game to easy, when you’re used to playing on hard.  The characters and objects move more simply and slowly.  You’re still playing the game, but more expertly like Neo in the Matrix dodging bullets that are slowed down.

It’s also easier to set down thoughts, since the body has more salient sensations than normal.  And those sensations shift over the course of a 20-minute plunge.  

The cold makes a journey from the surface to the core of the body.  Here’s a progression I noticed from this morning:

  • minute 1 is uncomfortable due to the adjustment
  • Minutes 2-8 feel nice since I’m still pretty warm on the inside and my body is easily handling the extra load of the 50 degree water, which is warming up about a degree every 5 minutes from my own body heat.  My mind wanders some, but in a way that’s interesting and observable.
  • Minutes 9-16 are a little more challenging as some discomfort sets in, but in a satisfying way.  My thoughts are getting slower and more attention goes to my body as it begins to lightly shiver.
  • Minutes 16-20 are a mental game of staying present, knowing that the end is near and also knowing that looking forward to getting out means I am not in the moment.  

Cold short plunges in the high 30s or low 40s are more adrenaline-releasing, intense and painful.  

Longer 20 minute sits in the low 50s are gentler, meditative, even sometimes relaxing.  To me it feels like halfway between a cold plunge and a normal sitting meditation practice.  I really like it.

The trough seems really good for people who want to dip their toes into a cold water practice.  It’s only going to be useful to the extent that someone lives where the air will cool the water to 60 degrees or lower at least once per day for at least for some of the year.  

I imagine that most people who are interested would actually want to ease in to the practice somewhere in the 50-60 degree range and work their way down from there.  

Replacing the water

So far, with the water ranging from about 40 to 60 degrees during the day, I have not needed to use chlorine or algaecide for the trough.  When the water doesn’t go above 50 degrees, it lasts a week easily.  The hotter it gets, the more often it needs to be changed of course.  It has a removable plug at the bottom to quickly drain it, and it fills up with a hose in about ten minutes.  

Seasonal practice

At a certain point in the late spring or summer, it will likely become impractical to try to get it cool enough for a plunge, even with fresh tap water, early morning timing, and frozen water bottles that I have space for.  And that’s okay because in the summer there are a ton of other physical activities I can do, and I know the cooler temperatures of the fall will come again before I know it.

Since I started cold water immersion a few winters ago, it has mostly been seasonal for me.  I still like to go swimming in the summer, but lakes and rivers in the mountains in summer can get pretty warm, and the summer crowds and traffic can be a deterrent for me to regularly going to the water.  I’m pretty introverted and bustling activity everywhere makes the practice feel less sacred and enjoyable.  If I’m enjoying nature and exercise, I’ll be off on a remote running trail or walking through some trees somewhere, or meditating on a peak that’s rarely visited.

I get in lakes for a different reason in the summer.  To cool off or refresh or get exercise.  They tend to be remote lakes, so it’s not too often.

I feel more inspired and motivated to practice cold water immersion when it’s snowy and icy in the winter.

I think that’s okay, like eating foods with the seasons.  I just had my first watermelon recently and it was so good, I think because I don’t eat watermelon year round.  I don’t mind taking a few months off of regular cold water immersion in the summer, to focus on other activities and also to keep it fresh and alive for when the shorter days and crisper air returns.

Inspiration circulation

One of my favorite clinical supervisors, and a great mentor to me, said to me in a job interview, “Brent, I just have three questions for you:  what gets people screwed up, what makes them better, and as a therapist, what’s our role?”

What a brilliant and concise interview question for a private practice therapist!

I don’t remember my exact answer those 12 years ago, but I know I referenced the book Outliers, in which Malcolm Gladwell attributes success not only to earned mastery through dedicated hard work, but also to the arbitrary fortune of a person’s personal background and context in which they were born.  

Free will skeptics say that if we examine our experience closely enough, we will eventually see that we are only observers without agency, even over the thoughts we think, and that every choice we make is simply a product of our genetics and our up-to-date conditioning.

But the more I look at my experience, the more it does seem like I have choices. 

The proportion of my destiny that is under my control may be a relatively small fraction. 

But I think that every day, we make dozens or hundreds of small choices: 

What do I do first think when I wake up?

What food do I put in my body?

Do I intermittent fast?

Do I create something?

Do I identify and work towards what is most essential?

What content do I put into my brain?

Who do I allow in?

What energy do I expose myself to?

What thoughts do I pay attention to?

What visions of the future do I cultivate?

What memories do I hold onto?

What story about myself and others and the world do I tell myself?

All of these feel like choices to me.  Not easy ones, but ones over which I have some agency, that can shape healthy habits over time.

None of us control our genetics, or the bulk of our childhoods, or the choices that others make, or current events.  But we control what we do with our lives on a minute to minute basis, as we are offered small opportunities, like the continuous one to shift our attention toward where we want to go.

Stephen Covey said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

One stimulus is a cold lake or river.

To plunge, or not to plunge: that is the question.

There are many healthy practices that can nourish the bodymind and soul.

Cold water is not the only way to catalyze growth.

There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same,” as the proverb goes.

It can be summited with any willpower practice.

Cold water immersion is just one powerful example of the key principle that the healthy choices are often the hard ones.  

I have never regretted a cold plunge, despite many times worrying I would.

Most people who become therapists are lifelong students of what makes us happy and constitutes the good life.

My belief in our control over our emotional lives has grown over my 4+ decades.  

So far on my journey, I’ve found that improvements in my attitude and perspective come from improvements in my actions and direct experiences, more than the other way around.  

It’s more effective to behave our way into the healthiest versions of ourselves, than it is to think our way into them.

There’s a lot of work involved in maintaining peace and happiness.

I don’t think it is generally a fast or easy process to learn healthy habits of thinking and behavior, after spending the first few decades of life practicing the art of life-killing depression and anxiety.

Gradual healing can take a long, long time.  

Realizing this ups the odds that we will hear and accept our calls to action and choose to go through ordeals and come out transformed.

The impressiveness of my cold plunges are dwarfed by the mammoth endurance challenges of people like David Blaine, David Goggins, every Navy SEAL, and probably millions of other people.

I just try to consistently and safely expand my freedom and openness to experience a little at a time.

It’s much clearer to me now after making this video why I filmed so many cold plunges in nature.

It was often the most alive moment of my day — when the sun was most obscured by the wintery cloudscapes above icy waves splashing my face — that my soul shone the brightest.

I thought many times, “I wish everyone could experience this.  I want to share this.  I want to show this to others.  

This is what works.  Not some mental maneuver or insightful philosophical truth I can teach.  I can tell clients that it’s okay to relax and expand and drop all defenses for a time.  But that won’t reach the part of them that needs to hear it.  If only more people could receive the messages that nature is telling me.”

May some portion of the life, healing, and inspiration that I felt from these cold water experiences be transmitted to those can use it.


  1. Hof, W. (2020). The Wim Hof Method

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