I’ve been taking cold showers on and off for about three years. At that time I was nursing a knee injury. With less options for physical movement to enhance my performance, I turned to breath work. Amidst my internet research escapade I stumbled upon Wim Hof and his methodology, the Wim Hof Method. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s worth a Google, he has done some incredible things. Anyway, cold water immersion is a staple in his ‘method’ and the simplest form of that is a cold shower. But this article isn’t about Wim and frankly it isn’t about the cold. It’s about stress and state.
Benefits of Cold Showers
To start, cold showers and cold water immersion have a host of more obvious, acute changes that occur in the body. Stuff like: increased circulation, increased energy, improved mood, decreased inflammation, etc.
However, all of these are short term benefits from increasing physiological stress. This is largely because when you create physiological stress (even if it’s artificially induced, like a cold shower or hyperventilating) you drop into a relaxed state (parasympathetic) after the stressful event. Truly, the benefits come not from the stress, but terminating the chronic version of it.
Anxiety & Arousal
Everyone experiences anxiety. Anytime you have been a little nervous for a first date, job interview, important presentation or athletic performance you have experienced anxiety. Like most things in the human physiology, anxiety has a very important function: it prepares you for the future. Obviously too much stress and anxiety isn’t helpful, but it’s important to understand that there is an optimal level of arousal for different avenues of performance. Your optimal level of arousal for a first date isn’t the same as preparing for a max deadlift in a weekend fitness festival.
You don’t want to end anxiety. Not entirely. Anxiety can be a performance enhancer…just like adrenaline or sugar. Of course you want infrequent doses because chronic exposure leads to resistance. Knock on the door often enough and it stops getting opened. Anxiety is only an issue when it snowballs out of control and you can no longer regulate it and manipulate your state and level of arousal.
The Cold Shower Protocol
Back to cold showers. The cold is not something magical that transforms your body and mind, although that certainly sounds like something Wim Hof would say. Rather, the cold is a teaching tool. It is about you intentionally subjecting yourself to stress.
I encourage you take a cold shower. Start with a minute or two of hot water, then flip it all the way on cold. Just like you can envision, you gasp and freak out (aka. escalating into a stress response). You suck down air through your mouth, like a fish out of water. The intensity of this stress is surely 10x that of any anxiety you’ve experienced.
This response is going to happen. Learn to be okay with it; let yourself have that moment. Be okay freaking out a bit. However, after 15-30s, it’s time for the real work to begin.
It’s time to teach yourself to de-stress. It’s time to learn how to come back down from your sympathetic (stressed) state and return to the parasympathetic (rest & digest) state. Begin to gain control of your breath on the exhale. Slow it down. Even if your still gasping like a fish out of water, begin to slowly gain control of the exhale. Next, begin to claim control of the inhale. Control the pace of your breath. Allow the exhale to be longer than the inhale. Begin to breathe through your nose. Allow your shoulders and neck to relax, and fully recover parasympathetic dominance.
Congrats, you’ve owned your response to stress. This is where the benefits of the cold shower come in. It’s about enoculating yourself to stress. Repeated exposures will allow you to minimize the time it takes you to regain control of your stress response. What took you three minutes to control will only take you thirty seconds. Soon, you will need to up the intensity of the stressor to give your the same response you had when you first started. It’s just like how squatting a certain weight was challenging when you first started, but now you need more weight or reps to have the same effects. In other words, progressively overload applies.
Want to take a deep dive on controlling your stress response? Listen to Episode #008 of The Fitness Movement Podcast: Shift State
Controlling Your Stress Response
Most importantly, you’ve used a tool (cold shower) to gain a skill. You taught yourself the skill of controlling your stress response. You are capable of manipulating your state on command. Now you can switch out the stressor and practice the same response. This is often way harder than a cold shower because, well, you know exactly when you are turning the faucet to cold so you can mentally prepare for it. You don’t know when you will hit a traffic jam, experience turbulence on a flight, get into a sensitive topic with a spouse or have to put out a ‘fire’ at work.
In the moment when you realize you are having a response to a stressor, use your skill of calming yourself down. Recognition is an important step in the process because it allows you to hit ‘run’ on your cold shower script. Begin to gain control of the exhale, then the inhale. Breathe deeply and use your nose. Allow your shoulders to fall away from your ears and relax your entire face. Feel your anxiety dissipate. Congrats, you’ve owned your response to stress.
When you have the ability to regulate and manipulate your nervous system state, you get to choose what you do with it. For some people, it will allow them to gain a foothold on anxiety when it begins to creep up inside them. For others, it will allow them to regain parasympathetic dominance quicker after a stressful workout and jumpstart the recovery process.
Elite athletes in the Sport of Fitness recover quicker than their competition. The fact is most athletes aren’t literate a manipulating state. Everyone wants to look at a Rich Froning and chalks up his success to muscle fiber type, aerobic power or technique, but the reality is he is better than almost everyone at controlling his state.
Years of intuition have been developed to know exactly what state he needs to be in and how to get there, fast. Months and years down the road, the other characteristics mentioned emerge as a result.
So You Want to be a Lion?
Everyone wants to be a lion. A film pops into your mind of a lion chasing down the prey, making the kill, the sympathetic. The truth is this is far less than 1% of the lions day. But guess what they do after they kill. They lay over their kill loudly panting for several minutes until they have regained parasympathetic control. Then it eats, a lot, 11-16 pounds per day.
Guess what it does the rest of its day? It sleeps, a lot, 18 to 20 hours per day.
So you want to be a lion? Learn parasympathetic dominance. Learn to turn off. Learn to control your response to stress. Destress, then eat. Unplug, then sleep. And maybe, take a cold shower.
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