The Cool Art of Cold Showers

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

Ok, this is definitely a departure from recent posts and also, definitely feels like something that I would write about on this blog.  After all, I've previously written blog posts about the effects of life on the body including chasing food tastes, losing my steps per day record, a year of using standing desks, and the gross things that happen to your body in long-distance running.

It's a post I've had in my head for at least a year and was reminded recently when I read an article about cold showers. Recently, I turned on our outdoor shower (it was the feature that came with the house that I did not realize I would value so much) and felt that it was time to write this piece.  

So for just over two years, I've been taking cold showers and it's come to the point that I rarely take a heated shower.  Rather, the cold shower has not only become my preferred shower method but one that feels most comforting and refreshing.  Cold showers situate my mind within my body in the present near instantly--something that can sometimes take longer and be more challenging when I mediate or the like.  And it just feels so dang good.  

How I Got There

A shower head with a spray of water coming out with a dark stone background
Photo by Ginger Hendee
on Unsplash

I have taken cold showers in the past--particularly during the summer when it gets so ugly that the cold shower is the quick reset.  But usually there's a point when I went back to warm or hot showers. Making it the default wasn't something that came naturally or seemed like something that I would lean into.

The idea of a cold shower as a default form of showering came to me (like some many ideas) after listening to a book. Now, there's a lot about The Wim Hof Method: Own Your Mind, Master Your Biology, and Activate Your Full Human Potential by Wim Hof that raises questions and his work as a whole has some holes in it, but Wim Hof is an interesting character

What stuck with me was the connection with the cold water and how it can be used as a form of regulation for the body.  It harkened back to my younger years as some folks know when I wore shorts all year long (yeah, I was one of those guys--and it's always a guy, right?).  The cold--in appropriate and safe ways--can be a helpful presence.  While Wim Hof recommends ice baths, something I haven't built up towards yet, cold showers were something else that he identified as being helpful in different ways. 

I took his lead from the book which encourages you to do it progressively.  First, I started with regular showers and turned on the cold for the last 30 seconds, learning to tolerate the cold but also using the hot water to help slow the transition.  This proved a good transition tactic as it helped me slowly focus on and be aware of my breath--something we forget to do when we first encounter cold water.  Those 30 seconds slowly increased in time over the span of a month to the point where I would get into the shower with hot water and then quickly change to cold water and then do the actual washing.  

Eventually, I just started doing cold showers from the start.  By the time I started doing that, I learned that the absolute hardest part of cold showers is the decision to do so and the first blast of cold water.  After that, everything's gravy.  

What I've Learned from Cold Showers

But what was the benefit of cold showers?  I can't speak to any scientific elements but there are some definitely ways it helps me and grounds me in my body.  There's various health information out there that says that I can help with anxiety and I can see why. When I first feel the cold blast of water, my body would (and still sometimes does) have a reaction of frantic concern.  The warning system is shouting that we're in trouble.  We're not used to cold or this level of discomfort so it's wondering if something is up.  

This becomes one of the most interesting moments to capture our fast and slow thinking brain.  The fast-thinking brain is often reactive, intuitive, and aimed to keep you alive while your slow brain is there to help think, rationalize, and discover.  In my body, my fast-thinking brain is reacting to the cold as it is an intense sensation that feels threatening.  But the slow-thinking part of my brain knows full well that I am fine and safe. After all, I'm in control to turn the cold off or turn on the heat.  So, it becomes an interesting place to build the capacity to navigate busy thoughts, anxiety, and fear and temper out what is a real threat and what can be dismissed.  

For me, this translates often into feeling and accepting that first cold blast and feeling present in my body where the cold water is going and not going; observing interesting moments within that, and keeping an eye on my reactive brain.  For instance, once I've gotten past the initial blast, I'll start to wash myself with the soap and I'll notice if I'm moving deliberately or rushing through.  I catch myself if I'm rushing and slow myself down, realizing that the rush is still my busy mind trying to make it go quickly and be done with it. One moment, I'll feel like I'm just going along and doing my usual thing and the next moment, I catch that I'm moving the soap quickly--this signals that I've moved into the the space of feeling threatened or uncomfortable and am trying to put an end to it.   

Catching the transition between these two minds is great reflective opportunities and it likely happens several times throughout the shower from when I turn on the shower (with slow-thinking brain) to feeling the intensity and reaction once the cold hits my body (fast thinking brain) to settling into the cold water and feeling it trace through my body (back to slow-thinking brain). Thus, the shower becomes a place where I both clean my body and my mind; helping to more clearly see and connect the switching back and forth and learning to better control it for some circumstances while understand why in other circumstances, I might not be able to control it.

The thing is--the cold shower is intense but it is not painful and helping my mind realize this is powerful.  Obviously, intensity can lean to pain--I'm not ignoring that fact.  But in the moment of the shower, I know that's not the case.  The water is not going to be so long or so cold that I'm doing harm to myself. I have full ability to change the setting if I so need to. So as a practice, it can be quite helpful in teaching me the limits and also the possibilities of my body and in helping my reactive brain to slow down.  

Observing the busy mind and transitioning to the calm mind is a really important skill that I've found to be incredibly useful.  I know that it's something that can be developed through meditation and other types of practices, but for me, I've found taking cold showers one pathway toward helping develop this ability.

Furthermore, the cold shower has also helped me to feel more intuned with my body and aware of sensations in my body.  I'm sure I've always felt water run down my body, but feeling cold water run down your body so that by the time it reaches the my legs, I can feel a marked different from the coldness of its first strike is not a sensation I've thought much about. Yet the cold water has led me to be aware of my body and that which is being covered with cold water and what isn't.  This becomes another means of focusing attention and feeling.  So at times, I can both be aware of the cold striking one part of my body and the warmth of another part of my body or the areas where cold is transforming to neutral or warmth.  

All of this also leads to cold showers being quite refreshing and energizing.  I'll take them after the workout each day and I feel like I've gotten a double-buzz going (one from the workout and one from the shower).  And since I work out in the morning that means I'm pretty charged in the morning--much to my partner's chagrin as she's just getting up, I'm already fully wired.  Still, I'll find that if I can boost my energy and attention if I throw in a cold shower in the day.  It won't replace coffee but it is a handy back up or addendum.

Outside of the that, the cold shower is also helping me tune into my body at other times and realize when I am in reactive mind.  A place I'm often in reactive mind is when it comes to eating.  For years I've been an emotional and stress eater.  I've been working with a therapist for a while around this and while she's been helpful, cold showers have helped me understand and be more attuned to when I'm stress eating.  I can draw connections to how my mind is in frantic mode and using food to soothe that feeling (though it never really does or rather, that soothing gives way to feeling uncomfortable in my stomach which then distracts me from whatever stress or emotion that was triggering me).  Being able to catch where my mind is at has been at least helping me slow down my thinking and reacting to make better food choices.  It's still a work in progress but it is progress that I can connect to taking cold showers.

Some Observations About Doing Cold Showers

Since starting cold showers, I've noticed a few different things that are just interesting to note.
The first is that I can often tell to some degree how the weather has been outside without looking at a thermometer (if showering inside).  That is, the cold water that comes out of the shower spout changes depending upon how cold it is outside (Which makes sense but you don't always realize it).  So when it gets really cold outside, the water is perceptibly colder than when it is say ing the 70s.  

I'm also taking quick showers and not lingering. So this might be helpful for the water bill for sure, but I do my thing and then am done.  However, I still feel more refreshed than any warm shower I've ever took.  I turn of the water and feel instantly warm but also cool and airy.  Fun fact--in the time it took you to read this, I probably would have been able to take two showers. 

The one drawback in cold showers that I found is that I'm more likely to sweat a little bit post-shower, if I'm not in a space with good air flow.  My guess is that this has to do with my body working to warm me (from the cold shower) but no longer needing and yet still doing so until it arrives at some equilibrium.  

Are any of you cold-shower takers reading this?  Other benefits or experiences that you found that I don't discuss here?

If you can't imagine the idea of taking and enjoying a cold shower, what might it be like to try that method where you do it for the last 30 seconds of a shower?  

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