Cold exposure is a test of the mind.
Wim Hof, nicknamed “the iceman” by some, has become well-known for pushing himself to surpass previously held beliefs about what the human body is capable of. His ability to endure the cold has led him to establish multiple world records, giving him a platform to bring greater awareness to the benefits cold exposure can bring us. His list of feats include:
- Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in only a pair of shorts and shoes
- Staying in a vat filled with snow for 1 hour and 52 minutes
- Running a half marathon above the arctic circle in bare feet
- Swimming below ice for 57.5 meters
Hof’s amazing feats along with the spread of his story has helped him create a growing trend of cold exposure, centering mainly around habits such as cold showers and ice baths. Over the past few years, he has allowed researchers to test him and his methods, producing results that suggest cold exposure could make a positive impact on the circulatory and immune system.
Cold exposure has since entered the fields of personal growth and self-discovery but, at its heart, it’s a journey into the resilience of our mind and body. A journey that Wim has passionately led.
Doing It for the Discomfort
Discomfort is supposed to be something we avoid, or at least that was how it was viewed for many years in western culture. Recently, however, there has been a shift. People are finding they are too comfortable with their lives.
A few decades ago, happiness was very closely intertwined with security. If you had a job that kept you engaged and the materials associated with comfort (i.e. a car, house, family) there was no reason not to be happy. Today, our definition is a little different. While many people still see security as an important part of happiness, some have discovered they feel too comfortable or secure in their daily lives. The search for comfort has led them to a place where their lives feel lacking. They may feel less curious, less interested in the things going on around them, or running out of things to work toward in their lives. We’re starting to realize as a society, that as much as we might dislike discomfort during the moment, it can be valuable in our quest to create a happy life.
This level of dissatisfaction and longing for more has been instrumental in the growing popularity of cold exposure. Most people don’t voluntarily freeze themselves because they like the feeling of freezing. They do it because they’ve come to believe that a truly happy life needs challenges. We need an opportunity to overcome obstacles, to experience the limits of our abilities. This trend can be seen in the various 30-day challenges that have been created and the creation of methods such as exposure therapy. People are discovering they are happier when they actively face the challenges in their lives and experiment with possible solutions. Instead of running from the discomfort, they do it for the discomfort.
Cold Exposure Gives Us a Challenge to Overcome
One of the greatest sources of happiness is the release of dopamine you get when you overcome a challenge. This biological response plays a key role in making sure we’re continually working toward goals. When we stay still for too long and get too comfortable, we start to receive less dopamine. This helps create the dissatisfaction that gets us to move again. Cold exposure can often be part of a goal we create for ourselves, whether it’s doing it’s lasting in an ice bath for an hour, taking cold showers 5 times a week, or being more willing to walk through the cold.
The sense of accomplishment you get after going through a cold shower or ice bath is great, and you can repeat it day after day if you like. For most people, these practices can be repeated as much as you like. Showers are something we would do anyway, so there is no extra time needed. Just like people create exercise or eating routines, some people create a cold shower routine. This cold shower can be a great way to set an intention or mentality for the day.
Cold Exposure Is a Mental Test
Perhaps the most interesting facet of cold exposure is the way it tests your mental resilience. For most people, the act of being immersed in the cold is one of the last things they want to do. The moment before you enter the shower or the ice bath, your mind will likely fill with fear and doubt. I find I don’t want to turn the shower on because I know the beginning is going to be awful. At the same time, I know my fear is irrational. It will be very cold for about 5 seconds but then it starts to feel warmer. After those first 5 seconds, I don’t pay much attention to the water. Still, I hesitate for 20–30 seconds each morning before I finally turn the shower on.
For many people, this is the biggest draw of cold exposure. Most days they won’t want to do it but they still do. From their perspective, it’s preparation for life. Most days we have a moment or two when we want to do something but we’re too afraid or we talk ourselves out of it. We see someone we would like to meet, we see an opportunity to improve upon a plan, we recognize that we could have the difficult conversation we know we need to have with a loved one. These things come up each day, but we often put them off. We know we do it. I know I do it. Yet, we wish we didn’t put it off. Instead, we wish we would do something. What barrier holds us back from doing these things, and how can we overcome it? Cold exposure can’t solve these problems directly, but sometimes it can provide the extra mental fortitude we need to act.
I know this is the most interesting part of cold exposure to me. I can’t say for certain that it makes a difference in my life, but I like to think it does. It makes sense logically, even if it’s hard to quantify from a scientific standpoint. I know I’m willing to go through a few minutes of discomfort each morning in the hope that it does.
This exploration of mental resilience seems to be the most intriguing part of cold exposure for Hof, as well. A little over a year ago, YouTube channel Yes Theory made a documentary about their experience as they met Hof and Poland and went through extreme cold exposure challenges he posed to them. Throughout the documentary, you can see Hof’s curiosity in the capabilities of our mind and body to display resilience in challenging situations. He beams with the love of the cold and the challenges it brings. For Hof, cold exposure is all about the internal process required to deal with the external conditions.
Cold exposure isn’t for everybody. It can be really difficult. For some, the cost will outweigh the benefits. Others, however, might find cold exposure to be a welcome addition to their life. If cold exposure interests you, starting small can be a great way to ease yourself into the process. You could turn the shower a little colder for 10–15 seconds for a few days, gradually increasing the duration as you go. Find the point where it gets uncomfortable and do just a few seconds more. Learn to challenge your mind as well as your body. It might feel slow at first, but you’ll find your tolerance increasing as you go.
Wim Hof and his methods still have many questions around them. While science has seemed to prove some benefits of cold exposure, there are still many questions about how much of a difference it can make. There have also been questions surrounding the role of Hof’s biology in the process. While we can all greatly increase our ability to endure the cold, whether or not we can get close to Hof’s level of resilience are unknown. These are important points to take into account before you start your journey into cold exposure. Cold exposure can be an amazing part of our life, but it can also be dangerous, as Hof himself states. Therefore, it is important to move slowly as you build your tolerance, taking it one small step at a time.
At its core, cold exposure is an experiment. It should be something you look forward to. If you have to drag yourself to do it every day, it’s not worth it. A good cold exposure routine mixes challenge and enjoyment because you know it will be hard but you still want to do it.