The Blessing of Discomfort Through Cold Exposure
Now that winter has blessed us with her presence it’s the perfect time to talk about everyone’s favorite subject:
But instead of complaining about it we’re going to discuss why you should be welcoming it with a warm embrace. You see, as with much in life, the things that we find the most uncomfortable hold the greatest opportunities for growth.
With proponents such as Wim Hof, cold exposure has become more of an accepted practice in our modern, temperature-controlled lives. However, the concept of exposing the body to extreme temperature differences is nothing novel. In fact, our ancestors didn’t have much of a choice and were therefore much more connected with the daily and yearly fluctuations of daylight and temperature. Our entire physiology has evolved around these rhythms and we would benefit greatly from reconnecting ourselves with them as much as possible.
Just as we use movement and exercise to provide the necessary stress our tissues need to adapt and grow (given adequate recovery time and resources), exposing the body-mind to different temperatures and environments is necessary to provide the stimulus for adaptation which strengthens your physiology AND psychology and makes you more resilient to the inevitable challenges of life.
This brings up an important point: most of us have been conditioned to believe that we need to stay away from stressors – physical, chemical, electromagnetic, psychic, nutritional, and thermal – because these stressors are the CAUSE of dis-ease. In reality, the only cause of dis-ease is a state of imbalance too far outside of the homeostatic range your body-mind is prepared to handle in its current state. So the cure for dis-ease of any kind is purposefully providing your body-mind with the right kinds of stressors in the right amounts such that it has the ability to recover from these stressors and create positive adaptations that allow you to handle even more of a particular stressor the next time you may encounter it. For example, if you’ve trained your body-mind through progressive overload to efficiently deadlift 500 pounds, then attempting to lift 505 pounds wouldn’t be too much of a stressor to cause injury or dis-ease – even you weren’t able to complete the lift. However, if your body-mind is not trained, even attempting to lift 200 pounds would put you at risk for a potentially severe injury. This principle holds true for all other systems of your body, as they are all interconnected. This is resilience and anti-fragility – using stress to make you stronger.
The reason why most people get sick when the seasons change is because the stress of the change is too far outside what their body-mind is prepared to handle. Cold exposure is a great way to voluntarily give your body-mind a stimulus to adapt to and grow from so that it is more resilient to the involuntary stressors of life.
Now while we can talk about the scientifically studied benefits such as the production of cold shock proteins and the conversion of white adipose (fat) tissue to more metabolically active brown adipose tissue that are some of the many specific adaptations that take place that allow your body to handle that specific stress later, the primary benefits I have found from this practice extend far beyond the laboratory.
For me, exposing myself to the cold on a daily basis has been more about training my mind to not be as reactive to discomfort as it has been about gaining the physical benefits described above. My personal practice is to take a cold shower every morning as the very first thing I do when I wake up. By voluntarily putting myself in an uncomfortable situation as the first thing I do every day, it sets me up to better handle any other stressor I may be faced with throughout the day. This is the concept of equanimity: being able to maintain your internal centeredness in the face of external chaos.
There is a big difference between being faced with a stressful situation and allowing yourself to be stressed out over the stressful situation.
And paradoxically, the cold has a predominantly yin/cooling/restorative/parasympathetic effect on the body-mind, and therefore the seeming stress of cold exposure is actually a useful method of stress-management.
So there you have it. When it’s nice and cold outside and you can’t wait to go from your temperature-controlled office to your temperature-controlled car to your temperature-controlled house to take a hot shower and put cozy clothes on, challenge yourself to get a little uncomfortable by turning that shower nozzle as cold as you can get it hopping on in. I promise the thought of the thing is more overwhelming than the thing itself. If that’s too big of a task to handle from the start, at the very least turn your nozzle to cold for as long as you can handle at the end of your warm, comfortable shower.
Remember this: if the most uncomfortable thing you do is something you’re choosing to do voluntarily, how much easier will everything else in life be by comparison?
Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.
The choice is yours.