This time last year, I couldn’t have predicted any of 2020 – but for me, the biggest shock has been this. Every single morning, before brushing my teeth, or even looking at my phone, I have a short, sharp, freezing cold shower. This is the ritual that has helped me to survive the constant, nebulous sense of dread that has been building up over the last few months.
Some studies suggest that regular cold showers could boost your immune system, reduce inflammation and anxiety. Of course, coldness is not a new therapeutic tool. Wim ‘The Iceman’ Hof may have positioned it as the hot (ha!) new wellness trend, but cryotherapy is thought to have existed in some form since 400BC.
Even so, why on earth would anyone start their day by getting out of their warm bed and standing under a cold shower? Mark Twain is thought to have said ‘eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.’ Before starting the experiment, an amphibian breakfast sounded appealing in comparison. But listening to this podcast made me curious, and I decided to try it for a week.
My first cold shower was hampered by the fact that I took it when I was staying at my parents’ house, where the bathroom plumbing is controlled by an automatic thermostat. Every time I turned down the dial, the shower would briefly deliver freezing needles, then nudge the water back up to ‘unseasonably warm April day’. Eventually I had a semi successful cool shower. It was just unpleasant enough to make me feel hot with the glow of smugness when I emerged.
After a week, I noticed that I felt significantly calmer and more focused for the first few hours of the day. One evening two weeks later, I realised I was getting a cold. I noticed the dull ache in my muscles, the tell-tale tenderness at the back of my throat. I went to bed expecting to wake up with fully blown flu and gave myself permission to skip my cold shower the next day. But by morning, the cold had vanished. It could have been a coincidence – but it could have been a by-product of a boosted immune system. After a month, the showers had significantly reduced the pain in my ‘bad’ knee. Now, I can run regularly without doing an Al Pacino impression every time I ease myself off the sofa.
Disclaimer: the first 20-30 seconds are still a brutal shock. I often find myself lapsing into lalochezia - emotional relief gained by using indecent or vulgar language - which, if you do it right, is a great way to stimulate that stress regulating vagus nerve. However, once I’ve powered through the pain, I love the tingling sensation and the way the cold water makes me aware of every part of my body. It’s thrillingly intense. I can’t drift off and start to overthink about what might be lying ahead over the next 24 hours.
It’s an entry level way to explore the relationship with pleasure and pain. The University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin and Kendra Pierre-Louis at Aeon coined the term ‘benign masochism.’ Which denotes ‘enjoying initially negative experiences that the body misinterprets as threatening’. Once my body has worked out that I’ve not fallen into a river, it produces adrenaline, which results in a feeling of euphoria.
I’ve been having cold showers for nearly three months now, and I can’t imagine starting my day without one. It makes me feel a bit like a sexy wellness goddess, and a lot like a superstitious old lady – regular exposure to the cold is what will keep my corner of the universe in order. I feel calmer, healthier and more hopeful. I believe that better things are coming in 2021. Because if life gets any harder, I might end up trying to eat a live frog every morning. And I really don’t want to do that.
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