Chill Out, Man: Learning to Love the Cold

Just went for a quick dip in the Bay. Air temperature: 55°F, water… [Edit: Just measured with a turkey thermometer. 56.6] Very refreshing!

I won’t lie; it felt frigid. I didn’t put my head under. Maybe next time.

But going for a walk in the woods in nothing but shorts… It felt really nice. The breeze felt cool and invigorating on my skin, and I thought it felt almost balmy in the sun.

This is my 18th day using the Wim Hoff App, doing the breathing at least twice a day, and taking the 20-day cold shower challenge. One of the best parts is that it’s effectively made the summer twice as long!

I used to be such a wimp about the cold. A big part of it is mental… I always heard, “You’ll catch your death of cold!” You have to learn that, no, you’re not actually in mortal peril just because you’re a little bit chilly.

As when I got SCUBA certified long ago in the Pacific Northwest; my gloves were full of holes, and I felt like my hands were going to freeze and fall off. I went in the hot tub and refused to go back in the water, until the instructor told me I wouldn’t get certified if I didn’t, and there was no way I could get frostbite in above-freezing temperatures. Knowing that, it was more bearable. The cold was just a sensation.

On the other hand…some people do die of hypothermia. Other people can swim in the arctic and scale mountains in their shorts.

It’s not about enduring the cold; it’s about adapting to it. Which you can do the same way you improve at anything; in increments.

As I’ve been learning from the book, “What Doesn’t Kill Us” by Scott Carney, we evolved a range of mechanisms for dealing with the cold. But as with so many of our capabilities, you have to use it or lose it.

With daily cold exposure, say by ending your hot shower with a cold shower, starting with just 15 seconds and gradually increasing until you’re doing a minute, etc.… (Beginner setting for Cold Shower Challenge in the Wim Hoff App.)

Your body adapts. It strengthens your cardiovascular system. It does something to insulin production, apparently. I don’t pretend to know all the science, but apparently the benefits are well-established.

The breathing practice is an important component, but at the same time, as I understand it, your body — your cardiovascular system — is actually becoming stronger at resisting the cold, not entirely unlike the way any muscle gets stronger from exercise.

When you can bench 200 lbs., 100 lbs. actually doesn’t feel very heavy, even though it’s still 100 lbs. Similarly, when you build up your ability to deal with cold, 50 degrees actually doesn’t feel very cold. (And it’s really not, in a quasi-objective sense. It’s a lot warmer than the Arctic or Sweden!)

I’ve been learning that we need to seek discomfort. It’s natural to seek comfort and avoid discomfort. Just as it’s natural, in a way, to want to eat cheeseburgers and ice cream all the time and jerk off to porn all day and never exercise.

You think you’re doing yourself a favor, but you’re really not. You’re making yourself weak, and probably less happy, less fulfilled, and more stressed.

It’s not about proving how tough/macho you are or whatever, although that might be a nice side-effect. It’s the principle of antifragility. By avoiding all challenge, discomfort, difficulty, danger, etc., you ironically make yourself more vulnerable. You don’t protect yourself from getting a sprained ankle by never doing anything taxing with your ankles.

You become stronger by gradually exposing yourself to things closer to the limit of what you’re currently capable of coping with, which pushes back your limit, etc. Whether it’s strength or skill or virtually any physical or mental capability, it works roughly the same way.

If this sounds crazy or too hard… It’s really not. Download the Wim Hoff App. Do the breathing and 15 seconds of cold shower every day. There are few things you can do in 5 minutes that will make as big an impact.

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