Cold Showers & Becoming Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Habit #3

Effectiveness: 9/10            Effort: 9/10            Enjoyment: 2/10

This week's habit challenge is to end each shower by turning the water all the way to cold. The rules are simple; When you have finished showering...

  1. Go from warm water directly to freezing in one fast turn of the tap.
  2. Stand completely still.
  3. Breathe normally.
  4. Endure until it is no longer painful.
  5. Calmly turn the water off.  

While this may sound like a pointlessly uncomfortable exercise, let me first explain my theory before you write this one off.

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I think we have all heard different renditions of the following statements;

"Big changes come from making several small changes one at a time."

OR

"Improvement doesn't happen over night, It happens slowly with one disciplined act after the other."

OR

"One small conscious act leads to another which leads to another which leads to another, until eventually you have achieved something remarkable."

It's basically the same idea. You can't suddenly change every aspect of something you do, think, or feel. What you can do, is focus on changing one small aspect of it. Once that small change has settled, you can build on it by adding another small change. Eventually, you will reach a point where what you do, think, or feel has changed fundamentally. The key lies in taking it one small step at a time. I thought to myself, what if that initial first act of change was something so simple that it was difficult to justify not doing. Following the above logic, this would make it significantly easier for me to fundamentally change something. 

I got excited and started thinking about what I wanted to change. Something that I really want to become better at is feeling comfortable being in uncomfortable situations. This is in anything from long distance running, to having uncomfortable yet important conversations with loved ones, to enduring times of unstable business. Going from simply accepting hard times, suffering, or unpleasant confrontation to actually embracing them would have a significant impact on my life, because I wouldn't be afraid of them.

I came up with the idea of taking cold showers. I don't know about your shower, but when I turn on the cold water, the water that comes out of the shower head is ridiculously cold. I mean like filtered through a freezer cold. Melted glacier water cold. Use a chainsaw to cut a hole in a frozen lake cold. When that shit hits your body you freak out. It takes your breath away. It makes you want to hyperventilate. If it hits your head for too long, you get a brain freeze. Its NOT an enjoyable experience. The thing is, it's so simple to do. All you have to do is reach out and turn the tap and you're in for an experience.

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Once you've made the decision, the real work starts. You have to control yourself enough not to step out of the line of fire. Stand still, no jumping around like a crazy person and no making weird sex noises. The idea is to control the pain and embrace it, not distract yourself from it. Challenge yourself to appear completely emotionless. If someone was watching they should have no idea you were suffering through the pain of a thousand needles. 

Some tips.

  1. Breath deeply and slowly. All the way in. All the way out.
  2. Sway extremely slowly from side to side to make sure the water reaches every part of your body.
  3. Calmly lean your head back into the stream to feel the full effect.

After a painful week of doing this every time I showered I became aware of four amazing benefits, all of which I researched afterwards and discovered are backed up by science. 

Benefit #1

Decreased stress levels. When the cold water hits your body it creates small amounts of oxidative stress. Large amounts of oxidative stress are harmful to the body, but in small amounts, it increases your bodies ability to combat the stress by adapting with an appropriate antioxidant response. In other words, over time your body adapts to the regular exposure to cold water and makes you chemically more capable of handling it. The next time you feel stress, whether it be at work or in your personal life, you will naturally be better at maintaining composure and overcoming the challenge.

This was especially the case for me because I additionally focused on specifically embracing the stress instead of simply enduring my way through it. I intentionally wanted to stay in the cold water until I had accepted the pain (usually this took around a minute). During the week, I actually had two separate conversations with two different people very close to me that I would have normally avoided because they make me feel uncomfortable. I choose to say what I would have otherwise kept to myself. I knew that I was more comfortable being uncomfortable and that everyone would benefit from having the conversations. It felt great!           

Benefit #2

Increased will power. Remember how I said that "it's so simple... All you have to do is reach out and turn the tap."? While it's true that it's simple, it's anything but easy. It takes a lot of will power and discipline to decide to put yourself through another painful session. I found myself having to seriously talk myself into doing it. It would have been so easy to skip it one day. No one would have known. Not giving into the temptation of avoiding the pain translated into a week of increased discipline. I found that I was pushing myself harder in work outs, spending less time procrastinating, and was less likely to give into other temptations like sleeping in. 

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Benefit #3

Increased alertness. Your body is essentially sent into a state of shock when it's exposed to cold water. It immediately stimulates your nervous system in a massive way. Coffee, energy drinks, or some push-ups don't even come close to the feeling of a cold shower. I felt awake, pumped up, and ready to get in the zone even when I showered in the evenings after working all day.  

Benefit #4

Increased happiness. Avoiding pain is definitely a healthy choice and often the way to go when trying to increase your happiness. However, when pain is the byproduct of something naturally healthy like exercising, working through a tough problem, or helping a loved one, its worth considering how you can make pain something positive. By simply choosing to end my shower with one minute of cold water I felt that I was priming myself to make the 'right' decisions through out my day.

The 'right' decisions are not always the ones that feel good in the moment. Often they are the exact opposite. Sometimes we have to sacrifice immediate gratification to enjoy the satisfaction and rewards on another day. If I had said that I want to be more open with my loved ones, work out harder, procrastinate less, feel more alert, and make better decisions through out my day, I would have been overwhelmed and likely wouldn't have made much progress. By changing one little thing, I am slowly changing my perception of what pain and suffering means and how I can use it to my benefit. Before I know it, I will have fundamentally changed for the better. 

Happy Habit Building,

Mads