I Tried Cold Showers for Stress & Anxiety—Here’s What Happened
Water therapy, or “hydrotherapy,” has long been recognized in ancient and non-Western cultures and naturopathic medicine for its myriad health benefits: From warm baths to induce relaxation and soothe aching muscles (self care, anyone?) to immersing the body in cold water to boost metabolism and allay chronic skin conditions, hydrotherapy has been a trusted healing practice for centuries.
When my acupuncturist asked that I try it to improve my increasingly stressed state of mind, however, even I—a connoisseur of all things alternative medicine—greeted his suggestion with a heavy dose of skepticism. Still, I trust him implicitly. So when he told me he has benefited from hydrotherapy firsthand, I knew I had to give it a whirl. Here’s what happened when I tried cold showers for stress and anxiety—and what I learned about my self-worth in the process.
The Problem: Stress, Anxiety and Imposter Syndrome
As someone who has long internalized her stress, I have dealt with a variety of health repercussions throughout the years, some of which I’ve chronicled for this publication. Though I’ve worked diligently at both not repressing my feelings and finding healthy outlets for stress release, old habits die hard, and I often find my body crying out for attention as a result of whatever mental or emotional issues I’m ignoring—intentionally or not.
Last February, I once again found myself sitting across from my acupuncturist, Paul, complaining of a general feeling of exhaustion. No matter how well I slept, I was still dragging through my day. Even worse, though I felt as though I was walking through mud, I was also shaky, my heart was pounding and my stomach often seemed as if it was churning at 120 mph; it was as though I’d chased a double dose of Benadryl with a pot of coffee.
Added to these physical symptoms was the creeping belief that I wasn’t truly capable of success and that my so-called talents were fraudulent—leaving me afraid to face new challenges for fear of failure or being “found out.” Paul nodded, listening attentively. When I stopped talking, he smiled. “I have just the homework assignment for you,” he said.
The Solution: Hydrotherapy at Home
By the time I got home from my acupuncture appointment, I had an email from Paul with the subject, “Inspiration.” It was a YouTube video, and I knew he had sent it to me to help get me on board with my homework assignment: Taking minute-long cold showers to help me overcome stress, anxiety, fear and that dreaded “imposter syndrome” fear that had started infiltrating my thought patterns.
The video was of Wim Hof, a man who has gained a worldwide following for his ability to test his physical limits through the power of breath and mental acuity. Nicknamed “Iceman,” Wim has climbed Mount Everest in nothing but a pair of shorts. Shorts.
But it is his recognition by the scientific community that I find fascinating; this is not just some internet sensation that makes for good click bait. This man is able to take mind-over-matter to an entirely new level—and mind-over-matter, along with a subsequent mood boost, is exactly what Paul wanted me to experience by taking cold showers.
When researchers at Wayne State University School of Medicine studied Wim’s body and brain during whole body cold exposure, they were shocked at the outcomes. Professor Otto Muzik, Ph.D, helped to facilitate the study. “The Wim Hof Method may promote the spontaneous release of opioids and cannabinoids in the brain. This effect has the potential to create a feeling of well-being, mood control and reduced anxiety,” he said.
Paul had studied with Wim, and was familiar with his methodology. He had walked me through what I was to do and how I would feel during my cold showers, nearly down to the second. I was as prepared as I could possibly be… except that, well, I wasn’t. Not quite.
The Treatment: One-Minute Cold Showers
My treatment to overcome stress, anxiety and feelings of fear and self-doubt was to take one-minute, ice-cold showers every day for a week, and then report back to my acupuncturist on how I was feeling. (Did I mention this was in February? In New York?) He explained that the first mental hurtle of turning on the water was to help me face fear in my life, and to learn to trust that I could conquer it.
Next, I would have to withstand being uncomfortable—and I’d have to dig deep down inside and learn to breathe through it. Breathing would be key in this treatment; the body’s reaction when hit with a blast of ice cold water is to breathe in quickly and hold that breath (think of how your body reacts when jumping into a chilly pool or ocean) and draw the limbs in close to the torso. My challenge would be to continuously breathe in and out, to move my limbs so I could wash myself, and to not reach for the dial until the timer went off on my phone. Paul suggested that I start the shower with the water on my back, then turn into the spray and let it hit my face.
I got into the shower and turned the dial all the way down to cold. I set the timer on my phone for a minute and 10 seconds to give me enough time to pull the lever toward me and hit the start button. The water hit my back and I inhaled sharply; there was no getting around the shock of the temperature. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breath, but really all I wanted to do was yell. So I did. I yelled and swore at the top of my lungs and danced on tip-toe for what felt like an eternity. This was not a Zen experience.
I opened my eyes and saw that 20 seconds had passed; I still had 40 to go. Still squealing, I turned toward the shower head and let the water hit my face. As Paul had warned me, I felt like I might hyperventilate. Now is where I had to dig deep.
With eyes closed, I willed my legs to be still and drew in a deep breath, then pushed it out sharply. And again. I reached for the bar of soap and lathered up quickly, all the while breathing in and out, in and out. As I rinsed the soap off, a funny thing began to happen: I wasn’t shaking anymore. My limbs weren’t seized up close to my torso. I was breathing. This wasn’t my favorite experience, but I was fine. And then—the alarm sounded.
I hit the lever and reached for my towel. As I stepped out of the shower, I took inventory of how I was feeling. I didn’t feel cold anymore; in fact I felt… good. I felt as though I was floating; I felt euphoric. It was the same feeling I get after being on the acupuncture table, as though my body is on a different plane. I wrapped the towel around my wet (unwashed—no time!) hair and slowly got dressed.
Apparently, my experience was not unique. According to Psychology Today, being exposed to cold can do wonders for your mental state of mind. “Exposure to cold has been shown to activate the sympathetic nervous system, will increase the blood level as well as brain release of norepinephrine—an adrenal hormone that can help depressed people feel more ‘up’ naturally. The water therapy also can help increase production of beta-endorphins—‘feel good’ molecules that give a sense of well-being.” It seems Paul had shared with me one of the best aspects of the Wim Hof Method, after all.
The Result: Less Stress. More Confidence.
As my day progressed, I began to come back to down to Earth, but I retained a sense of relaxation that I hadn’t been able to harness in weeks. I marveled at what my mind had been able to accomplish, albeit in the span of a minute. Paul had warned me that the second day would be worse than the first because now I knew firsthand the discomfort I’d face, and he was right: I had to give myself a serious pep talk before turning on the water that second day. And the third. (Maybe the fourth, too.)
But the payoff was worth the pain of the cold showers: I was sleeping well. I didn’t feel like my insides were churning at 120 mph. And while I wasn’t 100 percent certain that I wasn’t an imposter, the naysayers in my head were now quieted with the knowledge that I faced my fear and anxiety every morning, and I lived to tell about it. In fact, I was feeling better for having done so. Surely, I could apply this to other aspects of my life.
The Takeaway: Hydrotherapy Works
It’s been almost a year since I first tried cold showers for stress and anxiety, and let me be candid: This is not a practice I have kept up with regularly. However, I have returned to it when I find that familiar exhaustion kicking in, or when feelings of self doubt begin taking hold again. There is something incredibly powerful about willing myself to pull that faucet lever, despite my dread over the cold water hitting my skin—it’s a signal to my mind, my body and my spirit that I’m facing fear, and breathing through it.
There are a plethora of benefits associated with cold showers, but for me, the deep quiet that envelops me afterward, the headiness I carry with me throughout the day, and the trust I’ve developed in my body and mind are the greatest takeaways. While the Wim Hof Method continues to inspire the scientific community and improve the lives of others throughout the world, I can say I’m forever grateful my acupuncturist gave me this homework assignment of taking cold showers—even if I do scream and swear through half of it.
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