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The Psychological Benefit of Cold Showers

One of my clients recently told me she likes to start the day with an action.

I love learning from my clients.

The start of the day sets the pace for the rest of the day. This is primarily due to the power of momentum. We wake up as a body at rest. Action gets the ball rolling…

Once the ball is rolling, it’s easier to keep it rolling.

We can start the day with thought. That’s an option.

You might think about everything you have to do that day. You might think of being cold and achey. You might think about how you don’t want to get up.

Snoozing for 45 minutes.

That’s no way to start the day in my opinion.

I prefer to start the day with an action.

My preferred action is a freezing cold shower.

Ok. Not freezing cold, but as cold as it can get.

I could write about the health benefits of this, but I feel that this has been well documented. In fact, I just recently heard Dave Asprey discussing the impact of cold showers on our mitochondria, effectively killing off the weak and strengthening our resilience.

Stress creates resiliency. No species has ever evolved in the face of comfort.

Aside from the health benefits, of which there are plenty, I believe that starting the day with a cold shower (or any other sort of uncomfortable action that jolts us awake) provides an enormous psychological benefit.

This is called opposite action.

I first came across the concept of opposite action when I was leading a treatment group focused on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, a therapeutic modality commonly called DBT.

Opposite action is a strategy for regulating emotions by intentionally going against its urges.

This is a strategy I often use when helping clients decrease depression by increasing levels of activity that are social, active, and/or pleasurable. When depression tells us to isolate and stay inside, take opposite action and take a hike with a friend. That’s the idea.

This is also one of the reasons exposure therapy is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety. Anxiety tell us to avoid. Instead, what’s best is to deliberately confront the object of fear (assuming it’s not actually dangerous). We approach and experience the discomfort. This allows us to overcome the fear at the root of such anxiety.

Opposite action is a useful strategy to reduce unwanted emotions.

It’s about developing a different relationship to our thoughts. We often respond to our thoughts automatically and impulsively, complying with whatever the “voice in our head” is instructing.

If you’ve lived enough life, you probably realize that this isn’t always helpful. In fact, it can sometimes be the worst thing for us. How many times have those thoughts told you to eat that cake or smoke that cigarette? How many times have they told you to be worried, when it was no big deal?

Starting the day with a cold shower strengthens this skill of opposite action, like a muscle.

There isn’t a morning when I crank the shower to its coldest temperatures that my thoughts aren’t yelling, “No! Shit. No. Don’t do this! This sucks. Just take a warm shower. COME ON MAN. Stop!”

The protesting mind.

And as my thoughts are going crazy, I slowly and calmly step into the stream of shocking cold water.

I stand there. I feel the sensation of the water on my body.

I tune out those thoughts. They are still there, but I turn the volume down. I don’t listen to them.

I remember that thoughts are not facts. That I don’t have to believe everything I think.

That even though my thoughts are begging me to turn the water warm, I reach forward and turn it a little bit colder.

This is opposite action. My thoughts are telling me no, but my actions are saying yes (it also works the other way).

This skill is at the heart of Nelson Mandela’s quote about courage: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

There are other similar quotes, but the idea remains the same. Acting in spite of fear. That’s opposite action.

This is difficult at first. A lot of us treat our thoughts as truth. We often live our lives according to our thoughts… The ego.

Although it’s difficult at first, it gets easier with practice. The thoughts don’t stop. The voice in my head still yells at me. But I care less and less. It becomes easier to act oppositely. To turn down the volume on those thoughts.

Each time I get out of that cold shower, feeling revitalized and rejuvenated, I realize how wrong my thoughts were.

I start my day with deliberate, purposeful action. No matter what my brain has to say about it.

After this, the gears are greased. It sets me up to make good choices the rest of the day, such as when I don’t feel like going to the gym, answering that call, completing that task, or finishing that project.

Our thought patterns are conditioned over time. In order to cultivate self-mastery, we can’t always depend on changing our cognitions. This can be helpful, no doubt. But problematic thoughts will always arise out of no where. We must also learn to perceive our thoughts differently.

We need to realize thoughts for what they are: little bits of language and images. Little motion pictures. That nagging voice. The part of us that needs protection.

As I recently heard it called the “Inner Woody Allen.” You don’t need to listen to that part of you.

In fact, when you let that part of you rule your life, you will likely be ruled by fear. That same voice telling you not to take the cold shower will also tell you not to approach that attractive person, not to apply for that position, not to start the business, not to travel, not to take a chance.

Warm showers are comfortable, but cold showers can change your life.

But those thoughts that nag you aren’t interested in self-development. They are interested in making sure you’re safe and comfortable.

Rarely does true growth occur within the confines of your comfort zone.

We must train ourselves to not only ignore what our thoughts insist, but to act oppositely, particularly when it goes against what we know is best.

In this new way of being, your thoughts no longer run the show. Your higher self (goals, values, beliefs) conquer your lower self (desires, drives, impulses). In this state, you are able to move in the direction of what is best for you, not just what you feel like.

In order to develop this state, practice opposite action. Make this practice a part of your life and watch it strengthen overtime, as you work toward developing self-mastery.

Be Still.

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