I have been experimenting with the therapeutic value of cold water exposure for about 20 years. I started this adventure while living in Northwest Indiana, wading and swimming in the chilly waters of Lake Michigan when ice flows and rip currents allowed. These days I live in Northern Vermont, and continue deepening my relationship with cold exposure through frequent dips in Lake Champlain. I have never mentioned my cold-water predilections on this blog before, so thought I would use this post to rectify that.
As I type this, it is late March. It was a very mild winter here in Vermont’s Champlain Valley. In my town the daytime high temperature did not slip below 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 C) all winter. Night time lows slipped below zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18 C) on only a few nights. As a consequence, Lake Champlain never froze over and I was able to access open water for cold water dips all winter.
When I talk about my cold water swimming habit with people, their first reaction is usually curiosity. Why would I do such a thing? There are, of course, a great many reasons. While evidence supporting some of them is anecdotal, others have been researched thoroughly enough that a scientific consensus now backs them up.
The initial reason I began exploring cold water therapy had to do with mental health. I struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my high school and college years, and even attempted suicide when I was in my very early 20s. I continued to struggle afterwards, until I moved to a tiny town near the southern tip of Lake Michigan to work for the United States Geological Survey. I had always enjoyed swimming, and since Lake Michigan became the most accessible body of water, I started swimming there.
Lake Michigan is a big, cold lake. Much colder, on average, than any other lake I had ever lived near. I swam anyway, and gradually got used to the cooler temperatures. My mental health improved. Initially I figured it was just because I was spending more time outdoors and was being more active, but my improvements were significant enough that I started researching links between mental health and time spent in nature. My internet searches soon led me to stories about Wim Hof, then to the growing body of research and anecdotal reports on the benefits of cold water therapy.
My experimentation with cold exposure continued. I suffered less from chronic inflammation, especially when I watched what I ate. I got sick less often. I also noticed that my temperature tolerance expanded. This happened slowly, over several years. These days I do not even own a winter coat anymore. While I do own gloves and long underwear, I rarely use them. My 20+ years of cold therapy liberated me from the need for excess clothing just like it liberated me from the depression and anxiety that plagued me as a young adult.
There is one final benefit I want to bring up, if only because I have never seen it mentioned in all of the articles and studies I have read: Better nervous system regulation.
The ideal resting state of our nervous system involves the activation of the ventral portion of our vagal nerve, from roughly our heart upwards. When this portion of our vagal complex is activated, we can engage with other people, understand the consequences of our actions, reason through things, empathize, and exercise compassion, among other useful tasks. Stephen Porges, who formulated Polyvagal Theory, calls this ventral vagal activation “social engagement mode”.
When our nervous system perceives a threat, it can draw us out of social engagement mode and trigger various fight, flight, or freeze responses. These responses can be useful when we are in danger, but they are not useful when they activate chronically in social situations where empathy and compassion are more effective responses.
For those who have never experienced it, wading or diving into cold water can be quite a shock. I remember many dips in Lake Michigan where the sensation of the cold water biting against my skin took my breath away. Over time though, my nervous system got used to that stimulation, aided by cold showers and ice water baths for my hands and feet. I learned to relax into that initial shock over larger areas of my body. Over time my body learned that exposure to cold water is not the threat it initially thought. Now, 20 years after those first fateful dips, I can wade or even dive into 32 F (0 C) water without much of a shock at all. The water still feels cold, of course, but it does not trigger any nervous system threat responses.
Learning to calm my nervous system through cold water immersion has made it easier to accomplish that same task in other contexts, too. I have been learning a lot about racial issues here in the United States, for example. One term that comes up in those discussions is “white fragility”, coined by race educator Robin DiAngelo. Say what you will about her teaching style and word choice, but fragility is a real thing that has real consequences for discourse. This is not limited just to issues of race, either. I have seen people show similar threat response patterns in discussions about wealth and income inequality (class fragility), gender inequities (male fragility), as well as climate change and other environmental issues (eco-fragility).
The behaviors that DiAngelo labels as fragility are caused by the activation of people’s sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight) and dorsal vagal complex (freeze). In effect, someone brings up an issue that another perceives as threatening, and their nervous system pushes them out of social engagement mode and into a threat response. This process is not one that people are conscious of. It is instinctive, and often happens below their conscious awareness. This is why people who exhibit behaviors associated with fragility typically deny they are doing them.
Given that understanding of what is happening, any practices we can undertake that make it easier to stay in social engagement mode in spite of challenging issues being raised is useful. My experience is that my years of cold water therapy make it easier for me to stay in social engagement mode and avoid being triggered into a threat response. This is true in racial justice work, as well as in many other contexts. I would love to hear from others who partake in cold water therapy to see if they have similar experiences.
[I release written and audio versions of these posts on my Patreon page on new, full, and quarter moons. A couple days later I publish them here on Medium. I post them on my blog four or five days after that. If you want to read (or listen to) my posts right when I release them, join me on Patreon!]