I’m no stranger to cold water. Whenever I holiday on the Isle of Wight or visit a friend who lives near the coast, no matter what month it is or the temperature outside, I will always go for a freezing swim in the sea.
On Christmas Day, I went for a festive dip with a friend and even though the water was 7 degrees and the swim itself (which lasted all of two minutes) was painfully cold, I loved the rush of endorphins that followed once I’d managed to stop shivering.
It never occurred to me that I could reap the benefits of what experts call ‘cold water therapy’ at home, until I heard an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show podcast, in which the author and lifestyle guru talked about how even a three-minute cold shower each day can act as a quick and effective mood stabiliser.
So, I decided I would twist the tap on my shower as far as it would go, and swap warm showers for cold every morning for a month.
What are the psychological benefits of cold water therapy?
“Plunging into an icy winter lake is not exactly pleasurable. Our bodies sense it as a shock and prepare us to escape away from it,” says Dr Mateusz Pucek, GP and founder of 360 Health Clinic, which is why your heart starts racing and your breathing quickens. But by taking deep breaths and allowing your body to adjust, you can learn to tolerate the sensation.
“[It] can have positive effects on anxiety, depression and a myriad of stress-related conditions,” Dr Mateusz continues. He recommends starting slowly with cold showers, staying in for one minute to begin with and working your way up, and points out that some people with some health conditions should seek advice from their doctor first.
“There are medical conditions that could make cold water exposure contraindicated. These are primarily cardiovascular and peripheral vascular disease. If you suffer from these or other severe chronic medical conditions, please consult your GP before plunging in.”
Here’s what I learned from a month of cold showers…
1. It really wakes you up
Just like with wild swimming, when I stepped under the shower head for the first time and felt the frigid flow over my body, it was a huge shock to the system. I found myself panting and almost dancing around in a bid to make it more bearable.
I set the timer on my watch for one minute and quickly lathered up, turning off the tap the second the timer went off and jumping out of the shower. One thing’s for sure, it’s extremely invigorating, especially first thing in the morning.
2. The endorphins are amazing
Not only did I feel energised, I felt a rush of clear-headed euphoria following my bracing shower. On top of the hot, sweaty HIIT workouts I do every morning, the double dose of endorphins felt amazing.
Once I’d worked my way up to the full three minutes, the mood-boosting effects were even greater. I totally get what Tim Ferriss means about cold water therapy being a mood stabiliser, which has been wonderful during lockdown, when I’ve definitely had what Michelle Obama terms ‘low grade depression’.
3. You can’t wash your hair
Well, at least I can’t bear the thought of washing my hair with cold water. Instead, I wear a towelling-lined shower cap to keep my hair dry (and my head warm).
For hair washing purposes, I alternate cold showers in the morning with warm baths in the evening, and they feel even more enjoyable in contrast with the shivering showers.
4. Some days harder than others
Sometimes during that first month, particularly after a really hard workout, I was raring to get in the shower and cool down. On other days, I was dreading it, and had to really psych myself up.
During a very cold snap in the weather, it felt like the water temperature had plunged and it took me a long time to warm up after, but I persevered nonetheless.
5. You get used to it
I actually continued with cold showers beyond my initial month-long experiment – that’s how much I benefited from them. Now there’s never any hesitation before I step under the water, because I know that in three minutes’ time, I’ll be buzzing.
6. It’s a great time saver
Previously, I would dawdle for about 20 minutes in a steamy shower, daydreaming and listening to music while I lathered up at a leisurely pace. Putting a three-minute time limit on my bathing means I can now get ready for work much faster than before.
7. It’s addictive
I never thought I would say this, but I now actually look forward to my cold showers and I’ve continued to have them almost every morning since (the only time I don’t is on some weekend days).
It’s not the shower itself that’s enjoyable – far from it – but the mental health boost that I get is so valuable, it’s totally worth three minutes of shivering and suffering every morning.