A year of cold showers: what are the benefits beyond body health?

From September 1, 2019 to September 1, 2020, I tried to turn the shower faucet to its coldest end as often as possible. This voluntary discomfort exercise, which I had already carried out for a month in the winter of 2018, has had concrete effects on my health and, above all, my well-being.

Jorge Guillen on Unsplash

Within the framework of this challenge, a cold shower simply consists to expose yourself to the lowest possible thermostat temperature from the beginning until the end of the shower under normal/high water pressure. It is a voluntary discomfort exercise recommended by many stoics. Seneca, for example, used to take cold baths. He was inspired by Plato. His practice was accompanied by the blame for the pleasures of hot water. In Letter 51 (6) to Lucilius, he says as follows:

To be conquered, in the first place, are pleasures, which, as you see, have carried off even the sternest characters. If a man has once understood how great is the task which he has entered upon, he will see that there must be no dainty or effeminate conduct. What have I to do with those hot baths or with the sweating-room where they shut in the dry steam which is to drain your strength? Perspiration should flow only after toil.

What are the benefits of the cold shower beyond the health of the body?

Why is Seneca so virulent towards the pleasures of hot water and so welcoming towards the discomfort of cold water? It’s because exposure to cold has its own benefits. For the Stoics, these benefits are of primary importance because they support our inner well-being.

First of all, the cold shower is related to the discipline of desire. Pleasure is not directly part of the equation. I still remember the necessary self-sacrifice under the cold showers of Latvia, during my trip in February. There were several degrees of difference with the Strasbourg pipes’ water. However, it was indeed this thermal shock that awakened the vitality in me and which even revolved around a set of positive feelings: the self-esteem that arises from the accordance between actions and the commitment made with oneself; the almost total presence to oneself at the heart of the challenge; the feeling of lasting well-being after the shower.

The cold shower is in fact a battle in which one engages with the determination of a warrior. In the cold of the moment, the soul is in the present, here and now, in symbiosis with the breath. It is lost neither in nostalgic thoughts nor in fantasy projections. After the shock, it finds a pleasant rest. A serene and extensive pleasure — of the same nature as that which occurs after physical exertion — appears due to the contrasting effect between the film of ice-cold water covering the skin, the room temperature, the friction of the towel, and the warmth of the textiles that one puts on. You feel alive like a beast and like a human being at the same time.

On another level, taking cold showers is a truly spiritual exercise that helps to anchor good skills. The ability to resist the comfort of heat and to endure the discomfort of cold water can become the means by which one exercises self-control, the virtues of courage and moderation. It requires skills that are then transferable to other, sometimes more serious, aspects of human life. “We should practise, by heaven, with little things, and after beginning with those, pass on to greater things”, says Epictetus (Discourses, I, 19, 18). A somewhat teasing Stoic master might ask: “and how can you say you are ready to face the obstacles of life — illness, mourning, fear of death — if you can’t even accept the simple sensation of cold on your body?”

What are the physiological benefits of a cold shower?

The cold shower also has a whole range of positive effects on the health of the body. During this challenge, I hardly got sick at all and the only time I did, the illness didn’t last very long. Compared to other years, this is a record. I also noticed that my skin was less irritated and my hair less dry. Moreover, the cold prepares you to wake up as well as to sleep. It awakens and invigorates the mind in one case; it draws on the energy at the end of the day and prepares the night in the other. These remarks are not only mine but come back in the different testimonies of those who have experienced the cold shower over a long period.

A habit that is difficult to anchor…

Beyond the benefits, I also noted that it was difficult to make cold showers an ingrained habit. For the first six months, I didn’t want to experience a cold episode every day, especially after the rainy, freezing days. Without willpower, it was the discipline that guided me. With the return of good weather, the water lost its icy power and the showers seemed easier. But this “habit” never had for me the same ease and spontaneity as others, such as sport, reading, or waking up at dawn.

Also, my body was still in contact with hot water about twenty times over the 365 days of the period. In this case, several types of hot showers can be distinguished: 1- The showers taken in my gym are not adjustable and give warmth by default (the rare times I took them were necessary; otherwise I would go home); 2- The showers taken when I was ill were deliberately hotter so as not to shock my immune system while it was struggling; 3- The contrasting showers (hot then cold) were a form of weakness of will but I don’t really consider them a failure; 4- The hot showers taken without any external constraint and which are the least justifiable. Out of the twenty or so hot showers taken, only a minority of them are a form of acrasy.

… but with concrete effects

Generally speaking, following a well-thought-out and well-considered discipline has always been a source of satisfaction for me. By directing my efforts towards the cold shower, every day I overcame an ingrained automatism, that of the desire for hot water. What I have lost in pleasure, I have gained in serenity; because the cold shower provides a delayed but lasting feeling of well-being whereas the hot shower provides an immediate but ephemeral feeling of well-being. The hot shower is not to be banished. It also has its virtues. It is simply less useful for those who wish to put themselves to the test.

It’s a challenge that I recommend to everyone. It allows you to explore your limits, to give vigour to the soul by giving the body vigour and to better understand the singular, invigorating and lasting pleasure of the cold shower. I intend to maintain this habit by adding a little more flexibility.

This article was first published in French on my blog www.unregardstoicien.com .

French blogger on Modern Stoicism. I’m (mostly) using Medium to offer English translations of my articles that are published on www.unregardstoicien.com

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