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Suffering not for the weak-minded

I was interviewing a local musician a few weeks ago and shaking my head in disbelief when he told me most mornings he steps out onto his back porch and submerges himself in a metal tub filled with ice water for five minutes at a time, alternating between that and a hot shower for about 40 minutes.

Ice baths are nothing new, of course. Athletes use them as means of stimulating faster muscle recovery after workouts or games. Sometimes they’re prescribed for pain relief or more rapid post-surgical healing. Cryotherapy chambers, a more modern and less miserable method of cold exposure where a person is literally blasted with nitrogen for a few minutes to get the same effects, have risen in popularity in recent years.

In the musician’s case, his daily icy plunges are rooted in a method crafted by Dutch daredevil Wim Hof, who’s known for being able to withstand extreme cold exposure through meditation and controlled breathing.

“That sounds miserable,” I said.

“Oh, it is,” he replied. “But the pursuit of comfort shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all. A lot of lessons live inside pain.”

He had a point. Not to mention, we see examples of physical endurance all the time, but how many of us would pay a monthly membership to a gym that only strengthened our minds? After that interview and an hour of reading every reliable source I could find on cold-water therapy and its effects on the body, I was ready to try an amended version of it seeing as how I only have one bathroom and an icemaker that would take hours to produce enough for one experiment.

I decided to take a cold shower—we’re talking ALL the way cold—no lukewarm stuff — for five minutes. I could do anything for five minutes, right? So I turned it on, took a lot of deep breaths and went for it. When the water hit me, my body did what it’s wired to do when suddenly exposed to freezing water. I admittedly panicked with that first involuntary gasp for air but was stunned when I naturally started breathing slower and more deliberately while shivering under the shower faucet. Don’t get me wrong: It was awful. And painful. And ultimately too much for me to handle (I made it about two minutes before the screaming started to worry my kid, giving me a convenient excuse to bail).

Something weird happened the next day. I did it again, this time making it to four minutes. And again the next day, and the day after that. I’m now on Day 10. It still hurts. I still scream. But there’s something about it that appeals to me like a 5 a.m. workout in that there’s nothing fun about it, but the way I feel afterward makes it sort of…worth it? It’s an invigorating combination of physical exertion and mental focus—a lot of energy to spend in five minutes. And there’s something about getting the hardest part of your day knocked out first that leaves you with a sense of calm confidence about whatever’s left for you to tackle.

It’s not for everyone. Most things aren’t. But there’s no harm in trying something new to better yourself, physically or mentally, even if it might sound a little crazy to well, just about everyone.

Alex McDaniel is editor of the Oxford Eagle. Contact her at alex.mcdaniel@oxfordeagle.com.