Lessons from the cold: Cold exposure as mental training
Updated: Jun 30
The cold can be a great teacher. Especially when it comes to training the mind. In this article I will share some lessons and skills that I learned from the cold. Also I will share ideas on how you can use all stages of a cold challenge (before, during and after) to train the mind.
Into the cold: stepping out of the comfort zone
The first stage of cold exposure involves everything that happens before you get into the cold water. The way that you enable yourself to get into the cold.
For many people this can be especially difficult with the first ice bath. It can seem like an impossible thing to do. Somehow you have to find a way to put all worries and fears aside, so you can make that step into the unknown. Finding this way is very empowering.
Also after the first icebath, this preparatory phase remains interesting. In my first winter of swimming in cold water, it usually took me a very long time to get into the water. Standing next to the water in bathing shorts, my mind would make all kind of excuses. ‘Let me wait a moment and think about the best way to go in’ or ‘maybe not today’ or any other attempt to procrastinate before I would jump in. It could easily take 20 minutes before I would make this step. You cannot rationally get yourself into the cold. You somehow have to shut of your thoughts and worries and just do it. Regular cold exposure is a great way to train this skill of putting thoughts aside and going for it.
This first stage of cold exposure offers a range of possibilities to train the mind. For beginners it is good to just find a way to get in. For advanced practitioners it is interesting to change the circumstances to make it a bigger challenge. For example by going in very slow or fast; In the early morning or after a day of work; Or without any preparation. This will enable you to go into the cold under any circumstance. I don’t always feel like going into icy water, but I know that I can get into ice cold water any time if I need to. It has even happened a couple of times that I needed to apply this. Once to save a dog from drowning.
In the cold: Relaxing under pressure
The second stage of cold exposure is the cold water itself. The cold can be very physical. Tension comes up, you can lose your breath and feel pain and other sensations. At the same time, it is mainly a mental challenge to get comfortable in the cold. When you want to flee or fight the discomfort, it becomes very uncomfortable. When you are able to relax into it, it feels great.
Many relaxation exercises, teach you to relax in a place where it is easy to relax, like a meditation room. The cold can teach you to relax when it is difficult to relax. It helps you with giving very direct feedback. Different from normal meditation, it is very easy to notice when you drift of in thoughts. It will immediately become uncomfortable. This way the cold helps/forces you to be in the moment. You need to bring your focus on your breath and body, to stay in the water. Therefore, you will bring your focus on your breath and body. This can make ice baths a very meditative experience. There are no daily life worries in an ice bath.
Also here you can change the mental challenge depending on your level. In the beginning it is nice to just find a way to relax in the water. When this is possible, you can either find ways to deepen the relaxation or explore if you can keep the relaxation in more challenging circumstances (in waves, streaming water, while moving or talking, etc.).
After the cold: Keeping the focus
The last stage of cold exposure consists of everything that happens after the main cold challenge till you are warm again. This is for beginners one of the most underestimated challenges.
I felt this very clearly one time after swimming in a river for a long time. I had enjoyed my challenge, felt great and was very much looking forward to my warm shower (this is a bad idea after long cold exposure, but I didn’t know yet  ). When I got home, I found out that the warm water didn’t work. Because I expected to be warm soon, my focus broke and I started shivering badly. I just wanted to be warm and it took me a very long time to get warm again. This was a lesson learned: Expectations can mess with your focus.
Once you are out of the cold, it is not over yet. This is a mantra that I keep on repeating in my courses: "It is not over yet". The exercise is only over once you are warm again. Especially when you have been in the cold for a long time, this can take a while. This is for beginners the trickiest part, because they expect that it is over, once they get out. This makes it harder to accept the cold afterwards.
This loss of focus, is not unique to cold exposure, but happens in all kind of challenges where the challenge takes longer than expected. For example many inexperienced runners might collapse after conquering a hill or when seeing the finish line. Sometimes even before crossing it. In their mind they are focussed till that point, but can't extend the focus. Also when climbing mountains, people can be so set on reaching the top, that they lose focus afterwards and get injured on the way down. The difficulty in these examples is to keep your focus for a longer time. What can help here is to mentally include also the recovery as part of the challenge. Also when recovering from the cold, it is about embracing the cold until you are warm again.
The ability to keep the focus for a long time is especially important after intense cold experiences. I learned much about this in my more extreme cold adventures. For example when I was warming up after arctic swims with an outside temperature of -17 °C or when climbing snowy mountains in shorts. It feels very powerful when you are able to keep your focus for a long time. To again and again surrender in the moment can awaken deeper powers within yourself. There is also a danger in long cold exposure. The border between great experience and feeling horrible can be thin. Don’t do it without proper guidance.
Applying the lessons from the cold in other challenges
I have focussed in this article on the following skills: Being able to go for the challenge, relaxing in discomfort and keeping focus for a longer time. The Cold is a great tool to consciously learn and train these skills. Once learned, you can use them in all kind of challenges, from working on a computer to acrobatics.
The mental proces of convincing yourself to get into cold water has many similarities with other challenges. Similar doubts and fears come up when convincing yourself to walk over hot coals or start on a tax declaration. Similar ways of procrastinating when making a backflip or a dreaded phone call. And similar ways of 'just doing it'.
Also the ability to relax into the discomfort has many uses. You can use it to endure pain inflicted by your dentist or martial arts buddy. Or you can use it for more social fears like giving a presentation or fear of heights. In all these examples, body and mind can react very similar as in an icebath. Breath and heart rate go up, there is tension in the body and the mind becomes very active. Like in the cold, it also helps in these situations to consciously bring the attention to body and breath. Having done that many times in the cold, makes it easier to do it in a different circumstance.
Lastly, being able to keep your focus for a long time comes back in sports, studying, working on a laptop, teaching and long meditations. Also in these circumstances it can take longer than desired or expected. Also here it helps when you can again and again relax into the situation and keep your focus for as long as is needed.
In many of these different examples it helps me to visualize myself in an icebath. Sometimes I remember a specific mental state or situation. Other times I use the exact same exercises that I use before, during or after an icebath to get in the right state of mind.
Cold training and life
Now that you have learned about all these benefits, you might ask: will this solve all anxiety and make me able to do everything with ease? Of course not. Just like cold exposure, life doesn’t get boring. Sometimes it is easier to stay present and other times it is very difficult. When I am faced with a new challenge, I might have worries, thoughts and fears and feel my heart rate go up. Also at times my limbs might shake with fear or I freeze like a bunny trapped in car lights. Training with the cold does not always prevent that. A challenge stays a challenge. It is not that all the fears and worries go away. Instead cold exposure has made me more familiar with how these fears and worries manifest and work in me. The cold exposure has also given me tools, training and trust to overcome them. Because of this I am less afraid of fear itself when faced with a new challenge.
If you want to work with cold exposure and mindset, be safe and respect your limits. Cold shower challenges are a good way to start. My cold shower challenge focusses on the mental side of cold exposure. The workshops, retreats and private classes are a great way to deepen your practice.
 When you have cooled down a lot, it is important to warm up gradually. Warming up (the extremities) too fast, brings more cold into the core which results into lowering the core temperature. This can cause an afterdrop. So if you are very cold, don’t jump in a sauna, warm shower or bring your heart rate too much up with exercise. Instead slowly and gradually warm up.