Learn How to Overcome Discomfort (by Jumping into Ice Covered Lakes)

I’ve always gone swimming in really cold water. I’m not sure that I really enjoyed the swimming part but the thrill afterwards kept me going back for more. From an age when I was still learning how to walk I would follow my father into High Sierra snow melt.

There is one lake that I didn’t go in that I still haven’t lived down. It was completely covered in ice at 10,000 feet in June. I was – maybe – nine years old. My father jumped in. My sister went in up to her waist. I vividly remember taking off my shoes and deciding that this lake was just too much for me – while my mother spoke to me consoling from the shore.

Today I am the 0nly member of my family who jumps in naked and screaming to every body of water below 50°. Every year I go camping with my family in the Sierras and those cold water dips are a highlight of each and every day. Friends often goggle as I dip into very cold water on our first night, often well after dark. (By the end of the trip those friends have usually learned to enjoy my ice baths too!)

But all of this serves as back story to my current exploration: I have recently begun taking very cold baths in my home in San Francisco. I grew up taking baths, Japanese-style in scathingly hot water. This was my mother’s ritual every night bed and I’ve adopted it. In the last several months I have begun to add cold water to my regimen. Since I acquired an infrared sauna in February 2012 I have had less desire for long soaks in hot water. Over the summer I regularly took cold showers after exercise and sauna. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I began to elaborate on these showers by making my baths cold, as well, but I am shocked at how much I’ve come to enjoy them!

What is particularly interesting to me is the diminishing of discomfort that I experience in very cold baths. They keep getting more comfortable – almost cozy – and the transition has been remarkably quick. I’m at this moment just out of one and tingling with a warmth that I know well from my time in mountain streams. But tonight – four weeks after having started taking cold baths at least four out of every seven nights – I got out of the bath, realized I wanted more soaking, and got in again for another few minutes. Granted, I’m a bit odd for wanting ice-covered lakes and cold showers to begin with. But wanting more time soaking in middle-of-the-night very cold bath water?

My take away from this is the use and utility of looking at fear and discomfort and facing them head-on. I’m not advocating ice cold lakes or other extremes for all people. I am suggesting to take a second look at those things we fear or avoid. The discomfort lasts a very short time and the benefits of getting over that discomfort last a lifetime.

I’m often afraid of a freezing cold lake in the middle of the night and ice bath were only slightly more appealing. But I know that at the end of a long day of hiking in the mountains a cold dip feels good and that the feel after a cold shower is exquisite.

So what if I want to exercise more this month or write more? How do I change something I don’t want to do into something I look forward to doing daily? I want to know how I can apply what I’ve learned to other areas of my life: getting up early, writing 3000 words a day, running a marathon.  What did I do to learn to enjoy my ice baths?

  • Started small. I began with short showers and I built up from there.
  • No push. I didn’t take a cold shower except when I wanted to. This isn’t a thing anyone I know does or thinks they should do. The magic of the experience for me has been the increased desire to bath in freezing cold water.
  • Variation. I didn’t bath cold unless I wanted to. I still vary it up between hot and cold.

I am going to take these ideas into new areas of my life. I’d like to run a marathon so I am going to start with running a few miles just a few days a week. I’d like to write 3000 words a day. I am not going to write that much tomorrow and that’s okay! I’ll start with editing my book and beginning another blog post. Say, 800 words.

And languor for 20 minutes in a very cold bath – something I would have swore I would never do four months ago – you bet I’ll  do that!