Fear to Fitness: Cold water immersion builds resilience

Updated: Apr 12

My ice bath strengthens my parasympathetic nervous system, calming my response to stress and fear

In response to Cold Water Immersion... Fools Your Body Fat Scanner a reader emailed to ask me “Did you start doing ice baths primarily for weight loss?” and I wrote back:

I started cold immersion just because it was a challenge. After reading about cold showers in Mike Cernovich’s book Gorilla Mindset I decided to try it, just because it was a scary (but harmless) thing to do.

I think Tim Ferris is on the right track, when he tweed out that we grow stronger when we train ourselves to experience "suffering":

Now I get lots of questions now from people who are curious about cold water immersion.

Sometimes, these questions come from people who have seen the evolution of my 6'-0" tall body as I dropped from 250lbs to the 195lb I am now. They want to know what I’ve been doing differently to maintain a healthier weight.

Other people seem concerned for my safety when they ask, “Aren’t you afraid your heart will stop?”

I am not.

These people may be referring to a condition called “cold water shock” in which it has been reported that people with heart disease will go into cardiac arrest because of the extra stress placed on the heart by vasoconstriction (in which non-skeletal muscles squeeze blood vessels to prevent the flow of blood to extremities, thereby conserving heat to protect internal organs).

My heart is healthy. I’m fortunate to have a blood pressure at the bottom of the “normal” range and a resting pulse of about 62 beats per minute, both of which are indicators of a strong cardiovascular system.

What’s more dangerous about an involuntary cold water immersion (such as falling thru ice on a frozen lake) is the panic, which can sometimes lead to drowning. That's because entering the freezing cold water creates an involuntary gasp reflex. In response to the shock of the cold, we typically suck in our breath, hold it for a second, and tense all of our muscles.

That's not how I use my Forge.

We don't enter the water face-first, so the mouth and nostrils are not initially underwater.

When I get into the ice bath (feet first), I still get all the automatic panic responses that my body is programmed with. My heart races, my blood pressure spikes, and a series of physical responses are triggered by my autonomic nervous system (specifically, the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight or flight response to stress). For example, the cold stress causes the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which stimulates a host of biochemical responses, including the brown fat cells that metabolize white fat to generate heat in a process called thermogenesis.

But the cold water immersion I do is voluntary, which challenges me to calm myself

The first thing I do is take control of my breathing.

This is the same technique that yogis and others use in meditation to gain control of what would otherwise be unconscious physical functions, such as pulse. My current understanding is that breathing exists somewhere between involuntary and voluntary.

We have automatic breathing responses to strenuous exercise or to stress — i.e., we don’t have to think about our breathing to do it.--but we can also choose to hold, slow, or hasten our breath.

By taking control of my breath, I calm my entire body and strengthen my parasympathetic nervous system, which complements and works in opposition to the sympathetic. (Note that my doctorate is in philosophy. I teach engineering, not medicine. My understanding of the terms used in this article is not the result of formal medical training. Rather, I’m paraphrasing what I’ve learned from books like Scott Carney’s The Ice Man Cometh and other sources).

Two of my companions who have been doing ice baths, Jason Stauffer and Boyd Branch, have experimented with using Muse to measure their brainwaves while immersed in the freezing water. They find that the alpha wave state that is associated with a meditative sense of calm is much easier to achieve in the ice bath than it is on a warm, dry mat.

Brainwave data collected from the Muse headset shows the calming effects of immersion in ice water.
These results from the Muse brainwave measuring headset show that immersion in cold water (right) facilitates attainment of alpha brainwave activity, which is associated with feelings of calm.

Our experience with people who are trying an ice bath for the first time is that it takes about 30 seconds for them to overcome the initial panic, because that’s about the time it takes for mood-changing hormones to reach the brain.

Cold water immersion sets off a cascade of chemical reactions that soon becomes very appealing. I sometimes find myself craving an ice bath. Perhaps that’s because we experience high temperatures over 115F in Phoenix AZ, where I live, and the ice bath offers long-lasting relief from the heat. In fact, I find that my apartment is uncomfortably cold at temperatures below 85F for hours after a plunge.

At least one peer-reviewed science article states that there are a number of significant blood chemical changes that result from cold water immersion, including increased norepinephrine and free fatty acid levels, and reduced glucose.

Prolonged whole body immersion in cold water: hormonal and metabolic changes.

Undersea Biomed Res. 1990 Mar;17(2):139-47.


The idea that my body could become so acclimated to the ice water that it sends me chemical signals seeking it seems plausible, given the complex changes in blood chemistry that occur. But that’s not the reason that I practice cold water immersion.

There has been a great deal written about how you have to love the process of learning to achieve mastery. For example, I’m a big fan of Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, in which he describes his approach to becoming a champion first in chess and then in Tai Chi. In short, his “art” is deliberate practice. Unfortunately, the process of learning at such a high level of mastery is painful and humiliating. Waitzkin, like many others, advises that to endure such suffering, the student must love the process of learning for its own sake, rather than be attached to the outcome.

To the extent that anyone can love pain and panic, I love cold water immersion. There are no competitions. No ribbons or trophies. No prize money. No extrinsic motivators that would cause me to continue to plunge.

However, I’m not so sure that Waitzkin is entirely correct. I keep thinking of these words from Muhammad Ali

I hated every minute of training. But I said, “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” — Muhammad Ali.

Even though I enjoy the camaraderie of the plunging with my companions, and I enjoy talking about ice baths with anyone who is interested, and I enjoy the challenge and the biochemical response, I think my real motivation is coming from some vague idea of the person I want to become. And that person is a better version of myself — someone capable of keeping his “cool” even when events out of my control might cause stress or setbacks.

Painted on the wall of my daughter’s Krav Maga studio is a motivational quote very similar to Ali’s. It might be paraphrased from words first said, or at least popularized by, the famous National Football League wide receiver Jerry Rice:

"Do today what others won’t, so you can do tomorrow what others can’t." - Jerry Rice, SF 49's football team

My experiences in the Forge have trained me for adversity. Now, when I'm confronted by setbacks, by hard work, or by challenge, I remember one of Ali's most famous quotes.

"Impossible is nothing." - Muhammad Ali

I've done as much as 14 minutes in freezing cold ice water. Like Tim Ferriss suggests, I think I can probably handle whatever warm, dry land throws my way.

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