Deliberate cold exposure for focus

Deliberate cold exposure has many physical benefits, but what does it do for your mind? In this post, you’ll learn the hows and whys behind deliberate cold exposure. You’ll also discover scientifically tested protocols to improve focus, mood, and your ability to regulate your mind under stress. The physical benefits of cold exposure will not be included in the scope of this article. However, if you are interested in those, I will leave sources in the end that will give you more information.

Blog post by Sanjin Kacevac

How it started…

In a previous article, I told my personal story and how I rediscovered my focus thanks to physical tools. On my journey, I stumbled upon many interesting techniques, but none have delivered such quick and impactful results as deliberate cold exposure.

It all started a few years ago when, browsing the internet, I came upon a peculiar character called Wim Hof. Hof, also known as the “iceman,” holds all kinds of world records. He has dived 66 meters underneath the ice, ran a half marathon above the Arctic Circle, climbed Mount Everest wearing only shorts (yes, it is true!), stood in a container full of ice for ridiculous periods of time, and countless more records alike. He claims that “the cold is a friend” that can help reap all kinds of mental and physical benefits. Even though I hated the cold, I decided to give it a try.

At first, it took some courage to step into the cold shower. But then I discovered that as I walked out of the shower, I felt an amazing rush of energy. The fog was lifted from my mind, and I was focused and alert. I couldn’t wait to jump on my next task! It was fascinating, and the scientist in me demanded an explanation. Here is what I found.

Deliberate cold exposure done in a frozen lake for the benefits of focus

What is deliberate cold exposure?

Deliberate cold exposure is the act of deliberately exposing yourself to the cold. There are many ways to experience the cold (cryotherapy, cold air, etc.). However, this article will focus solely on the most researched ones: cold water immersion and cold showers.

I must point out that the word “deliberate” is key. Having the right mindset is an important part of the process. Doing something deliberately and believing that it is good for us leads to different physiological effects than if something is happening against our will. Deliberate, in this case, means that you are placing yourself in a cold environment on PURPOSE to extract benefits.

This article provides insight into how and why these methods work. You will also find guidelines for using cold exposure safely and correctly. So, let’s jump into it!

Why would I do this madness?

The effects of cold exposure on mood and focus

Many studies have investigated the effects of so-called cold-water swimming, or open-water swimming, defined as swimming in cold water of 10°C or less. Cold-water swimming benefits mood and can even be used to treat major depressive disorders. This begs the question, which factor is responsible for the positive results in these studies? Is it the swimming or the cold?

A recent study has aimed at controlling for the swimming factor and testing the effect of cold-water immersion on mood. In this study, the participants stayed in cold sea water (an average of 13.6°C) for up to 20 min and were tested using a validated mood questionnaire (Profile of Mood States). All the participants showed significantly improved mood after just a single bout of cold-water immersion.

Reading scientific literature, a few things are clear:

  1. People notice improved mood and focus after cold water immersion and report that this is the reason why they keep on doing this practice.
  2. Cold is a reliable stimulus for increasing the levels of neurotransmitters associated with positive mood and focus.
  3. The physiological reaction of all human beings to the cold is universal. No matter how resilient or brave you are, the cold is going to shock you.

The effects of cold exposure on mental strength

Mental strength is the capacity to deal effectively with stressors and perform regardless of the circumstances in which one finds oneself. Mental strength is incredibly important for staying focused and calm under stressful situations. Deliberate cold exposure can help develop mental strength.

Exposure to the cold puts our bodies under stress and so provides an opportunity to practice staying calm and focused under challenging conditions. This training is called top-down control, i.e., the control of the higher cognitive functions over our bodily reactions. When our bodies are stressed by the cold, by staying calm and controlling the instinct that screams at us to “Get out!” we prepare our brains to cope with any kind of stress.

In the study Brain over Body, researchers tested the ‘’Iceman’’ himself, Wim Hof, during prolonged immersion in ice-cold water. They found the activation of brain areas involved in facilitating “internal focus and sustained attention in the presence of adverse (…) stimuli.” The authors suggest that this method could allow practitioners to develop control over their autonomous system. This could benefit both lifestyle interventions and the treatment of clinical conditions.

What happens in our bodies while experiencing cold?

During cold exposure, our bodies release large amounts of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine. These chemicals, also known as catecholamines, have diverse effects on our bodies. Noradrenaline and adrenaline increase our level of agitation, focus, the desire and the ability to move, while dopamine is the molecule of motivation and reward. Dopamine seems to be the main reason for the focus benefits derived from cold exposure.

Cold hard facts

In a very interesting study, researchers examined a group of young men during a 1-hour water immersion in different temperatures (32°C, 20°C, 14°C). The study showed that participants immersed in cold water (14°C) had a steady rise in adrenaline and noradrenaline up to 5x over baseline and a rise in dopamine up to 2.5x over baseline. For reference, this rise in dopamine is equal to that of using cocaine. What is even more interesting is that, unlike the effect of chemical substances, the dopamine increase from cold water continues hours after the cold exposure is finished.

 Of course, in this study, the water was only 14 degrees, which isn’t ice-cold. Moreover, the participants stayed inside for 1 hour, which would not be practical for everyday use. Further research is therefore needed to understand the physiological response to a short cold shower or bath, as practiced by cold enthusiasts in their daily lives.

A cool tool…

The fact that the cold is a reliable stimulus for evoking such a reaction in our bodies can be leveraged into making us more focused, alert, and present in our everyday life. Not only does this “cocktail” of catecholamines have a vast effect on our mood and focus, but also the high density of cold receptors in our skin is sending an overwhelming number of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain. This reaction could have an anti-depressive effect, helping you get out of the funk on those hard days. The best of all is: It’s completely free!

Protocols for enhancing mental health and focus

When I say cold exposure, I am referring to cold water immersion (up to the neck with both feet and hands submerged) or cold showers. The option that offers maximum benefits is the cold water immersion, with cold showers being second best.

The protocol for enhancing your focus and mental health is quite straightforward. You need to take a cold plunge/shower for a short time, try to stay calm, and get out. Simple enough, right? Well, although the concept is simple, there are two approaches you can take to maximize the benefits of deliberate cold exposure: the systematic approach and the “rise to the challenge” approach.

The systematic approach to cold exposure

You can approach cold exposure just like you would with exercise, setting fixed numbers of sets and reps, getting progressively harder as you get better. You can start with a duration and temperature that feels challenging but manageable and then gradually increase the time or lower the temperature. This approach has the merit of being simple, but it can have a flaw: if you become a cold fanatic and keep progressing towards longer times and lower temperatures, after a while, the exposure becomes either impractical (too long) or unhealthy (too cold).

The “rise to the challenge” approach to cold exposure

Another approach would be to think of your time in the cold in terms of overcoming challenges. Our bodily reaction to the cold is universal. If you deliberately get into cold water, you will experience stress, and this stress will come in waves. There will be the initial stress of feeling the cold water on your body, then you may get used to it, then after a few seconds, a second wave of stress will come, then it will be better, then a third wave will come, etc. Thus, instead of fixing the duration of the cold exposure, you can set the number of stress waves you want to overcome. On some days, the cold will feel easy, while on other days, you might feel stressed even before getting into the water.

Try to stay calm and think of it in terms of how many challenges I am going to conquer today.

Guidelines for deliberate cold exposure

How cold should the water be?

Every person is different, and the temperature of the water depends on many factors that make it impossible to prescribe a certain temperature. However, as a rule of thumb, you’ve got the right temperature when you want to get out but feel safe staying in. In other words, the water should be cold and uncomfortable enough to gain the benefits of the cold exposure but safe enough so that you don’t endanger your health. Finding the right spot may require some initial experimentation, especially if you dread the cold (like I used to).

When is the best time to take a cold shower?

Our body temperature changes throughout the day. As the graph below shows, body temperature is usually at its lowest approximately 2 hours before waking up. It then gradually rises until the late afternoon, and it starts dropping again as we approach bedtime (lower core body temperature is essential for our sleep).

Circadian rhythm of gastrointestinal temperature. The black line represents the mean values recorded every 60 s during 24-h period, and the red line is the mean best-fit curve.

Cold exposure increases our body temperature. Thus, depending on the time of the day, you might find cold exposure to be more or less challenging. You will probably need more willpower in the evening when your body temperature drops than in the morning or afternoon when your body temperature rises.

All things considered, if your goal is to improve focus, mood, and mental strength, it might be more beneficial to expose yourself to cold in the morning or early afternoon. This will further increase your body temperature, making you more alert and wakeful for the hours to come. Doing it late at night might disrupt your sleep (although not for all people).

How often should you do deliberate cold exposure?

Peer-reviewed studies do not recommend any fixed time, but some point to a threshold of 11 minutes in total per week, divided into 2-4 sessions. This threshold is not strict , and it is geared more toward increases in metabolism than mental benefits. However, it is a good number to aim for if you feel that a goal would help you stay consistent. If you notice that 11 minutes per week is easy, you may want to change some variables, either using colder water, longer duration, or more frequent exposure.

How to resist the cold?

There are several ways to do it:

  • You just grind through the experience waiting for it to be over.
  • You calm yourself down. A universal reaction to cold is shortness of breath. Controlling your breath can thus be a great way to train your mental strength and ability to stay calm and rational under stress.
  • You can also perform a cognitively challenging task. The cold triggers a 30% to 80% decrease in cognitive function. Therefore, some researchers recommend this approach as a way of keeping your mind “online.”

Is the stress induced by cold exposure really good for me?

There is no evidence that short cold exposure has any negative effects. Nonetheless, it is a stressful experience. And when talking about stress, it is important to differentiate between “bad” and “good” stress.

Bad stress, also called distress, happens when people feel that they can’t cope with the situation or that they have “bitten off more than they can chew.” Distress triggers anxiety in the short term and, in the long term, can lead to depression or burnout. At a physiological level, distress leads to increased adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that alters immunity and suppresses digestion, reproduction, and growth. In the short term, cortisol is useful for responding to danger by fighting or flying. But high cortisol levels over long periods trigger the adverse effects that everyone knows to be associated with stress.

Good stress, also called eustress, happens when people feel challenged but perceive the situation as manageable. Eustress increases performance in the short term and growth in the long term. Like distress, eustress triggers adrenaline and noradrenaline but not cortisol. On the contrary, eustress seems to lead to dopamine release, the motivation factor.  

The difference between bad and good stress brings me back to the beginning of this post and the importance of DELIBERATELY exposing yourself to cold. Challenging yourself deliberately is a good form of stress that brings about growth and development.

Slow and steady gets you there

And there you go! Now you have all you need to know about cold exposure and the mental benefits you can get from it. Cold can be leveraged to our advantage and offers enormous benefits if used correctly. Just remember, practice caution, build up gradually, and pay attention to the changes in your body.

If you would like to know more about this topic and the physical benefits you can derive from cold exposure, whether for performance or general health, you can find below a list of sources that you can use to further your knowledge.

Disclaimer

Temperature is a very powerful stimulus for our brain and body. This also means that it can carry possible hazards if not done correctly. This article is for general informational purposes only, and it does not offer medical or healthcare advice. The application of the information in this article and the provided literature is at the user’s own risk. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should consult a healthcare professional and seek medical advice on any condition they may have.

Although there have been no known negative side effects of deliberate cold exposure (if done correctly), I would urge caution and remind you to stay safe and build up gradually.

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