You may well have heard of ‘cold therapy’ to aid in the recovery of elite athletes. But cold therapy isn’t just beneficial for recovery and performance but for improved overall health as well. In fact, cold therapy is a strategy that mostly anyone and everyone can utilize daily to increase general happiness and fulfillment in life.
What is cold therapy?
Cold therapy is the exposure to cold temperatures (less than 15 degrees Celsius) in order to treat health symptoms or stimulate health benefits. Also referred to as cryotherapy – cold exposure may come in the form of ice baths, brisk daily showers, outdoor swims, and cold water immersion therapy sessions.
“The natural healing force within each of us is the greatest force in getting well.” – Hippocrates
Hippocrates, a Greek physician, considered one of the most influential figures in the history of medicine – is often credited as being the first person to document the health benefits of cold hydrotherapy. Ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations continued to record the medicinal uses and benefits of cold hydrotherapy. Nowadays, in times of recommended pills, injections, creams, and medicine – it is no wonder that such a natural therapy still makes big waves in the health and wellness culture of today.
The beauty of cold therapy is that you can endure the benefits from the comfort (or discomfort) of your own home. While ice baths, cryotherapy chambers, swimming pools, or the beach may not always be accessible, we all have access to cold water in the form of a daily shower.
By simply turning the hot water off and exposing your skin to cold water at the end of your shower, you too can experience the advantages cold therapy has to offer. Although it may take some consistent time and action to build up to, within 30 seconds (not only will your body adjust to the temperature) you’ll start to reap the many benefits of cold hydrotherapy.
What are the benefits of cold therapy?
Physical Recovery Benefits:
1. Speeds up Muscle Recovery:
Many athletes apply cold therapy to their recovery because of the faster recuperation and reduced muscle pain and soreness acquired from training sessions or competition. The cold exposure reduces swelling and tissue breakdown to ultimately speed the recovery process up and prepare the body for further action.
One of the most vital recovery for any athlete (and human in general) is that of sleep. Cold therapy triggers a spike of melatonin into the body. Melatonin is the hormone a naturally-occurring hormone that prompts the body to feel tired and sleepy. Cold exposure triggers a faster and greater response which can bio-hack the quantity and quality of rest you need to perform at your best.
2. Improved Circulation:
Cold therapy also improves circulation by stimulating blood flow in the body. When you immerse your body in cold water, the blood rushes to surround your vital organs. This causes your heart to pump more efficiently, pushing blood through all your vessels and supplying every part of your body with the oxygen and nutrients it needs.
The cold exposure creates healthy blood circulation, and, ultimately, a healthy body, heart, and mind. Not only does it improve circulation but boosts energy levels too, thanks to a hormone and neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. Norepinephrine in the brain helps to regulate focus, attention, and mood, and when we come into contact with cold water, there is a significant release of norepinephrine into our bodies.
3. Boosts Immune System.
Your immune system prevents you from catching cold viruses and other infections. Adding cold therapy to your daily routine increase the number of white blood cells (which fight infection) to circulate in your body more quickly when you are exposed to colder temperatures.
Cold therapy can also produce other infection-fighting warriors such as t-cells and antibodies. The cold exposure increases your metabolic rate and stimulates your nervous system which studies show a boost in the activity of the immune system.
“The human body can withstand and accomplish a hell of a lot more than most of us think possible, and that it all begins and ends in the mind.” – David Goggins
Mental Health Benefits:
1. Lowers Stress & Anxiety Levels:
Cold therapy activates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing blood flow to the brain. With anxiety and stress comes an increased heart rate and high blood pressure. Exposure to cold temperatures lowers the heart rate, which helps you feel calmer and less anxious.
When your body temperature cools down, your system responds by providing fresh blood. When you feel anxious, your body gets warmer and your blood pressure rises. Taking a cold shower helps you to bring your blood pressure down alleviating the stress hormone and easing the symptoms of anxiety.
“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” – Kahlil Gibran
2. Reduces Depression Symptoms.
Depression is a mood disorder that has a number of triggers. Recent evidence has found that cold therapy can have a profound impact on the symptoms of depression.
Every time you expose your skin to cold temperatures, your body undergoes a stress response. The rush of cold water activates the sympathetic nervous system, better known as the “fight or flight” response. During this response, your body releases the stress hormones norepinephrine, cortisol, and adrenaline.
Exposing yourself to this discomfort regularly allows your body to adapt to harsher conditions and as a result, you become more resistant to the stress response. Limiting the stress response can help in managing and avoiding states of depression.
3. Improved Mood.
Cold showers can work similarly to electroshock therapy. The cold water sends many electrical impulses to your brain. They jolt your system to increase alertness, clarity, and energy levels.
Cold therapy helps your body to create and release beta-endorphin and noradrenaline into the bloodstream. These endorphins, which are sometimes called happiness hormones, are naturally produced by the autonomic nervous system to not only relieve pain but ultimately stabilize and even boost your mood.
This effect leads to feelings of well-being and optimism.
1. Builds Resilience, Discipline & Willpower.
Cold therapy helps you train your nervous system to be more resilient to stress. Stress is the equivalent of ‘feeling pressure’ in sport. It is the stress response that sets off the negative self-talk narrative and triggers performance anxiety. Cold showers act as a small form of oxidative stress on your nervous system. And over time, the body adapts to this. Ultimately, this will help you stay cool, calm, and collected in moments of adversity.
Keep in mind the first time you step into a cold shower, you won’t be able to think straight, let alone breathe. But after a month, you will be thinking about your day in a zen-like focus as the ice-cold water has no effect on your state. This will translate into performance as you brush off situations of pressure or adversity that would typically take you out of your zone.
“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secrets of your success are found in your daily routine.” – John C. Maxwell
2. Increased Alertness & Focus.
Cold showers wake your body up, inducing a higher state of alertness. The cold water also stimulates you to take deeper breaths, which decreases the level of CO2 throughout the body, helping you to think clearly and concentrate. This practice keeps you ready and focused throughout the day translating into improved and increased spans of focus throughout competition.
When your body is placed under stress (in this case – because of the cold exposure), your sympathetic nervous system goes into its ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, making you feel instantly more alert. However, physical stress also means your need for oxygen greatly increases, causing a higher breathing rate which floods the body with more oxygen. It is this focus and practice of concentrated breathing which allows you to nullify the stress response and lock into the moment.
3. Develops the Mental habit of Overcoming Fear.
When we get distressed, it can be challenging to help ourselves in that moment and regulate our distress. It is common for athletes to become distressed when something doesn’t go their way which activates a stress response. This is a message sent to the body from the brain to prepare the body to fight or flee as a reaction to physical or psychological danger.
This can take an athlete out of their body and into their head where they perform safely instead of maximizing their potential. For many, this happens at a subconscious level.
Cold therapy ultimately trains the body and mind to regulate the stress hormone by managing the process in which you manage the fear response.
Ultimately this develops a higher level of resilience to stress which keeps your mind clear and alert instead of reacting to the emotional stress in the body.
4. Perform Better Under Pressure.
Pressure is the equivalent of stress. Pressure is self-induced. It is not the situation that harbours the stress response but the attachment or meaning of fear of failure in that occurs in that moment.
The feeling of stress is universal – whether you’re running from a sabre-tooth tiger, jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane, or competing in a close game with only minutes to go… Our flight or fight response has a similar feeling in the body. The increased heart rate, the sweaty palms, the jelly legs, the butterflies in the stomach, and everything speeding up.
Consistent cold therapy creates a habit of regulating the stress response in order to create a level of resilience and mental toughness that can help you perform better under pressure.
5. Increases Your Comfort Zone.
“If we always choose comfort, we never learn the deepest capabilities of our mind or body.” – Wim ‘the Iceman’ Hoff
There is a certain amount of willpower needed to turn off the hot water and turn up the cold. This situation gets easier with consistent practice. In fact, it is something you will certainly notice – the more you do it. One of the benefits of developing resilience to stress is that it increases your comfort zone and your ability to take action on things without that little voice trying to scare you out of it – literally!!
The ability to step into the fear zone on a consistent basis, allows you to speed up the growth and development process which creates more opportunities and helps you blow past your competition.
What was once the fear zone soon very quickly becomes your comfort zone as your ability to take action and perform in that space becomes a trained habit.
6. Develops a Growth Mindset.
Comfort. It’s a glorious thing. But unfortunately, the comfort zone is not where growth and success manifest. Too much comfort can impede when it comes to developing a growth mindset.
Growth, on the other hand, requires a level of discomfort and cold showers are uncomfortable, to say the least. But by taking cold showers over and over again, you’ll actually start to develop a sense of comfort around them. Not the type of comfort that impedes your development, but essentially, you’ve gotten comfortable with the uncomfortable — and that’s an incredible mental skill that’ll improve performance and your entire life.
Cold showers will help you navigate the ‘uncomfortable’ a lot easier as it drives you to be more courageous. You’ll start to seek the uncomfortable instead of avoiding it and that is the essence of a growth mindset.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela
As with any water immersion therapy, taking a cold shower is most likely to be safe. However, before you start turning the cold tap on towards the end of your shower, you should know that there are some risks to a cold shower.
Since the sudden gush of cold water shocks the body and elevates the heart rate rapidly, it can be dangerous for people with high blood pressure, heart irregularities or heart disease. If you’re unsure whether you are at risk with any of the above, it is best to consult your doctor.
– 𝒞ℴ𝒶𝒸𝒽 𝒞𝒶𝓁.