Hippocrates prescribed it to allay lassitude, James Bond favored it as a token of his manliness, and in less indulgent times Gordonstoun school insisted on it: the cold shower. And now it’s having a moment with the wellness brigade. (The very word ‘wellness’ used to send me screaming from the room: a Californian import, I was sure. Then someone pointed out that the word has been in the English lexicon since the 17th century, so that told me.)
The proven physical benefits of exposure to cold water are impressive. A boost to the immune system, improved circulation, and a wake-up call to the body’s brown fat, which is apparently A Very Good Thing. But what piqued my interest were reports of psychological benefits: reduced procrastination and avoidance of unpleasant tasks. Basically, a way to stop being a wuss.
A study in the Netherlands found that participants who adopted a cold shower habit for just three weeks took fewer days off sick from work. It wasn’t that they didn’t catch colds or go down with other ailments, but rather that they didn’t take time off. They powered through. Admittedly this study relied on anecdotal evidence, and no one was checking whether cold showers were really being taken. Still, something interesting appeared to be going on.
If you research the topic on the internet, you’ll notice a whiff of the locker room. Cold showering is promoted as a path to the warrior mindset; indeed, it does something measurable to testosterone levels. But this is an equal opportunities world and I’m told by an endocrinologist that even we gals need a bit of testosterone.
Cold water therapy has a venerable history. The Chinese were there long before Hippocrates, and the Romans after him, with the obligatory dip in a frigidarium. The Japanese have their annual ice bath ritual. Stalwart, robed — and this year, masked — they wade bravely in. In Scandinavia and Russia, ordeal by snow or cold water is considered a normal activity, even for young children. Cut a hole in the ice and in you go. A moment of discomfort endured for the eventual pleasure of feeling energized and proud of having exercised self-discipline and faced one’s fears.
Like all human beings, I have days when I’d prefer to lie on a couch and eat chocolate. I may not give in to the urge, but I do, or rather did, find a dozen ways to delay and faff before starting work, making a dreaded phone call or, my own personal bugbear, washing the dishes. I could have faffed for England. Then I started the cold shower experiment.
We have all experienced the unintended cold shower. Perhaps in a B&B where hot water was only available on alternate Tuesdays, or because some sadistic bastard tinkered with the thermostat. The planned cold shower is different. I use the Scottish technique, as per Bond, James Bond. You start with hot water and soap, and finish with a literally breath-taking cold rinse.
My post-war childhood left me with an aversion to cold. The frozen pipes, the chilblains, the Spartan challenge of the outside toilet. I haven’t exactly approached cold showers in a spirit of chipper fortitude. During the minutes before I turn off the hot tap I engage in a pitiful psychic tussle. A minute isn’t long to withstand a dousing in cold water, but the weasel voice of moral flabbiness is always in my ear. ‘Do it tomorrow. No one will know.’
They say it gets easier. I look forward to that. Although, come to think of it, that’s not really the point, is it? The point is to learn to accept discomfort, to push yourself to do something you don’t want to do, be it completing your tax return or even just starting work on a dreich winter morning that holds little promise of daylight.
I am now a month into my cold shower regime. Every time I step into the tub it is uncertain, right up to the very last moment, that I’m going to go through with it, but I do. There is no doubt in my mind that that small dose of controlled adversity, that brief victory of grit over wussiness, sets me up for the day. I walk the walk, turn up at the desk. I faff no more. Unlikely as it seemed, I am a convert.