Cold showers: Happiness on tap?

What I thought were eccentricities born of writing a book on alcohol turn out to be a “thing”—a thing called the Wim Hof Method.

It is surprisingly easy to slip into a daily routine that, on first impression, might not seem out of place in a Victorian lunatic asylum.

I had learned regular deep, diaphragm breathing and breath-holding exercises can calm our nervous systems. So I did them.

And an intrepid friend lured me into distinctly nippy sea swimming off Brighton, having a clear mood-boosting and soothing effect.

It tallied with some research suggesting cold water exposure might also help downshift our nervous systems.

Sea-less, I improvised with cold showers, applying the key pro tip of starting slowly and, above all, relaxing.

Literary inspiration
The connection to my book is that these methods may help tackle two common drivers of alcohol consumption, anxiety and low mood.

A bid to overcome these two are among the most common reasons we choose to drink alcohol. Fine, except it makes them worse.

Knowing this gives a strong motive to look for new ways to soothe our woes, one or two might actually work.

Like for Tigger, it is our ability to bounce which seems to make us feel sustained happiness, not simply accumulating highs.

More than any one thing, for me this has meant making a habit of saying Yes to things which might add some boing.

Less than outlandish
After outlining my penchant for heavy breathing and cold showers over coffee the other day, I expected at least a raised eyebrow.

But, no, far from being taken aback, my companion just said, “Oh, you mean the Wim Hof Method?” I was a little crestfallen.

It turns I had concocted a homespun version of a routine popularised by Dutch daredevil Wim Hof, who has ascended Everest in just shorts.

The official routine involves more vigorous breathing and a super-long breath hold. Mine was over three minutes this morning.

And the cold exposure is longer than mine was too, as one might expect from a record-breaking “iceman” rather than a weakling journalist.

Gearing up my homespun routine using the new method has lead to some noticeable improvements.

On a scale of one to ten, where ten is running around, arms in the air, my anxiety/gloom level was about four. Now it’s about three.

One thing missing from any self-made regime is the support and community. It is good to be part of an actual thing now.

As an outrider to Wim Hofers worldwide I will take heart from a shared experience and gladly draw on ideas, knowledge and enthusiasm.

It is great to know similar ideas and inspiration land and grow in separate places, and can come together and reinforce one another.

Cold comfort
Cold water and breathing exercises, Hof or otherwise, are by no means a unique way to boost our bounce.

But what is perhaps special is their accessibility, being almost free to anyone in decent respiratory health with access to a bathroom.

The science which grows up around this type of practice will surely help explain and increase their effectiveness.

My guess is the mood boost comes from pain relievers our bodies release to counteract the cold, rather as they do in strenuous exercise.

We might also be cheered by notch up an achievements. And the calming effect may come from learning to suppress our alarm response.

The long breath hold and the water may also help trigger our innate water diving responses which could lower our nervous responses.

It may not actually stop us getting ill, as some claim it does, but they may well help us endure the symptoms. That would be good enough.

We should also be alert to potential downsides too. Being more resilient is great, but not everything. Sensitivity has a place too.

After trying it for a full 31 days I can see enough upsides to continue to invest the 20 minutes it requires most days, if not every day.

My goal is not to explore extremes or test my limits, but I am more than happy to defy my initial wariness to harness the positives. ■