I was already cold, standing in the middle of my bathroom, and now I was about to jump into a freezing cold shower.

I’d heard about the benefits of cold showers—improved alertness, stimulated blood flow, faster metabolism, and a heightened immune system to name a few—but there’s a difference between appreciating cold shower science and actually jumping into one.

Alas, since I could hardly write about the benefits of cold showers without subjecting myself to one, there I was, talking myself into it, the icy water drumming against my jungle-patterned shower curtain, the usual hot water steam devastatingly absent from the air. So, I gritted my teeth and like Indiana Jones’ leap of faith in “The Last Crusades”, took a bold step in.

 Indiana Jones’ leap of faith in “The Last Crusades”

What happened next was medieval torture.

My skin recoiled from the blades of icy water and my brain sent peals of alarm throughout my body. I shivered, I danced around, I huffed and cried out, and briefly cursed my assignment.

But I soon realized that I could either submit to my brain’s alarm bells or I could still my mind, relax every muscle in my body, and be completely unperturbed by the cold water. Weirdly enough, when I did that, the pain and discomfort eased. It’s like I turned my brain’s “pain filter” off simply by breathing deeply, relaxing, and letting the cold water wash over me.

Let me tell you: stepping out of that cold shower, I could have arm wrestled Arnold Schwartzenegger and won.

I felt like I was emerging from a decade in a nuclear winter bunker into a new, healed world with healthy plants, birds, and deer everywhere; sunlight pouring out of a blue atmosphere like liquid gold. I felt invigorated, hyper-alert, and yes, damnit, so fresh. But more than any of these things, I felt mentally powerful.

And THIS, my friends, is one of the biggest benefits of cold showers. It’s about mastering your mindset before you step in; it’s about cultivating mental resilience in the face of physical discomfort; and it’s about taking that resilience with you into your day with the added physiological benefits of improved blood circulation, metabolism, immune system, and alertness.

I’m not cooking this up based upon a single cold shower, either.

Cold shower science (or going for ball-shrivelling swims in frigid lakes and oceans) is a burgeoning movement supported by many notable people.

Most famously, Wim Hof, “The Iceman”, an extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures, advocates for cold exposure (combined with breathing techniques) for energy, health, and longevity.

Then there's absolute nutter Lewis Pugh, who swims in some of the coldest waters on Earth—like the North Pole and glacial lakes beneath Mount Everest—to raise awareness for ocean conservation.

Even Brainscape’s very own founder and CEO, Andrew Cohen, swears by a cold shower every day. (It’s his fault I took a cold shower for the purpose of this article.)

Proponents aside, clinical trials have found that cold showers led to a 29% reduction in people calling off sick from work; another connected cold showers to improved cancer survival; and another still  found that cold showers may help relieve symptoms of depression.

So, now that I have your attention, let’s get a little nerdy with a peek behind the psychology of cold shower science and how you can harness that to, quite literally, change your life for the better!

The physiology of personal growth

Personal achievement and growth

Think about every accomplishment you've ever had in your life, whether it’s earning your high school diploma or a degree, losing unhealthy weight or building muscles, getting your ideal job or a work promotion, buying your first car or home, raising children, or summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. The reason these feats were so good for your confidence is because you worked hard, failed along the way, and finally prevailed.

Real growth—whether physical, financial, psychological, academic, or material—comes from adversity. I mean, growing by lifting weights literally requires tearing your muscle fibers.

Of course too-big of an adversity is counter-productive; serious injury, abuse, and poverty can be prohibitive to growth. But the bottom line is that personal growth comes from overcoming smaller adversities, consistently. In other words, the secret to accelerating your personal growth is to increase the number of micro-adversities you overcome.

What do cold showers have to do with any of this? Well, they’re a micro-adversity! (You only need to take one to realize that fact.)

But how the heck can they change your life?

[Read: How to build self-discipline and willpower like a warrior]

The benefits of cold showers: unlocking your achievement

Cold shower science

Taking a cold shower is an achievement and it floods your ego with a sense of accomplishment. Why? Because you mastered your mind and overcame adversity, just like we discussed.

So, whatever the rest of your morning routine—whether you do a morning workout, meditate, write, or slave for an hour to get your kids off to school in a hurry—a cold shower ensures that you have a big achievement early in the day.  This builds your "delayed gratification" muscle (i.e. your willpower and your ability to get hard sh*t done).

But unlike, say, turning down that maple bacon, egg, and cheese croissant for breakfast, cold showers restore, rather than deplete, your day's willpower reserves.

Huh? Let me explain. Every day, we have a finite amount of willpower that refreshes overnight. (That’s why we typically “fall off the wagon” in the evening, succumbing to the temptations of bad habits after an exhausting day of exercising our willpower.)

Things that require inner strength but DON’T yield immediate rewards tend to deplete our willpower, while things that require inner strength but DO yield immediate results actually ADD to our willpower. And because cold showers do have immediate rewards—like the invigorating jolt of positive energy the moment we step out of the water—they ADD to your willpower reserves!

That’s right: a huge benefit of cold showers is that they make you more mentally resilient and, therefore, more likely to smash your other goals throughout the day! It’s just important that you take the correct mental approach to a cold shower or else you may not unlock these benefits.

How to harness the benefits of cold showers, the right way

The right way to take a cold shower

When I stepped into that first cold shower I described earlier, it turns out that I did it all wrong. I tensed up from head to toe, cursed, shivered, and generally blubbered my way through it. I treated it purely as a physical endurance challenge, when, in fact, the challenge is almost entirely mental.

The right way to take a cold shower (if you want those the incredible mental benefits) is to do a little work beforehand, as you stand there in your bathroom:

  • Close your eyes.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Relax all of your muscles (especially your face).
  • Repeat a mantra that means something to you, for example, “I am powerful, I am imperturbable, I am resilient”.
  • Focus on how good this is going to be for you. You’re going to heighten your immune system, speed up your metabolism, and feel refreshed as f**k!
  • Then, step in completely. Rip off that band-aid, keeping your composure.

Now, as you stand there in the freezing water without tensing a muscle, imagine yourself facing any kind of adversity during your day: someone cuts you off while driving; your fitness instructor makes you do extra push-ups; your boss makes demanding requests; a co-worker makes a disparaging comment about you; or your romantic partner triggers your anger in a way that only they can.

But instead of getting consumed by these thoughts or letting your mind spiral into a cycle of negative self-talk, you imagine yourself reacting calmly, with grace, composure, and confidence. Speaking slowly, standing straight, and maintaining the same low heart rate, you let the situation wash over you just like this cold water is right now.

Nothing can phase you because you are imperturbable. And you are fully capable of rising to any challenge, no matter how intimidating.

This, my friend, is how you build a powerful mind, which you can take from that cold shower into the rest of your day and into the rest of your life! And if you want further help making this a daily habit, read ‘How to build strong [study] habits’ or check out the following video:

Look, It's not that this mindset is going to make the water any less freezing cold. The suffering is still there. But you have achieved such a peaceful, warrior-like mindset that you have distanced yourself from the suffering. It is almost as if you are objectively observing your suffering from the perspective of an omniscient higher being.

And by doing that, you can learn to react to almost any adversity with a healthier perspective and better composure, which will help you make decisions that are far better for you and everyone else in the long run (as opposed to allowing emotion to take the wheel).

Regard your suffering more objectively ("Hi freezing water, I feel you, but you cannot move me.”) and let it flow down the drain as you step into the day filled with unshakable energy and positivity.

Cold showers will change you over time

Mental resilience

There are yogis and zen masters who can meditate outdoors in the Himalayas wearing nothing but underclothes, and they don't get a single goosebump all night. The same temperatures might have given hypothermia to fully clothed western hikers who were untrained in the mental control against freezing.

Mind/body connection is very real. But leveraging that connection to your benefit isn’t something we are born knowing how to do. Rather, it’s something you learn to do, just as people can learn to keep their heart rate low (using the right pulse feedback mechanisms and mental training).

Your daily cold shower will train you to build a mental tolerance not just of cold temperatures, but of any discomfort or challenge that life may throw at you. And that, my friends, is key amongst all the benefits of cold showers!