How Mindfulness Enhances Cold Water Therapy

Roberval Oliveira shares his experience with cold water therapy, highlighting the important role mindfulness has played in unlocking its numerous benefits.

Roberval Oliveira21 February 2024
woman swims in a frozen lake
Photo by Mika Ruusunen.

In the middle of a New England winter, a friend of mine told me that he takes cold showers daily. “How cold?” I asked. “As cold as I can get,” he replied with a smile. The thought made me cringe.

Hesitant but inspired, I began experimenting by showering in room temperature water, gradually lowering the temperature. Cold showers have since become part of my daily routine. Through the practice of mindful cold-water immersion a lot can be learned. It can even support our practice.

Cold water exposure seems counter-intuitive to well-being. At first, it feels unpleasant, like swallowing bitter medicine, but as your body adapts to the temperature, it starts to bring on feelings of well-being. The concept of cold-water immersion for well-being isn’t new. In Japan, some Buddhist temples and lay people practice centuries-old spiritual ceremonies in cold water. Studies suggest that there are many health benefits to this practice. Growing up in Brazil, if we wanted a hot shower, we had to heat up water on the stove. My father would say: “Take a cold shower. It’s good for your health.” It turns out he was right.

As you enter cold water, your body contracts in a normal stress reaction. When the water touches your skin, you start to hyperventilate. Your heart rate rises and blood circulation increases, while vasoconstriction prevents heat loss and directs blood to major organs. With the shock of cold water, the immune system is stimulated to fight major threats.

“In meditation and cold-water immersion, we learn to observe discomfort and pain with balance.”

The aftermath of a cold shower brings on a sense of invigoration and aliveness. The body feels light and supple. Dopamine, a “feel good” hormone, is released into the blood. A feeling of tranquility washes over you as your body’s processes slow down again. At the end of a cold shower, I find myself feeling fully awake. All of this arises from a couple of minutes of discomfort.

The longer you stay and the colder the water is, the longer the sensations last. Immersed in a cold bath, it’s a calmer experience. I find the therapeutic effects more potent in natural bodies of water due to the high mineral content of the water and the calming effect of nature around you, your body is immersed in the elements. 

Surprisingly, if you undertake this practice in the winter, you’ll even feel warmer. Since you’ve lowered your body temperature, the winter air feels warmer as you leave the shower. When you go outside, the cold doesn’t feel as sharp, allowing you to embrace the beauty of winter. The opposite happens with hot showers. The body releases heat through vasodilation as you step back into the winter air. The air outside the shower feels cooler and your warm body quickly loses heat.

While it can be challenging to motivate yourself to get into a cold shower — and stay there once you do — a mindful moment before cold water immersion helps to reduce aversion. You can start gently, with warm water or water at room temperature, and day by day move the shower dial towards cold. You can also try starting with a hot shower and finishing with a cold one or vice versa. The days you’re feeling grounded, start and finish with cold water. See what works for you.

Instead of taking the attitude of “no pain no gain,” try a gradual approach. By taking small steps into discomfort, we learn to expand what we’re capable of. We notice clearly how our thoughts creates additional stress. You’ll soon notice the pleasant sensations that come afterwards, which will help you return to the practice.

This gradual approach to cold water immersion is also how we should approach meditation practice. Many people find it difficult to meditate every day, often overcommitting from the start and quickly losing motivation. But if we start small, meditating daily and gradually increasing the amount of time, we allow our body to discover the pleasure of stillness and breathing. Soon enough, we’ll want to return to meditation and stay there.

All living organisms move towards what’s pleasant and away from what’s stressful, but this is where meditation practice goes against the grain. In meditation and cold-water immersion, we learn to observe discomfort and pain with balance so it doesn’t overwhelm us when we least expect it. There, we discover the power of mindfulness.

“We always have a choice where we can place our attention,” says meditation teacher Amma Thanasanti. When the water is hitting the front of the body, the back is relatively warmer, so I place my attention there. Experiment where you can place your attention and notice what happens. 

How we breathe affects how we feel. While stress impacts our breathing, we can intentionally use mindful, slow breaths to calm the nervous system. When our breathing has slowed down and our mind is serene, we discover that we can handle the discomfort with equanimity. As the water gets cold, relax as much as possible and breathe around the discomfort, noticing any aversion. I find that long and slow in-breaths, which generate energy, and long slow out breaths, which bring relaxation, are helpful.

Keep in mind that a cold shower is not a torture contest. You can step out of the water occasionally to gain your stability, then gently get back in. This back and forth is akin to how we deal with pain in meditation. We move attention to another part of the body when it becomes too much and investigate it when we feel more grounded. Try to be inquisitive. What does cool, cooler, and cold water feel like? Do the sensations change over time?

Experiment with the cold water to push back against sleepiness. A cold shower before meditation relaxes the body but keeps it fully awake. It’s a pleasant way to prepare the body for meditation. 

In his talk “The Grass at the Gate,” Monk and scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu says: “When we look for happiness, we tend to look far away. Even when we’re meditating, we tend to look far away from where things actually are. Everything we need to know, the Buddha says, lies in this fathom-long body with awareness.” 

I invite you to try cold water immersion to see if it works for you. Immerse your body in nature and experiment in a pond, stream, river, or ocean. Weave in the experience with breath, mindfulness, and gentleness, noticing the effects on your body and mind. You may discover energies in yourself you didn’t know existed.

Roberval Oliveira

Roberval Oliveira is a mindfulness meditation teacher and the author of Silence: Journals from a Meditation Retreat.