How Cold Showers Can Teach Us To Confront Emotional Pain
Have you ever forced yourself to take a cold shower?
The build up to the shower is the worst part. Your mind knows the suffering that awaits it. It transmits vivid images, thoughts and physical sensations in a desperate bid to convince you that it’s not too late to turn back, that this self-inflicted suffering can still be avoided, that there’s no way a quick cold shower can be that beneficial for your health…
You go back-and-forth for a few painstaking minutes, parrying your mind’s emotionally-charged thrusts and riposting with rational comebacks…
And this time, you emerge victorious.
You turn the shower on. You take a deep breath. You step into the cold, unyielding arena...
Icicle-like spears of water assault your body. Thousands of frigid shards embed themselves into your skin every second. Rapid hyperventilation consumes you as your body is jerked out of homeostasis. “Get out! Get out now!”, your mind frantically screams…
…for the first 20 seconds at least.
Then it gets a bit easier.
Your body adapts. Your breathing eases. Your skin seems to develop icicle armour. Your mind’s voice quietens. You still feel the cold if you really think about it…but, being honest, it doesn’t even feel that painful any more.
And then, at around the 45 second mark, you forget what the fuss was all about.
You’re too busy feeling invincible because the sheer power that you feel from conquering the cold shower (and your mind) is volumes greater than any unpleasantness the cold can still throw at you!
A minute later, you leave feeling rejuvenated, energised and ready to own your day.
(Or you take a hotter shower to celebrate your victory).
Want to hear some good news?
If you can take a cold shower, you can confront, overcome and accept painful emotional experiences.
In this article, we’ll explore each of the 5 stages of cold showers/emotion confrontation. We won’t go into too much detail about the strategies for overcoming each stage. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness and understanding about the processes involved in confronting and overcoming painful emotional experiences.
In itself, this can be immensely helpful. Most of us lack the understanding and knowledge about what confronting emotions entails. There are a lot of unknown factors, and our mind fears what it doesn’t know or understand. When confronting emotions, it's so powerful to give our mind an understanding of what it can expect to find in addition to a framework to navigate the process with.
This awareness can end up being the difference between finally engaging in a much-needed sit-down around the campfire with our emotions, and yet another Netflix-binge session to distract ourselves from our pain.
So, let’s get to it. Introducing the 5A's of The Cold Shower Emotional Confrontation Model (I'll work on the name)...
Stage 1: Anticipation
“Overcome anticipation through commitment”.
Just like the visceral thoughts and sensations our mind sends us prior to taking a cold shower, the thought of confronting our emotional pain is so unpleasant that our mind pulls us away from it at all costs. It uses tricks such as:
1) Distraction tactics: Binge-watching TV shows, scrolling through social media, mindless eating, and so on. We don't feel better after doing these activities, but we'll often feel an impetus to do something productive to compensate for 'wasted' time. It's a shame that we don't consider confronting our emotional pain to be as productive as working, studying, cleaning, going to the gym...
2) Symptom-masking activities: Common examples include going to the gym (releases ‘positive’ hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin) and working (makes us feel like we’re doing something productive). While they do make us feel better temporarily, the root cause of the problem hasn’t been identified or reconciled. And, believe me, it will return…
3) Bottling: Telling ourselves that things aren’t that bad, it’s not a big deal, we're overreacting, we’re being over-sensitive, we need to ‘man up’ and move on. We’re not resolving the problem; we’re simply putting a lid on the pressure cooker. And our painful emotions will return, whether in the form of small outbursts of emotional leaking (disproportionately strong emotional response to a minor event), or a full-out emotional eruption once the pressure reaches a breaking point.
4) Delay Excuses: We’ll do it tomorrow. We need to read that book first. We’ll ask our friend for their therapist’s details next week. Short-term, we feel proud of ourselves for
‘taking the first step’. Long term, no step is actually taken.
How do we move past the anticipation stage?
One method is to make a commitment prior to taking the action that, given the knowledge we have about how our mind tries to talk us out of situations which may cause us to experience pain, we will not linger on our thoughts and feelings about the upcoming confrontation.
After all, the fear of confronting our emotions is almost always worse than the actual confrontation; just as our apprehension about taking a cold shower is worse than the actual shower.
By making a conscious choice to commit to the action, we can cut through the expected mind-chatter and begin our process…
Stage 2: Assault
“Confront the assault”.
As I graphically described earlier, the first 10 seconds of a cold shower is like entering Hell. Our entire body screams for us to get out of the cold, just as our mind screams for us to get away from our painful emotional experience.
Armed with non-judgement and non-resistance, we can confront and embrace the pain. We don’t judge ourselves for our response to pain; whether to our aversion to the cold shower or our aversion to recalling our painful emotional experience. The more we resist the pain, the more energy we give it, and the more it consumes us. And the more we judge ourselves for our ‘weakness’ or ‘shame’, the deeper we sink into our negative emotions, and the more it consumes us.
The end result? We won’t want to step into a cold shower ever again.
Armed with non-judgement and non-resistance, we can patiently endure the initial onslaught of emotion, knowing that once we make it through this stage, the hardest parts of our journey will be done.
Stage 3: Adapt
“Adapt and conquer”.
Our body adapts rapidly to the cold shower, just like our mind adapts to mitigate emotional pain once we’ve confronted it without judgement. When the light of awareness is shone on our demons, we no longer need to hide from them. And once we begin to understand our demons, we no longer want to hide.
We want to help.
We want to help ourselves conquer our emotional pains and traumas, to console our younger selves who’ve been hurt and shamed through no fault of their own, to permit our current self to let go of the pain it’s grasping on to so that we’re no longer weighed down by its burden…
And as we move through understanding, defining, managing and accepting our emotional pain, we can release ourselves from that pain (I’ll write more about how to do this in future articles).
The pain won’t be resolved immediately, but in itself it's a huge win to conquer our disdain for suffering and step into the pain of a cold shower or emotional confrontation. We’ll feel strong, revitalised and energised – and rightly so! It takes great strength to choose suffering, embrace pain, find its source and begin the healing process.
That’s why most people don’t do it.
Never be deceived into thinking that feeling painful emotions or crying as a form of emotional expression is a weakness. Our tears are simply signals showing us where the source of our pain lies. When I find myself crying as I’m confronting emotional pain, I celebrate.
It means that I’m moving in the right direction.
Follow your tears to their source, and you’ll surely discover the lake of pain from which they were born. By removing the dams of fear, doubt, shame and pain through self-awareness, self-compassion, self-management and self-acceptance, you allow yourself to re-enter the river of growth, which will ultimately lead you to the ocean of peace and fulfilment.
Stage 4: Adjourn
“Adjourn with compassion”
Staying under a cold shower for too long is exhausting (and potentially harmful), just as confronting emotional pain can be fatiguing. Once the purpose of the emotional confrontation or cold shower has been served, we can shift the temperature up…
It’s vital to express warm compassion and love towards ourselves for having the strength to engage in a confrontation with our emotional pain, just as a warmer shower gives our body a respite from the cold and permits it to recover.
Stage 5: Appreciate
“Appreciate the change”
Just as the long-term health benefits of a cold shower won’t manifest overnight, neither will the long-term benefits of the emotional confrontation.
We’ll still see some changes in the short-term though.
Cold showers leave us feeling energised, rejuvenated and ready to take action.
Emotional confrontations leave us feeling unburdened, peaceful and ready to rest.
So, take a moment to appreciate the cold shower for the opportunity to challenge ourselves and develop our resilience, just as we appreciate the painful emotion for giving us the opportunity to grow and change for the better.
We know this won’t be the last cold shower we take.
But with each passing time we confront our demons, it becomes less and less daunting, and we become more and more confident in our ability to step into our pain, tread purposefully to its source, and re-emerge victorious…
…either that, or we’ll at least master the art of taking cold showers!
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.