An Ode to Cold Showers

Fling wide the plastic curtain, take a breath, and step right in.

Illustration of man showering in ice cube
Luci Gutiérrez

Here’s what used to happen.

I’d wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. Then I’d think: Well, now what? Time would go granular, like in a Jack Reacher novel, but less exciting. Five minutes at least until the kettle boils. Make a decision. Crack the laptop, read the news. Or stare murkily out the window. Unload the dishwasher? Oh dear. Is this life, this sour weight, this baggage of consciousness? What’s that smell? It’s futility, rising in fumes around me. And all this before 7 a.m.

Here’s what happens now.

I wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. And then I have a cold shower.

I don’t want to go overboard here, reader. Life-changing, neurosis-canceling, enlightenment at the twist of a tap—I don’t want to make these claims for the early-morning cold shower. But if like me you have a sluggish seam of depression in your nature, and a somewhat cramped brain, and a powerful need, throughout the day, for quasi-electrical interventions of one sort or another, reboots and renewals—or if you just want to wake up a little faster—can I most devoutly recommend that you give it a shot?

Do it first thing. As soon as you get up. Don’t torture yourself with postponement. And don’t muck around with hot-to-cold transitions, temperature tweakings, etc. Fling wide the plastic curtain, crank the tap to its coldest, take a breath, and step right in. Not grimly or penitentially, but with slapstick defiance: Holy Mother of God! Cowabunga! Here I go! (If it’s too early in the day for slapstick defiance, try a head-shake of weary amazement.)

The water hits, and biology asserts itself. You are not a tired balloon of cerebral activity; you are a body, and you are being challenged. You gulp air; your pulse thumps. Your brain, meanwhile, your lovely, furry old brain, goes glacier-blue with shock. Thought is abolished. Personality is abolished. You’re a nameless mammal under a ravening jet of cold water. It’s a kind of accelerated mindfulness, really: In two seconds, you’re at the sweet spot between nonentity and total presence. It’s the cold behind the cold; the beautiful, immobile zero; a flame of numbness bending you to its will. Also—this is important—you can still lather up in a cold shower, and get all your washing done: hair, body, everything.

Then you get out, and you’re different. Things have happened to your neurotransmitters that may be associated, say the scientists, with elevated mood and increased alertness. You’re wide awake, at any rate. Your epidermis is cool and seal-like. Your nervous system is jangling—but melodically, like tiny bells. And from the kitchen, you can hear the kettle starting to whistle.