Michael Reibel Boesen

November 29, 2023

-8C and the power of framing

I'm 40 years old, male and I love cold exposures. STOP! I know it's a cliché but hear me out. You HAVE to do them too.

It's -8C outside and I've just stripped naked except for my underpants. I open the door and walk out into the snowy outside behind my house. I set the timer for 15mins and take a few long deep breaths and sit down on our bench out back. Quite quickly the shivering start and my mind starts to yell: "WTF are you doing? Get in!". But I resist, "no, I want this!". My feet are the first to go. They hurt but after a minute or so they just stop feeling anything really. I look at my hands and to my surprise I see a bit of water vapour arise from them.

About 4 mins later though and they're numb too. I'm used to this. I've been doing cold exposures for more than a year now, mostly using the cold water in my bathtub or shower, but today I skipped the bath and opted for mother nature instead to embrace me with her cold.

At 8 mins I hit the cruising phase. Not really feeling very cold, just a slight shiver. It's nice. I can feel the snow hitting my naked skin, almost feel it melt and see it stick to my beard. My hands are white almost devoid of blood. A bird just landed right next to me on my carport roof, and looks at me strangely. I think. Maybe I'm just imagining the strangeness of it's look TBH. Pretty sure the bird is really there.

At 12mins and my hands start to really hurt and I consider stopping. But I got to get to 15mins. I'm not really shivering a whole lot. I can just feel a very slight tremble. But my hands are starting to bother me. Before this I was thinking about going for 20mins instead of 15 but now my hands are really hurting and it intensifies over the next minute or so.

At 15mins I clumsily take this selfie with my phone and get inside. The phone almost slips from my dead hands.

I get in and do my usual rutine: A quick warm shower to get the blood rushing into my cold extremities and then back into my vitals causing yet another surge of shivering. However, this time, compared to on Monday where I took a bath in my bathtub with water at 12C (the lowest it can go this time of year) I don't shiver nearly as much. It's more felt as a slight tightening of the big muscles in my chest and thighs mostly. But the clarity of mind and feeling of being light and quick hits. And I'm off singing my head off to the Melvins - Honey Bucket, air drumming and air riffing as hard as possible.

Evaluating my new nature-based routine I would say that the effects are probably similar to a 14C bath tub. The vasoconstriction in feet and hands for some reason hurt quite a bit more. Maybe it's the speed at which it happens that makes the difference? I'm not sure. But it doesn't feel like my core temperature dropped as much as the 12C bathtub. Still being outside in nature (or as much nature as suburbia Copenhagen can be) instead of inside in a bathroom was a nice experience. The snow and the birds especially. Also the reason why -8C is less worse (in terms of shivering, which for some people can be considered worse - see later) than 12C is probably because it wasn't very windy, so the small insulating layer of air around my body is not disrupted for very long at a time. At least I think that's the effect.

At this point being 40 years old and male it almost feel like cliché to write about cold exposure after this, which to many people is nothing more but a strange act of self-torture, has really gone mainstream with Dr. Andrew Huberman and fellow Dane Dr. Susanna Søberg. But hear me out, you really got to try this if you haven't done it already.

The power of framing
The stoics were masters of framing. In his excellent book The Stoic Challenge, William B. Irvine writes about a key stoic technique known as the "stoic test" strategy. Which is that whenever some sort of setback (i.e. bad thing, but don't mentally call it a bad thing or you're dead in the water, call it a setback instead) happen be quick to view it as just a "stoic test" - a benefit, which is that you get to show how good a stoic you have become. By doing this, whatever setback just happened suddenly becomes a good thing and boom you have employed the power of framing to feel better about the setback that just happened.

And with that, here's another cold story from yesterday:

It's -8C and I'm outside with pants, winter boots, t-shirt, sweater, a jacket, a hat and gloves on and together with my fellow Elby co-founder Lars I'm working on one of our charger prototypes. I'm trying my very best to screw some terminals to secure a small wire with a small screwdriver, but vasoconstriction has already kicked in in my hands so they're cold and numb. I keep on dropping the screwdriver. "Dammit, why the F- does it have to be so cold!" I'm blowing hot air into my cold hands trying to revive them for just a few seconds so I can secure this stupid wire to the prototype.

The difference between being outside with lots of clothes on working on a prototype trying hard to curse the cold weather away and being almost naked and wilfully enjoying it are two very different experiences. Some people are just intrinsically very good at this framing exercise. My girlfriend for instance is amazing at this. Even in the midst of total chaos at home she can pause and say "Isn't it just great that we can choose to view this as a test of our patience?" I typically just grumble on about how unfair things has to be. Depending on whether or not I got my cold exposure because...

Two ways to cope: Psychological or physiological
Up until a year ago my main strategy was a mix of stoicism and mindfulness. Trying to do what my girlfriend is intrinsically good at. Trying with all my might/mind to see feelings and thoughts for mere appearances in consciousness and mere "opinions" to be ignored at will has worked sometimes. But not for the truly bad stuff. I just never managed to get it to work there. This is the psychological strategy. Using your mind to feel better about things such as employing the "stoic test" strategy or similar.

After starting on cold exposures though, I've come to the conclusion that what works best for me is to build rutines around stuff that physiologically makes my energy soar. Obviously, getting enough sleep is a key but often an impossible thing to get with young kids and a busy work-life. So to me the main part of my physiological strategy for coping is cold exposures. The 2.5x kick in dopamine, higher than cocaine, is high enough to leave me floating most days. That's why I try to do them every other day - and now with winter coming hopefully even more. But also things like listening to music that really get's me psyched or taking supplements like Tongkat Ali, which should raise ones free levels of testosterone which should psychologically according to Huberman make effort feel good. By doing all these small things that will buffer my energy it is as if I'm not hit as hard by stuff that happens. Whether it's kids acting crazy or something much worse, I'm just not as affected by it. And interestingly, it makes the psychological tricks of mindfulness or stoicism even easier to use.

You gotta do it
So I know you hate it. I know you hate feeling cold. I know you hate the feeling of cold water hitting you. But really if you're struggling to cope with daily life do you self a huge favour and start doing cold exposures. Start with 5seconds in the shower on full cold, then 10, then 20. Just add 10 every day. Key trick is breathing deep and slowly, that will calm you mind. To me the differences in state of mind appear almost immediately. Even with short durations. But you WILL hate it up until you can do about 1.5mins (for me at least), then your mind starts to associate the (at least willful application of) cold with dopamine (I think that's the mechanism?) and then you will start to love it. I promise.

NB! Obviously and hereby a disclaimer be very careful with cold temperatures as they can cause hypothermia which can be fatal.

About Michael Reibel Boesen

Dad 👨‍👩‍👦‍👦, builder (🤖⌨️🏢), 💌 Weekly Climate, 🚁📸photographer, 🎧vinyl record collector and reseller, 🥃 distiller (Gefjun), 🎸guitarist, 🎹pianist, 🍷winenerd (WSET3), 🏃‍♂️runner and 🤓engineer/PhD.