Lately, for some reason that I cannot explain and refuse to resist, I am drawn to engage with potentially positive experiences that I either fear or to which I am averse. Maybe it has to do with how close death has come to my door, paused, and passed on by. Perhaps as I continue a lifelong quest to learn and evolve, I crave expansion rather than contraction, meaningful experiences and adventures rather than the latest addictive drama series. Resilience, as we learned over the pandemic, is priceless. The ability to recover from trauma, maintain physical and mental health, and build a sense of competency, freedom and happiness can be learned but must be practiced. I recently decided to face down the cold.
To say I’m cold-averse is a slight understatement. Raised in Hawaii, California and Texas, my thermostat was early set to mid-balmy, and I’m not alone. I almost never see the sisters dipping in the cool pool at the Korean spa. I’d never voluntarily place my body in icy (or even cool) water, usually wait for it to get above 50 degrees before even thinking of taking a long walk outdoors. Something as extreme as cryotherapy — air chilled to -250F that blasts the nearly nude body for three long minutes — is unthinkable. But I did it anyway because I refuse to let cold cower me anymore and frankly, I was intrigued by the reported benefits.
“Cryotherapy is a far more efficient way than ice baths to get the benefits of cold therapy,” said Linda Tran, studio manager a Icebox Midtown. “Our clients include actors, dancers and professional athletes, but also people who are recovering from everyday muscle strains, back pain and arthritis.” I side-eyed the frosty box. All I wanted to know was, will it hurt, and is it safe? “It hurts,” Tran said. “But in a good way.”
Dr. Keith Evans, a medical doctor, physical therapist and DN-certified CEO/Director of Atlanta Human Performance Center, says the practice is generally safe, but there are some important contraindications. “A lot of the athletes are using different forms of cold therapy, including ice baths and cryo chambers, to decrease inflammation. But I would advise people with any type of cardiac cardiovascular condition, including hypertension, any metabolic issues and certain types of arthritis to be very cautious. To be on the safe side, get clearance from your primary care physician or your specialist before trying one of the more extreme forms of cold therapy.”
Evans says that cold therapy is used all the time in physical therapy to treat sprains, strains and other types of injuries and that RICE – rest, ice, compression and elevation – is a proven effective treatment for a range of inflammatory issues. Medical doctors also use a form of cryotherapy known as cryosurgery or cryoablation to remove abnormal tissue, usually cancerous or precancerous tumors.
Armed with that knowledge, cleared (reluctantly) by my primary care doc, cautious but determined, I stepped into the cryo chamber dressed only in a wool hat, gloves, socks, slippers and underwear. Tran asked me to select a song to play while I was inside and I chose, somewhat ironically, “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness. The icebox was a tiny (what measurements) frozen habitat, with frigid air blasting what looked and felt like dry frost. This particular cryotherapy chamber is not for the claustrophobic. I danced around singing loudly and smiling. It did hurt but in a good way! Just as importantly, in three minutes I’d confronted and conquered my cold loathing, coaxing at least a peaceful coexistence, maybe a cool friendship.
Dr. Jeffrey Butts, a dental surgeon, has been doing cryotherapy sessions three to four times a week since 2016. Like many people who do cold therapy in its many forms – cryo chambers, ice baths, cold showers or even just walking outside for fitness when the temperatures drop – Butts first heard about the practice from Wim Hof, aka The Iceman, but for all the hype about the Wim Hof Method, scientists say the evidence of efficacy is sketchy.
“I’m always looking to optimize my life. So, the dopamine rush and the effect that it has on mitochondria, and the energy to do more attracted me to cryotherapy. I still to this day could not give you hard evidence of the benefits, all I know is that I feel good. And I recommend it, but I believe that everyone’s health is absolutely their own responsibility,” he said. Butts cites the work of Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and tenured professor in the department of neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine. Huberman’s focus is on the benefits of ice (or cold) baths and cold showers which are widely accessible. According to Huberman, benefits can include an increase in focus, energy and metabolism, mood elevation, and can be used as a tool for physical recovery after intense exercise.
Deliberate cold exposure builds ‘top-down’ control, Huberman writes. It is “the basis of what people refer to when they talk about ‘resilience and grit.’ More importantly, it is a skill that carries over to situations outside of the deliberate cold environment, allowing you to cope better and maintain a calm, clear mind when confronted with real-world stressors. In other words, deliberate cold exposure is great training for the mind.”
For the record, I felt great for several days after my experience and promptly booked another session. Also for the record, I still haven’t gotten around to regular cold showers. Work in progress.