Cold Showers, Depression and Noradrenaline

For just over a month now I have been taking cold showers every day. That means not a drop of hot water. Not one. It all started because a friend mentioned the benefits of wild swimming- the idea of which, I’ll admit I slightly recoiled at. I always maintained (perhaps in an effort to shrug off my own misgivings about why I was so reluctant to give it a go) that you had to be slightly crazy, over-zealous or just downright irrational to enjoy subjecting yourself to the agony of the cold-water freeze. However, unbeknown to me at that moment, the seed of a challenge was planted in my mind..

I firmly believe a key part to my ability to survive- mentally- everyday is to constantly work on applying self-discipline, which gradually builds it up over time. It’s almost like flexing a muscle, which in order to stay strong, needs to be regularly exercised. I know from overcoming and managing my mental illnesses that more often than not motivation follows action- rather than vice versa, which we tend to naturally assume is the order in which things work. This creates a strange type of contradiction, where the irony is that sometimes the only way to bring about the intention to complete a difficult or effortful task is to act first. In other words, I knew I had to (literally) face the plunge before I would find my motive for doing so.

Unsurprisingly then, I approached day one of my challenge with extreme hesitancy and an enormous amount of trepidation. There was a loud, indignant- not to mention fearful- voice in my head telling me how unnecessary this all was. However, I somehow still managed to summon the will-power to turn the hot tap off. SMACK. I was hit with the shock as much as the cold water- although, needless to say the two definitely went hand in hand..! It was uncomfortable verging on painful and took every ounce of grit and determination in me not to immediately step back and forget the whole horrible idea.

You see, when the sensory receptors in your skin detect the cold water they activate your sympathetic nervous system. Your body and brain are physiologically primed to interpret and treat this as a stressor or threat, which activates the fight-or-flight response. Consequently the natural urge is to flee, since in this case fighting the cold water is a rather futile action (when the aim is to get warm). The difference here is that, in the context, the perceived threat is not actually harmful. In fact, thanks to the internet and using my higher level of consciousness to investigate existing research, I knew in the long-term it was quite the reverse and could prove to be beneficial. It was therefore the job of my mind to overcome and calm my natural predisposition to flee and avoid the discomfort.

How does this all relate to mental health? Here comes the science:

Interestingly, the flight-or-fight response is triggered by a release of noradrenaline- an amazing substance that, amongst other functions, strongly influences mental behaviour patterns and mood regulation. Low levels of noradrenaline are prevalent in some people who suffer depression (the other two neurotransmitters that can also be responsible are serotonin and dopamine). The symptoms of low noradrenaline are similar to those of low dopamine: brain fog, lethargy, fatigue, and not being able to feel pleasure or interest in normal things. Different anti-depressants work by adjusting your brain’s uptake of one or more of these neurotransmitters. Therefore, their effectiveness depends on which one you are lacking. This is why no single antidepressant suits everybody.

The effects of increased noradrenaline are the opposite and include feeling alert, focused and mentally clear. Having had cold showers I can certainly attest to feeling all three of these afterwards. Noradrenaline changes the activity pattern in the prefrontal cortex, enhancing our attention, the brain’s capacity to retrieve and form memories, the processing of sensory inputs (i.e stressors), and generally mobilising us into action. You can see why noradrenaline plays a crucial role in our ability to overcome or survive stressful and threatening situations and could be a key component to understanding and tackling depressive illnesses.

This is why I persisted, day after day, to push my mind through the pain threshold in an attempt to manipulate how I respond to stress on a neurological level. Without my body realising, I was using the fight-or-flight response system to my advantage by causing the release of noradrenaline- but without experiencing genuine danger or stress. I realised I could use cold showers like I use my mood-stabilisers and anti-depressants. Some days were easier than others and I wouldn’t ever call it enjoyable, but I do find myself craving the cold hit. This is probably what makes open-water swimmers so fanatical about it. I may have primed my brain to expect and look forward to that shot of noradrenaline, particularly in times of low mood when its levels are naturally lower.

Suddenly, I now feel myself being motivated for a cold shower; not because I particularly want to feel freezing cold, but because the after-effect of chemicals being released in my brain provide me with a reward for persisting through it. I feel mentally refreshed, motivated, accomplished, alert and strong. I have also noticed a difference in how I respond to stress in general: I am able to compartmentalise stressors and treat them more as temporary inconveniences. I have learnt- partly from cold showers- to understand my emotions on a deeper level, in terms of my brain’s cognition, and simply get on in the face of difficulty or discomfort. This is also what I term resilience.

I am not saying that they are the answer to all life’s ills, or that I don’t ever get stressed anymore, but if you are looking for the motivation to start something, I say: don’t wait. Begin to practice using your mental self-discipline and just do it. For if there is one piece of wisdom cold showers have taught me, it’s that the reason you need to begin something, may in fact be lurking at the end..!


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