Earlier this year, when gathering in confined spaces was still a thing, I spent a few days in Northern MN at a “Fire and Ice” retreat at the Points Retreat center in Northern Minnesota. The goal was to experience the health benefits of both extreme cold and heat to reduce stress – which everyone did via sauna, cold water plunge, and even morning shiver walks lead by Thaddeus Owen of Primal Hacker.

Check out this video by Holistic Hilda capturing her experience:

While there, I gave a talk on the science of getting cold, specifically how cold exposure is just one way to train your body to do it when it’s go time.  A critical skill. 

Another skill you can learn from the cold is the process of “stress-lessen.”  

I’m not sure that’s a real word, as I made it up, but I’m going with it. 

Stress-lessen is the process of taking a known stressor (in this case cold), and then changing your physiologic response to it over time. 

After my talk, we carved a big hole in the ice and jumped in. Yes, we are all insane. And yes, I shrieked like a little girl. 

In a “perfect world,” I could handle jumping into an ice-cold lake in a nice calm matter for a short period, but we all know there’s no such thing as a perfect world.

The key here is to find leverage to alter the response of your body. The #1 key for leverage is breathing.  

When you breathe faster, that is more sympathetic (stress response). 

When you sloooooow your breath, it’s more parasympathetic (it decreases heart rate via increased vagal tone).  

Therefore, a way to “stress-lessen” (ah, get it? See what I did there with lessen, and lesson ) is to control your breathing under stress. 

You can apply this lesson to cold, hot, and even a PR in the gym. 

For example, if you hit a three rep PR on your overhead press, hold the last rep while you safely take 2-3 breaths through your nose, then set the bar down.

Notice, I said safely. If your Planet Fitness buddy Bob needs to lean back far enough to start a backbend and rub his head on the nasty gym carpet, he needs to work on his form first. 

When you hold at lockout and breathe slowly, you increase parasympathetic tone.  

Higher parasympathetic tone = less stress.  

You are teaching your body this new capacity is easy.  

Your body will do more things that are easy than hard. 

Now, you have a tool to apply to change your internal physiology for higher performance levels and reduce stress at a lower cost…

…. for free!

BONUS! Listen to my chat with Harv from The Mindstrong Project about this topic! 

Test it out!

Dr. Mike