WOMEN AND COLD: A NEGLECTED RELATIONSHIP guest Blog by Hana Moravčíková
Women very rarely feel a ´healthy respect´ for the cold. More often, fear and prejudice prevent us from diving into ice-cold water. But are the obstacles to an outdoor bath in December merely psychological, or is there something more concrete that limits women in direct contact with the cold?
I feel goose-bumps rising as I walk to the forest near my apartment. The grass-flanked paths are wet and muddy and it is only 2 °C, but I can feel my face warming in the rays of sun. When I come to a small lake, I start to feel the adrenaline rush. My body’s blood vessels, all 100 000 km of them, already know what is to come: intense constriction.
I observe the calm and sparkling surface of the lake. Throwing my electric thermometer in the water, I wait for a few seconds until I know the situation: 2.7 °C; perfect.
Over the past year, my body has learned to respond physiologically to this kind of information. It has learned, very specifically, what kind of cold it is about to experience, where it will be felt, and how to respond. It knows the fingers and the toes will be frozen in a minute or two, the feeling in the feet will be lost soon afterwards, and the icy compress will, at the same moment, feel like a thousand acupuncture needles all over my skin. Yet almost everyone who has experienced it once wants another dose.
I play a song on my tablet: “A Perfect Day” by Lou Reed. My pulse starts to rise. All the thoughts floating in my mind slowly disappear. I’m concentrating only on the great entrée. I breathe strongly in and out in a couple of breaths and then I dip completely in. I close my eyes and observe.
I can almost hear my heartbeat, and feel the blood vessels closing in my fingers and toes. Everything calms down. In a minute the cold is gone. I hear the ducks taking off the lake and a sparrow landing in the dry grass on the shore behind me. I open my eyes and enjoy the peace; the strength of coexistence with and resilience to perhaps nature’s strongest element: the cold. I am 100% grounded in the present moment. As soon as I feel stabilized, I bounce from the bottom and swim further into the lake.
Thousands of women are doing the same – in a mountain brook in Canada, in a Scottish Loch, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and in lakes, springs, waterfalls, rivers and ponds – almost everywhere, cold water can be found.
In a questionnaire, women who practise the Wim Hof Method of breathing exercises, mind-set and cold exposure answered that, to them, the cold was a source of self-confidence, physical strength, health, mental peace, concentration, relaxation, and energy.
Despite this impressively positive feedback, out of the 7.6 billion people on Earth, of which a half are women, only a few thousand choose to expose themselves to the cold regularly.
Why do women tend to avoid direct contact with the cold, even when they are aware of its benefits, especially in areas where the climate offers us the perfect conditions? Could fear be the only reason? Men also realize how uncomfortable cold can be, yet they choose to overcome that discomfort more often, and in greater numbers compared to women. What is it that prevents women from directly confronting the cold? According to psychologist Mgr. Mariana Botková, one of several answers could be undeveloped self-confidence. Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, authors of The Confidence Code, agree: “There is a large gap between what men feel and what women feel about their ability to succeed”. While men seem to be more easily convinced by the ‘you can do it’ talk, it seems that women tend to doubt themselves more and trust less in their physical capabilities than men. Is it our fault, though?
It is vital to state that self-confidence is not something we were born with, or something that we inherited. It is an attribute that we have acquired thanks to our interaction with family, and later, with society. The impact of educational approach in combination with certain personality traits such as shyness or distress often lead to lower self-confidence. The aspect that differs most between men and women is a different approach in upbringing. From early childhood, men are encouraged to be physically and mentally strong, courageous, resistant and resilient to emotions. All that challenges them to build up strong self-confidence and awareness of their capabilities. Women, on the other hand, are directed to be weaker, both mentally and physically.
Mgr. Mariana Botková
It seems, therefore, that the self-confidence women may develop is not completely in their hands. However, cold exposure is often characterized by women as a huge step towards greater confidence. The further they step out from their comfort zone into the cold, the more self-confident they seem to become. After taking part in a one-day Wim Hof Method workshop, a 29-year old female questionnaire respondent wrote:
The things that often seem to be unreal are in fact very feasible! We just have to realize this, trust it and simply try it. We have to do the first step towards a new goal and as soon as we do that, we understand that it is only us who put the obstacles under our feet. We are those who are setting the limits for ourselves.
The same idea appears in approximately 90% of the questionnaires answered by women, spanning 7 different countries with an age range of 18–64 years. However, women who haven’t directly experienced cold water exposure yet are still reluctant to try it, despite the widely positive feedback from practitioners on its effects. Will they manage? What if it’s too unpleasant? What if they get sick? It seems that cold exposure simply doesn’t suit a woman’s nature. Or does it? After all, cold is part of nature. A 55-year old female Wim Hof practitioner from the Czech Republic states:
I used to think that the cold was something bad, something people have to protect themselves from. Now I think that fear of the cold is just a cultural construct, a way of making ourselves more comfortable, lazier, and sicker. Now I think that cold water is the cheapest drug, with the fastest physical and mental effects.
Almost all the respondents of the questionnaire answered that, prior to the Wim Hof workshop, the aspect of the method that they feared the most (out of three: mind-set, cold exposure, and breathing exercises) was the cold.
Experiencing cold in water is very physical and intense: “20 times more intense than cold air,” Wim Hof claims. The idea of shivering, of the common cold, or of being uncomfortable is usually stronger than the willingness to overcome one’s inhibitions. If I want to do something for my health, why torture myself with ice-cold water when I could just make a tasty avocado salad? However, behind the decision to come into closest possible contact with the cold lies a silver lining that brings enormous benefit. And once a woman does decide to try the cold bath, puts on the bathing suit and finds a cold water source, she doesn’t run away. Face to face with the cold, it seems to attract her.
There are dozens of reasons why this is so. One of the most important is that cold wakes us from physical and mental apathy. When we fight it, it fights back; but when we accept it and use it in our favour, it can powerfully recharge us all:
businesswomen, middle-aged women, full-time mothers, teenage girls, artists and laborers, the unhappy, sickly, tired, weak, or afraid…
With closed eyes, concentrating on the present moment, on my stretching lungs, on the physical responses of my body and on the pleasant emptiness of my mind, I swim in the lake and enjoy the sun rays warming up my face. The lake, full of swimmers in summer, is my private outdoor swimming pool the whole winter. I smile as a picture of a woman appears on my mind. She is swimming in a Scottish mountain lake; naked, free, calm, strong… I saw her just recently in a short film and I completely relate to her impressions of cold water:
I come here to experience the water. But once you´ve seen what lies beneath the surface you end up returning again and again. The sensation of that cold on every part of your body eclipses all thoughts, you leave everything behind and it offers you the space to truly appreciate the moment.
The protagonist of short film. Blue Hue
In a questionnaire for women before and after regular cold exposure practise, respondents were asked to identify themselves with two animals, ‘before’ and ‘after’, to visualize how their abilities had changed. Some of the responses included pairs, such as dog/tiger, owl/wolf, cat/lynx, fox/polar fox, sheep/eagle, or turtle/husky. ‘After’ animals were in most cases stronger, bigger, faster, and more skilful than the ‘before’ animals, suggesting that after regular and progressive cold exposure, all women felt they had acquired a new level of physical strength and skill. But are the effects of cold exposure equally tangible in the case of mental wellbeing?
Although anxiety can be useful, even life-saving, many psychologists say that women are prone to worry too much. They are more inclined to suffer from anxiety disorders and depression then men. Therefore, a tool that is cheap, fast, effective, and available to everyone, and that could help us to unhook ourselves from the claws of frequent and unnecessary anxiety is more than welcome in our world:
Thanks to cold you can get stronger from the inside. It gives you control over your mind. It is very effective. It may sound like the Wim Hof training is something for tough guys but I believe that many more women should do it because it´s about the inner strength, the strength that we need in our lives, with our kids, with our husbands, with plenty of jobs that we do. I think it´s very important for women to do it.’
Anita Klein, yoga teacher
The benefits of cold exposure are countless: improved circulation, weight management, protection against heart diseases, stronger immunity, faster recovery following exercise, relief from depression, cold resistance, improved sleep quality, improved athletic performance and many others. But women already know, don’t we? What we often don’t realize, however, is that none are exclusively the domain of male strength and androgens. These are all attainable by women. All that is needed to enter cold water is strong willpower.
It is worth it, not only because of these health benefits but also because it improves one’s perception of one’s own physical and mental capabilities. Cold can be responsible for the perceptive shift that, tending to low self-confidence, women often especially need. There is no physical obstacle to prevent a healthy woman from entering an ice-cold lake, irrespective of her age, profession, or physical fitness. There is only fear and that, thanks to the cold, can be quickly overcome.
I slowly come out of the lake. There is no need to hurry. I wait and observe again. The drops of water run over me but I don’t mind them. The wind blows but it doesn’t make me cold. I wait till it dries my skin, change to dry clothes and put my thermometer back to my backpack. I smile as I am looking at the lake one last time today. “Tomorrow”, I say and slowly walk back into the forest.
“Cold is harsh and at first sight unpleasant, but women are able to do it as successfully as men, so there is no need to be afraid. Actually, I have observed an interesting tendency regarding the personal development of men and women during the (Wim Hof Method) course. While men open up and become more emotional during the week, women become stronger and confident of their physical abilities. Everything blends together, masculinity and femininity, so that in the end there aren’t any differences.” Bart Pronk, Wim Hof Method instructor
Written by & published with permission of Hana Moravčíková
Hana Moravčíková is a writer and the author of “Ice Apprentice”. Hana is also a certified Wim Hof Method instructor.
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