I am currently fascinated by Wim Hof. Wim is known as “The Iceman” and has achieved numerous world records for feats us mere mortals can only imagine. He holds the record for the longest time spent in an ice bath, which is 1 hour 40 minutes. Wim also ran 24,000 feet up Mount Everest in just his shorts. He has completed a marathon in the Namib Desert without water, and has also completed a marathon – in just his shorts – above the Arctic Circle.
More recently, Wim had himself injected with toxins to try to induce sickness. Wim managed to control his immune system to stave off any effects of the toxins, and was symptom free. Wim achieved this feat under the watchful eyes of scientists at Radboud University, ensuring the validity of his achievement. He then taught his methods to 12 volunteers who all managed to achieve the same results as Wim.
Wim’s method involves ice water training and meditative breathing. You can find out more about his method here.
The fascinating aspect of Wim’s methods and philosophy is that it is the diametric opposite of a bestseller I recently read. The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steven Peters is a self-help classic that uses the analogy of a chimp for the workings of your brain. Dr Peters argues that anxiety, anger, depression and happiness are emotions caused by the primitive “chimp” part of our brain. The more evolved outer brain – The Human – is responsible for higher level thinking and functioning. Dr Peters’s book encourages control over the “emotional brain” by understanding how it functions, and recommends overriding these emotions by rational thinking and living in “The Human” brain.
Wim’s method is the exact opposite. He argues that cold exposure and meditative breathing causes us to access the Amygdala and Pineal Gland – components of the ‘Chimp Brain’ – on a deeper level. The immediacy of the cold has a meditative effect. It becomes near impossible to use rational and higher level thought as he brain regresses into survival mode. The release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and epinephrine – the fight or flight hormones – are the exact chemicals responsible for the “emotional hijackings'” alluded to in Dr Peters’s book. However, Wim is an advocate of the positivity of the release of these hormones in controlled circumstances. Through cold exposure and breathing techniques, Wim is able to control the release of these hormones, enabling him to withstand extreme cold, stave off illness and achieve other amazing feats.
Meditation has been recommended throughout human history as a way of reducing stress, anxiety and gaining greater control over the mind and your emotions. Meditation is the quieting of the mind. The ‘noisy’ part of the mind is the ‘Human Brain’, the brain responsible for the voice in your head, rational thought and your active mind. Meditation aims to quieten this part of the mind down and induce a sense of control and relaxation. Wim’s methods achieve the same. Cold exposure quietens the mind as you begin to focus on the immediacy of the situation and the affront the cold causes to your comfort.
The levels of comfort we experience as a specie has diverged significantly from the comfort we experienced when our organism evolved. We were designed with fight and flight mechanisms and brains designed to move our bodies through complex and dangerous environments. The removal of these external stimuli has ensured our longevity but also ensured only partial use of our body’s capabilities. We constantly live in our “Human Brains” – the rational, thinking and higher level part of our brain.
Wim argues that this removal from primitive brain function has caused the current glut of depression diagnoses and lack of resilience amongst people. This is especially true of young people. Resilience is just about the most important skill a young person can develop. Our upbringing and school experiences shape the way our resilience develops. We all want the best for our students and protect them as much as possible from the harsh cruelties of the world. Comfort has bred inactivity and an “indoors lifestyle”. The prevalence of smartphones and computer games consoles has ensured we are increasingly “outdoors averse”. Reducing our interaction with the world around us and our increasing levels of comfort has increased the rates of depression and anxiety. Anything that is slightly counter to our daily comfort rocks the boat significantly and people aren;t able to cope. There is an inherent expectation that life should be comfortable and easy, convenient and relaxed.
The reality is that we meet constant disappointments and constant setbacks. Our ability to deal with these affronts to our comfort ultimately determines our happiness. Resilience and the ability to cope when the going gets tough decides whether we remain happy or whether we crumble. Tales abound of the straight A student who fails their first exam and becomes inconsolable. I’m with Wim. The human organism is designed to experience stress, strain and discomfort. By regularly exposing yourself to stress and the possibility of failure, you increase your resilience and grow your character. Stress, in this instance, is defined as a weight trainer would. Muscles do not grow until you put them under significant load – stress – to which they respond by growing. Wim’s cold exposure stresses his body and is uncomfortable. By coping with this discomfort and overcoming it, his character grows.
I believe we build the characters of our young people by increasing their exposure to stressful and uncomfortable situations. This can be as simple as playing outside in terrible weather or walking an uncomfortable distance instead of driving. Building in failure at school on a regular basis also helps. We judge young people on their grades, yet this is the wrong focus. We should be building characters capable of coping with the modern world. This means exposing people to failure and disappointment. It means showing people that your life isn’t over if you can’t afford a smartphone, and that somehow missing the consumerist dream of owning every possible item of luxury isn’t a worthwhile goal. Its about demonstrating that The X Factor lifestyle is a false hope and that hard work, determination, failure and responding to it are far more sustainable methods towards success and happiness.
We should embrace discomfort for our students and children. Its what builds character. The human organism has a remarkable ability to cope with stress. Our modern lives has robbed us of the opportunities to experience this on a daily basis, making any setback an anomaly and an event we can’t cope with. Through regular opportunities to fail, struggle and discomfort we increase our ability to cope with the world.
You don’t necessarily have to stay in an ice bath for an hour, though.