Can cold exposure really improve your health and wellbeing?

Can cold exposure really improve your health and wellbeing?

by | Apr 20, 2022

Tilly Roberts met up with Cat Paterson, a Wim Hof instructor and RTT therapist & clinical Hypnotherapist, to learn how to control our body’s response to real-life stress in a safe environment

“Have you ever felt breathless before a presentation, or a first date? Or maybe when your doorbell rings, and you don’t know who it is? This is because your body is in ‘fight or flight mode’, and it senses the danger it perceives to be real. It feels as real as a truck speeding towards you down an icy road. This is a natural response, but it can be tricky to handle. Once we understand that it is not our fault that we react this way, we can learn how to work in tandem with our mind and with our body’s natural defences.” Cat Paterso

When were you first introduced to the Wim Hof Method?

A friend introduced it to me about five years ago, and it was a bit of a dare. I absolutely hated the cold; I had a complete aversion to it. Yet, I spent all my life telling my clients to overcome their fears. So, my friend encouraged me to face my own fear… and I did! And the more I got into it, the more I was surprised by different aspects of it. I found it to be an incredible way to connect deeply with my body and my mind. We live in such a fast-paced world that living in stress has become the new normal – and we don’t even realise it. We have even forgotten how to breathe correctly. We breathe mostly into our chests, which perpetuates this cycle of being stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, leading to an array of health problems. I soon realised that Wim Hof was absolutely the best mythology to get people into their bodies and out of their minds – to connect their frontal cortex with their back limbic brain or brain stem. We have completely lost this ability to do this. The good news is, it’s easy to retrain with patience.

Could you tell me a little bit about the methods you teach?

The Wim Hof method consists of three pillars. The cold exposure, breathing, and mindset, to help you connect more deeply to your body. In terms of the breathwork, I have meditated for over 25 years. It has been my lifeline when faced with chronic illness and pain. I practice mindfulness and breathing daily as an essential tool to healthy living.

It involves an active in-breath (ideally through the nose) and a passive, relaxed exhalation (through the mouth), followed by prolonged breath holds. It has been shown to enhance immunity, reduce inflammation, increase mental focus, help with pain management, and improve emotional resilience and sleep. There are plenty of ongoing scientific papers that back the benefits of the Wim Hof Method.

In terms of the cold exposure, it begins gradually, from a cold shower to an ice bath. This improves your cardiovascular system, and also helps deal with inflammation and pain. It is difficult to explain the technique as nothing beats a live experience. I can, however, describe the breathing in more detail.

For the breathing element, it is all about learning to breathe into your belly, then breathing and expanding into your diaphragm and lifting that energy up into your head. It is learning to have this flow of breath. Like a circular wave that moves through your body. So, dynamically breathing through your nose into the belly, the chest and up into the head. When you breathe out you let the breath go passively, not all the way out, just let it go. You keep on doing this for 30 to 40 breaths. Then breathe out, hold your breath for about a minute in the first round. Then, in the second round, a minute and a half, and then in the third round, two and a half minutes. Then, you take a deep breath in and hold it for fifteen seconds, lifting the energy up into your head. Then, let the breath go and start the next round. Normally we do three rounds, but you can build on this with time.

There are different breathing techniques in the Wim Hof Method – and there are safety procedures to adhere to, for good reason. The one I just described must not be done near water, because you can pass out, inhale the water, and drown. The breathing method must be done in a safe environment away from water. Ideally lying down. The breathing used for the ice bath is very different technique. Also, do not do if you are pregnant, epileptic or have a heart condition. For anything else please, check with your doctor beforehand.

You mentioned that you hated the cold before you started Wim Hof. Did you swim before?

I would swim in the sea in the summer. It would normally take me about 10 minutes to get in – I was a proper wimp! I also had Raynaud’s, a circulatory disorder, which is one of the reasons I didn’t want to do the Wim Hof; I literally thought my extremities would fall off. You have 125,000 kilometres of blood vessels in your body, providing nutrients and oxygen, if they work properly your whole system will work more efficiently. Today we live in controlled environments, 21 degrees being our go-to favourite. Due to this modern luxury, we rarely exercise our cardiovascular system, leading to strain on the heart, anxiety, and poor circulation. When you expose yourself to the cold, you train your blood vessels through constriction and contraction – a kind of get-fit regime for the tiny muscles within your cardiovascular system.

How would you describe the relationship between your work as an instructor and a therapist? For example, is the practice of mindfulness a skill that is easily transferable to the Wim Hof practice?

Definitely – everything is about mindset and focus, understanding the relationship between your body and your mind, using the breath as a powerful tool. So, all those things, from being an RTT therapist to being an instructor of Wim Hof, correlate well. One of the reasons I did so well with the Wim Hof Method is that I’m a regular woman, but with an awesome mindset. I am not a top athlete or super fit. I’m just an average person. I wanted to prove anyone can do it, and I did. I could do as long as anybody else, just because I learned how to wield my mind. So, that really helped me do the Wim Hof Method, as it creates a deeper connection with yourself and deeper trust in your body, which is very important.

I know that our bodies and can store trauma and pain like our minds store memories. What would you say are the important things to focus on to try and unlock those kinds of tensions?

In therapy, it is about unlocking the root cause of the pain. It can be a belief, a trauma, a memory, even a habit of action. In the Wim Hof Method, we use the body to bring balance back to the mind.

The best port of call to start the journey is using body hacks. This includes working with breath, the vagus nerve, and mindfulness. By learning to breathe correctly, we can stimulate the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system (for rest and digestion, healing and balance). Cold training also stimulates the vagus nerve, which is the largest nerve that wanders through the body.

So, most of us breathe into our upper chests, which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight and flight, releasing adrenaline and cortisol – which is fine in the short- term, but can lead to a myriad of complications long-term. We have simply lost the ability to breathe into our stomachs. With the Wim Hof Method and breathing coaching, you learn to breathe the natural way, to enhance emotional resilience, increase energy and performance, increase your pain threshold, to sleep better, to release blocks, and to heal.

By learning to breathe deeply – not forcibly, but gently – is a hack into calming your system down, letting go of what no longer serves you, and entering into flowing and creative states where anything is possible.

We tend to have a ‘stiff upper lip’ about stresses and pains and ignore or distract from them. So, they get locked in different areas and parts of our body, which can be expressed in different ways; anxiety, feelings of overwhelm, or even physical conditions. With the breathing technique, you will find that your body will naturally start to detox because you are driving the oxygen into the mitochondria, which fuels the energy cells in your body. The energy will begin to go into those areas that have had the blocks and will start to release them. When I trained out in Stroe in Wim’s home, I was doing the advanced training with power breathing techniques for 45 minutes. Towards the end of the session, I felt this huge emotional surge. I had no idea where it came from, but I just started crying. There was no story in my mind, I couldn’t help it, but it felt like a massive release. This apparently is common, as you dive deeper into held blocks within the body.

You do learn to be okay with how your body expresses things. Because it is just energy, and you see it as such, not as something that needs a narrative. With the cold training, it works in a really interesting way. It helps reduce depression and anxiety due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin that send overwhelming electrical impulses from the peripheral nerve endings to the brain, resulting in an antidepressant effect. By cold exposure and breathing, you create a deep connection to unlimited power within, and learn to take control through intention and focus. Also, by getting accustomed to stressors, it helps the body deal with other stressors. It allows the body to adapt to physical stress, which enables us to handle more emotional stress in everyday life. You will find that the things that used to stress you no longer affect you.

Thank you for those answers, Cat. We will have to end our discussion there, but I am thinking about giving this method a go. I might even sign up for a course in the new year; they really do sound great.

You would be most welcome!

For more information, please go to www.catherinepaterson.co.uk or www.wimhofmethod.com/instructors/catpaterson for Cat’s future events timetable. Cat also offers 1:1 sessions, private groups and cooperate events.
Call: 07941 386 971

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