Cold Exposure Therapy

March 21, 2024

I’m Amanda.
The AWH Guide to all things health. With two doctorates and a background in healthcare I provide recommendations you can trust. 
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I am intentionally posting this at the cusp of spring. While the days are getting warmer there are still a few cold fronts left (at least for those of us on the East Coast) and so I wanted to introduce, in a gentle and approachable way, the concept of cold exposure therapy (aka cold therapy).

I was first introduced to cold therapy through my father and the Wim Hoff method. My father has been a Wim devotee for years, and the benefits of Wim’s cold exposure are innumerable. If you are not familiar with Wim (aka the Ice Man) you can learn more by reading The Wim Hoff Method. A succinct read explaining, in detail, the process and benefits of ice baths, cold showers, and a specific breathing technique.

Cold Exposure Therapy

The most common forms of cold exposure therapy are:

  • Cold showers (<60 degrees for 2 + minutes)
  • Ice baths (full body or facial)
  • Cold plunge
  • Cryotherapy
  • Outdoor walks (minimal clothing, ideally <40 degrees)

Cold Exposure Therapy:

So often we live our life in a sympathetic “fight or flight” state. We wake up to a harsh alarm, jump out of bed and rush through our morning routine – off to face our day charged up on caffeine and adrenaline. Cold exposure forces you – through a very direct (and cold) mechanism – to slow down. The shock of the cold forces you to take a deep breath. To focus your mind. To activate your parasympathetic “relaxed” nervous system which tells your body – you are ok and most importantly, you can relax.

Consciously, and deliberately entering the cold provides homeostasis. Your mind will initially say, no, but then you have the chance to control your mind and say yes:

Yes, I choose to do this,

I am choosing to be cold for this brief time, and

I am fine.

When that parasympathetic state is initiated, especially in the morning, then you get to carry those wonderful feelings of relaxation and calm with you all day long!

Full disclosure: I have tried, and failed multiple times on the cold shower front. I found some success right before I got pregnant, but then stopped during pregnancy, and have not found my rhythm again. I attribute this to enjoying my showers too much! Sometimes the shower is the only opportunity I have to incorporate a little luxury into a chaotic day.

I may get back to the cold showers, but for now I’ve been reaching out to more accessible cold remedies.  In my attempt to dip my toe back into the cold therapy world, I have pursued facial ice baths and cold exposure therapy outside.

Facial Ice Baths

One of the easiest ways to start cold exposure therapy, is to simply fill your bathroom sink, or a bowl with water + ice and dunk your face for 10-15 seconds. It is a very simple way to introduce cold therapy into your life. As an added bonus, your skin will feel more taut, you will have more color, and you start your day feeling invigorated and awake!

Outside Cold Therapy

Scott Carney in his book What Doesn’t Kill Us describes in a clear format the importance of exposing your body to outside temperature extremes. For example, in the winter exercise with minimal clothing on. In the summer, go out for your run/walk during the peak sun hours. The intention is to strip yourself of modern luxuries and get back to a more primal, core state. To provide the opportunity for a reset. To fire up neurons, turn on thermoregulation. Stop and think about our lives. For those of us in the US, many get frustrated traveling abroad to a country that does not have air conditioning in the summer. Truthfully, it is not needed, but we are so conditioned to think we need to be “cool” at all times that we do not allow ourselves the freedom to function in a state of homeostasis.

Similarly, in the winter, most of us could not imagine forgoing our houses at a set 72 degrees year round. While we have become accustomed to a narrow range of temperature modulation, it is not benefiting our minds or bodies.

Small steps of cold exposure help to reset your internal clock. To get your body to react in a new and (I would argue exciting) way. Sure it is slightly uncomfortable at first, but the innumerable benefits outweigh the minor con of temporary discomfort.

Cold #AWHWalks

Post walk, 30 degree weather. Feeling great!

So, onto my practice. This winter I started my first cold therapy walk with just a long sleeved t-shirt, hat, leggings and gloves. I quickly realized I could do better – and wanted to do better. The next morning, I challenged myself to go out in just a t-shirt and shorts. The initial jolt of the 30 degree temperature took my breath away for a second, but then I realized how ALIVE I felt. It was addicting.By the end of the walk, my chest, legs and arms all felt warm – I could have gone longer.

I have kept this practice up everyday since.  Granted, I live in the city and get a lot of curious, and sometimes concerning, looks when the temps are cold, and others are bundled up. I get it, I do, however I have never been someone to live my life based on other’s perceptions of me, and this instance is no exception. I love this practice so much, that many mornings my daughter joins me (granted I keep her warm and toasty in her Stokke cold weather option on the stroller). We call it our morning “cold walks” and she loves to join her mama and take in those deep cleansing breaths.

AWH note: For anyone concerned, I would never take my daughter out if the temperatures were unbearable, but cooler air is actually good for everyone’s lungs, and immune systems … and I believe this practice is part of the key to us both staying healthy this winter.

“Cold morning walk” with my daughter at the VMFA, Richmond, VA

The first month I implemented cold therapy the temperatures ranged from 15 degrees up to a balmy 40.  I felt great during all conditions. However, the real litmus test came not from the cold, but from what the cold taught me.

This past winter I had multiple serious life events hit within a 24h period. It was a rough time, a season of life that pushed me, and yet I felt a sense of true peace. There was an inner resiliency, the fortitude to know I could handle what had come our way and rise to the occasion with grace, fortitude, and positivity.

Yes, I have practices that help me stay balanced – but these particular life stressors were beyond my normal realm of capability. The only change I can attribute my peace to was the cold therapy. By choosing to expose myself in a very intentional way to something slightly uncomfortable, and pushing through … gave me the tools I needed to rely on when real life challenges popped up.

Yes, the days are longer now, and despite a few more cold mornings, the temps will be changing, but I can say that my excitement for cold therapy will not end here … and I cannot wait to share what I have planned next.

Accept the challenge, friends!

ps… The stroller we use is Stokke Xplory. It has a cold weather option that can bundle your little one up for the coolest of Scandinavian temps while keeping them cozy. An added bonus the stroller sits at a height that allows even my husband to have good posture when pushing. Happy stroller, happy toddler = happy parents!

As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases which helps to support future AWH posts. I only share products that I personally own, use and love.

in good health,
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