on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

learning to tolerate physiological discomfort

I’ve been taking cold showers in the morning lately post-exercise. Maybe for most people taking cold showers in the hot and humid weather of singapore is not a big deal, but I was deathly afraid of cold water – would literally scream if I happened to get splattered with it before the water heater is ready. A cold shower here is nowhere as uncomfortable as a cold shower even in say San Francisco’s mild weather. But as far as I know most people still don’t take cold showers here because it is still uncomfortable.

But I learnt that cold showers have several health benefits, so one day I decided to take the plunge and it was so uncomfortable I did not do it again for months. Then I tried again, which then I did it sporadically once every few days. I had perpetually tense muscles, so I need my hot showers. But recently not sure if it is due to consistent exercise, nutrition and hydration, my muscles seem less angry so I don’t seem to need my hot showers as much to melt me into a functioning state.

A couple of weeks ago I started cold showering again, and since then I’ve been doing it almost every morning. It is also water-saving, since most of the time I am eager to get out of the cold. But some time along the way I started to enjoy it, and got better at enduring the discomfort because now I know what to anticipate. 

Having observed how I went from dreading my cold showers to looking forward to them, it made me reflect of other routines in my life that went through the same process: starting out so uncomfortable until I give up, coming back to it again but sporadic in application, then it somehow reaches a threshold and if I am lucky it becomes enjoyable. 

exercise, cooking and meditation

Exercise was definitely something that took years if not decades to reach that threshold, both cooking and washing dishes felt like such a chore I didn’t want to do it again after the initial tries, and I definitely spent my entire life trying to quit my unhealthy eating habits until I acquired my capacity to cook. Meditating was one of the most difficult habits to acquire in my routine, but in recent months we’ve been meditating almost every night before bed time. I think learning to exercise, cook, wash dishes taught me to slow down enough to be able to sit for ten minutes without feeling like my brain is about to explode into insanity. 

hunger and snacking

I used to be unable to tolerate hunger too. I would get hangry, or be unable to fall asleep if I happened to feel hungry in the evening. Now I finish my last meal by 5pm and I don’t eat until 9am (I wake up at 4) the next morning. There was a period I finished eating at 3pm – was inspired by monastics lol – but I stopped not because I was hungry but because it gave me so much adrenaline that both my mind and heart were racing. 

I also stopped snacking between my two meals. Initially it was really difficult especially for someone like me because I am addicted to emotional eating. I twitched in that span of hours and couldn’t stop thinking about snacking. I felt tremendous hunger and time would seem to pass so slowly until my next meal. Now I’m so used to it I don’t even think about it anymore. The body got conditioned and stopped feeling those phantom hunger pangs. I know I am not actually hungry because I measure my blood glucose. 

the relationship between enduring physiological discomfort and emotional discomfort

I think there is a beneficial accumulative effect from learning to endure this sort of physiological discomfort. Learning to endure something physically uncomfortable like exercise developed an endurance capacity that opened some door in my mind: if I can gradually hold an uncomfortable feeling longer and longer, one day it may cease to be disruptive. For example, the beginning of my jogs are still physically uncomfortable no matter how long I’ve been running, but instead of thinking omg this is so hard my legs feel like stone and feeling so overwhelmed by the uncomfortable sensations that I wish to stop running at every step, I’m now thinking: my legs feel like stone but after they warm up I’ll feel like I’m gliding. So the same uncomfortable sensations become a non-issue, they become a transitory process instead of being a show-stopper.

I realised I could apply this to my emotions too. Instead of an instant angry reaction to uncomfortable feelings, I could wait them out and see if they turn into something else. The effort to increase my capacity to tolerate physiological discomfort was positively impacting my capacity to tolerate emotional discomfort, and vice versa.

illustration of the capacity to tolerate physiological discomfort positively influencing the capacity to endure emotional discomfort

The more I became comfortable with my uncomfortable feelings, the more I could contain them while I experience them, the more I could endure physiological discomfort because it becomes easier not to be a slave to my feelings. 

There are appropriate times to listen to our feelings, of course. But like everything else there is a delicate balance, and I spent so much of my life wasting precious time and energy just drowning in my feelings. I was unable to do so many things because everything felt threatening and overwhelming. Being able to hold them at a distance opens spaces within me.

opening doors to new experiences

It is a form of stress to the body to take cold showers or fast. We call this hormetic stress. Similar to how we can only build muscle after experiencing stress and failure, our body is designed to become stronger after experiencing appropriate doses of such stress. 

I think there is a form of joy that emanates from being able to increase one’s capacity for discomfort. Life is a constant expansion exercise: we want to increase experiences, depth, and richness. We transform internally as we accumulate these experiences, in turn it expands the repertoire of things we can create and share. It is this creative and sharing process that makes the world richer. How many of us have been positively moved by an eye-opening or mind-expanding novel experience? How many of us have used somebody’s work to make our own work better? 

Being able to tolerate discomfort opens doors to new experiences that we would have avoided previously. Since my capacity to endure tedious tasks have increased, I have expanded the dishes I am able to cook. It is giving me considerably more joy in eating my own cooking. Physiological stressors like exercise and intermittent fasting have improved my health, which allows me to undertake tasks I couldn’t before. 

New capacities open new doors, new doors open new capacities. I hope to be able to document more of them as the years go by. I don’t know if I have a recency bias, but I feel like I am expanding at a faster rate compared to my younger days.

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