Felt Sensations, Somatics, and Cold Therapy

It was a beautiful April day here in the Champlain Valley. The 60+ degree air was too inviting to pass up, and the sun felt wondrous when it peeked out from behind the clouds. I took a break from computer work earlier this afternoon to go for a walk and, eventually, a swim.

As I walked along the lake front towards my favorite swimming spot I reflected on how we carry trauma of various sorts in our bodies. This can be personal trauma acquired during our lifetimes, or it can be intergenerational or even ancestral. I have been reading a lot about this lately, and recent episodes of my Healing Culture Podcast touched on the topic too. This trauma can have all sorts of physical and emotional ramifications, which are doubly impactful because many of us have no conscious awareness of it.

We often use the word ‘feel’ to describe emotions, but another layer of feeling describes body sensations. Learning to discern these body sensations is key to understanding where trauma is stored in our body and how to metabolize it, to release it. Learning to relax into our body’s felt senses is also helpful for learning to better regulate our nervous systems and avoid being chronically triggered and forced into a stress response.

The body sensations that accompany a trigger have intrigued me for years, although until fairly recently I would not have spoken of them this way. Back when I lived in northwest Indiana, near the shores of Lake Michigan, I would go swimming in late fall, winter, and early spring when the lake was calm. I was intrigued by emerging research on the benefits of cold exposure, and enjoyed exploring the many bodily feelings of discomfort that arose while I was immersed in Lake Michigan’s frigid waters.

Those first forays into cold therapy happened in 2002 and 2003. Over time I learned that cold exposure can work wonders for personal health and wellness. Studies have since demonstrated that it reduces chronic inflammation, a problem for many people living in the industrialized world that contributes to a range of chronic diseases. It also offers a burst of endorphins, feel-good chemicals that deaden our experience of physical and mental pain, and calm us.

On today’s walk I headed north along the lake front from my home, eventually reaching what folks in the area call South Beach, or Texaco beach. I laid my towel on the sand and sat for a bit, relaxing in the intermittent sun as I shed my clothes for my first swim this year. Lake Champlain froze over this year, the first time in a few years, and the ice only broke up a few weeks ago.

The water was cold. My thermometer broke last fall, so all I have to go on is the USGS waterfront readings, all of which recorded the temperature as 36-37 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold. Not freezing, of course, because that implies the water is cold enough to change from liquid to solid, which it will not do at these temperatures. But definitely cold.

As I waded into the water I first felt tingling in the exposed skin of my feet, my lower legs, then my thighs. WARNING my skin says, IT IS GETTING A LOT COLDER VERY FAST! Yes, I tell my skin, it is. I breathe deeply, I count my heartbeats, I reassure my nervous system that its initial sense of threat is a false alarm and that all is well. My skin objects. It does not like the cold water. We have been through this many, many times.

I dive in, swimming underwater for a ways. The tingling sensation spreads quickly over my entire body. WARNING, WARNING, WARNING! The nerves on the surface of my skin are freaking out, but I can relax into that response enough to prevent their surficial excitement from inciting the more systemic, and aptly named ‘freeze’ response most folks experience when they find themselves suddenly immersed in very cold water. My head pops up above the waterline. I take a breath and look around.

As I swim around in water that comes about up to my chest, the fierce chill reaches beneath my skin. I feel it in my surficial muscles, and at the same time I feel my core fighting back against it, ratcheting up my metabolism to create more heat. I count my breaths, count my heartbeats, note that my heart rate is inching up. I smile as I relax into the war my body declares against the cold. These days it takes about 45 seconds to acclimate, that is for my body to get over its initial freak out and relax into the task of maintaining my core temperature while immersed in cold water. I wade around to pass the time.

A few minutes later I feel the first shiver come on, and I wade back to shore and walk up onto the beach to my towel. I know from past experience that I can stay immersed beyond that first shiver if I want to, but I feel no inspiration to set any records today. I also have a student’s thesis to read through at home, which is no small task. The warm air feels wonderful, the burst of endorphins I get feels even more wonderful, and I sit down against a rock to air dry in the warm afternoon air relishing all of this.

As I walked home, I reflected on how lucky I am to have retained the ability to connect to my body’s felt senses even as I live in an industrial economy that seems to stifle this in many people. My interest in the health benefits of cold exposure is one thing that has fostered this connection, and my interest in martial arts another as I was forced to explore the nuances of pain while learning various grappling techniques, among other things. I wonder what other practices I might explore to broaden my repertoire?