At this time last year, I was beyond frustrated at the state of affairs in the world as my son celebrated his seventh birthday in our driveway without any of his friends because of COVID lockdowns.
I was furious.
But what I did not like most of all was my response to the things that were happening in the world, the negative energy I knew I was putting into the universe.
I decided then and there that it was time to put in the work and improve on the person I had become. My goal was to look in the mirror in April of 2021 with pride for the improvements I made in my ability to respond to stressful and negative experiences. My plan was to anchor this change in cold exposure, breathing, and mindset, the pillars of The Wim Hof Method for which I am a certified instructor and use extensively with clients in my leadership consulting practice.
While I rarely missed a day of either breathing or cold exposure before beginning this journey, last April I committed to 365 straight days of cold exposure with an intense focus on mindfulness, emotions, and how I wanted to react to stressors in life. It was a scary proposition because what if this method that I have so heavily invested in really did not change anything about me? What if cold exposure, breathing, and mindfulness left me the same frustrated person who emitted the same negative energy based on things that were out of my control?
It Was Time to Find Out
At the beginning of the 365 days at 36.5 challenge last spring and early summer, I was diligent about logging various aspects of each ice bath because I thought it would be necessary to have data to support my conclusions about what impact regular cold exposure had on me. I tracked time of day, time in the ice bath, temperature of the ice bath or if I simply took a cold shower, my mood before and after, my intention while in the cold, whether I drank alcohol the day before, my diet, my heart rate, and on and on. The results of the data were…inconclusive and unimpressive.
I realized about halfway through this journey that I was too focused on data. I was not focusing on what really mattered, how I was feeling and behaving.
So, I ditched the data and asked the person who is affected most by my behaviors and moods, my wife Jen, if I was at all improving.
Her response was encouraging but measured.
She could see my mindfulness on full display. She could see my conscious efforts to address and assess my emotions every single day. Jen could tell I would still experience extreme negative emotions after listening to the news of the day, but she also observed a conscious effort on my part to not act on that negativity. All of this led to positive lifestyle changes. Most importantly, a decision to remove myself from the noise of our times: no more social media scrolling and incessant news watching. I would simply focus on my own positive message on social media. This helped more than I could have imagined.
But There Was Still Something Missing
Yes, my awareness and mindfulness increased significantly.
Yes, I was making more conscious decisions based on my emotions.
Yes, I made some excellent lifestyle changes to ensure I would limit my exposure to unnecessary negative triggers.
Yes, the commitment to daily cold exposure was having a massively positive impact on my life.
But angst and frustration were still bubbling below the surface.
In short, I was more mindful, I acted better, and made better life choices based on the cold exposure commitment, but I still felt uneasy. I felt like with all the work I had put in that I should feel better and not have to battle with my emotions constantly.
I concluded that I was well on my way to becoming a different and better person 10 months into 365 at 36.5 and the cold exposure drill was a major factor in this. I also concluded that the unexplained angst I continuously felt was simply part of my life. I decided that my need for a hyper awareness towards all types of stimuli around me, how it makes me feel, and what conscious actions I take based on this information was simply how I would have to go through my life. It was exhausting, but so much better than the alternative of letting outside negativity own me.
Then one evening my family and I were invited to dinner with Jen’s sister and family. At dinner I met a doctor who specializes in traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI. Dr. John Hughes specializes in natural protocols to help individuals suffering with this “invisible injury”. Dr. Hughes focuses his practice on helping veterans and professional athletes. Without thinking too much about it and in the spirit of making conversation, I shared my history of serious head injuries, especially during my time in the SEAL Teams.
I expressed my true gratitude for Dr. Hughes efforts to help our service members, and others, who are suffering and need a natural alternative to the predictably bad, ineffective, and ultimately destructive path of pharmaceutical medication to help the effects of TBI.
And that was it. The evening was coming to an end and I thoroughly enjoyed speaking Dr. Hughes. I did not anticipate seeing him again anytime soon. Until, almost in passing as we were saying goodnight, he asked if I would come into his office for a brain scan.
My First Brain Scan
About two weeks later, I met with Dr. Hughes in his office in Basalt, CO for a scan. It was a day that changed my life in ways I never expected.
“Do you see these two wavelengths operating in harmony and unison?” Dr. Hughes asked me. “This is the energy of your heart and brain waves acting in perfect sync. This is common for people who are committed to a life of mindfulness, meditation, and happiness.” I then shared my Wim Hof practice and he replied, “That explains it then.”
But there was more.
“Do you see this area of your brain that is red? This shows that your brain is a high alpha state.” Dr. Hughes went on to explain alpha state is the most desirable state for your brain to be in. It means that I am calm and at ease, but also focused and aware of what is happening around me.
Calm and at ease? Heart and brain in perfect harmony?
It sounded good, but it was difficult for me to believe because of the inherent angst I constantly felt bubbling below the surface.
“OK,” I thought. “And what? This is nice to hear, but ultimately doesn’t mean much to me.” And then he hit me with the final piece of information that has changed my life and shown the true impact of cold exposure, breathing, and mindset.
“Do you see this area of blue around your brain?” Dr. Hughes asked.
“Yes,” I replied. It was hard to miss because there was a substantial amount of blue.
“This is the area of your brain that controls how you process emotions. The blue indicates that this part of your brain is essentially inactive. This is an indication of someone who suffers from severe TBI,” Dr. Hughes informed me.
Then he went on. “What is truly amazing is that your heart and brain wave harmony and the high alpha state your brain is in is not consistent with your limited ability to process your emotions based on your TBI. The work you have done on yourself using cold exposure, breathwork, and meditation has basically saved you.”
Cold Exposure, Breathing, and Mindfulness Saved My Life
I was stunned and speechless.
There was a reason why I felt frustrated and anxious all the time?
There is a reason why I have not had a good night’s sleep for as long as I can remember?
It is because I have an injury to my brain?
The work I have done on myself has saved me?
“Let me help you get the rest of the way to recovery.” Dr. Hughes concluded.
The rest of the way to recovery?!
In essence, what Dr. Hughes was saying was that I have done all I can do for myself. I have put my mind and body in a harmonious, calm state in spite of the inability to properly process my emotions based on a series of serious head injuries. Now I need help to get me the rest of the way towards recovery.
Cold exposure, breathing, and mindfulness saved my life. With real data, and real science to back it up, 365 days @ 36.5 degrees saved my life! Looking back now over the past year, at the journey I embarked on in April 2020 of 365 consecutive days of ice baths, I am full of so much emotion. I am proud of the work I put in to improve myself and the energy I put out into the world. But more than anything I am grateful that this journey led me here. I have been experiencing severe symptoms of TBI for the better part of my life without realizing it. I didn’t understand that so many of the challenges I have faced were a result of my head injuries.
I look forward to sharing more about my journey towards recovery from Traumatic Brain Injury with you soon.
Errol Doebler is the founder of Leader 193, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Leader 193 to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Errol provides executive coaching, keynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.