'Polar Plunging Changed My Life'

On the first day of March, I plunged into the freezing water of Nantucket Harbor. The high that day on the small island island thirty miles off the coast of Massachusets was 46 Farenheit, but in I went. I proceeded to plunge every day of that entire month. This may seem bizarre—why would anyone subject themselves to that?—but after 31 days and 31 plunges, I think I've found an answer. Plunging is meditation. It's healthy and exhilarating. It builds willpower and discipline. And it can become a community event, if you let it.

I spent the winter in the historical whaling town to begin legwork on the book I'm writing about digital minimalism, mindfulness, and a year without a phone. On the third month of being holed up in a mid-island cottage, I felt compelled to do something irregular, shocking, invigorating—and healthy.

Nantucket in March isn't springtime and flowers. It's New England cold. There's an incessant chill as ocean gusts roll over the island. According to Weather Atlas, a weather-recording database, Nantucket's average ocean temperature in March is 38.5 degrees Fahrenheit, which, it helpfully adds, is "considered life-threatening and very dangerous. The water feels painfully cold, and hyperventilation quickly occurs. A specialized swimsuit is mandatory to reduce thermal damage."

Swimming in freezing water can indeed be dangerous, especially if you're in poor health, if the duration is too long, and if you ignore key signals from the body. But if practiced cautiously, the "plunge," the acute shock to your system—called hormetic stress—can affect your physiology positively, down to cellular function. Alongside risks, there are wide-ranging benefits to cold exposure, and a growing body of scientific literature indicates that polar plunging can be excellent for immunology, cardiovascular health, inflammation, autoimmune diseases, lifespan (for some), mental health, post-exercise muscle recovery and more. The body is built to handle the elements because it evolved in the elements.

Bordering on mystical

My first plunge was so vivid that it bordered mystical. Nantucket was shrouded in mist and mimicked a tonalist painting. The temperature was in the low forties. I took the same twenty-minute route to the beach for the entire month, and I wore the same attire for every plunge – a blue Boulder sweatshirt, a faded pink bathing suit, a Turtle Fur headband and sneakers, with a towel wrapped around my shoulders.

When I got beachside of Nantucket Harbor, I stripped to my bathing suit and stood on the water's edge, facing the expanse of the ocean. The sky was grey and the wind raised goosebumps on my skin. My stomach turned from nerves and anticipation. The Nantucket inhabitants walking by, bundled in winter coats, scarves and hats intermittently stopped to watch—as a man in pink shorts with long hair pumped his arms like a seagull. I craned my neck, shook out my hands and loosened my legs. I took deep nasal breaths to oxygenate my blood and prep mentally.

The instant my toes touched the rolling tide, sensory neurons alit my brain—"What the **** are you doing? This is so cold." But by mindfully viewing these thoughts as just thoughts, I pushed past them. I waded deeper into the water. When I got to an appropriate depth just below the waist, I took one last deep nasal inhale and plunged myself downward.

The shock immediately took my breath away. I began hyperventilating with quick, shallow, uncontrollable breathes. After three to five seconds, I found my breath again by dutifully focusing on deep nasal inhales. I closed my eyes.

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Noah Miller in the cold waters of Nantucket Harbor, March 2021. Hannah Judy Gretz/Courtesy

Polar plunging is an arena for meditation. You have two options once you're in the water. You can fight the cold, or you can accept it. Fighting dissonant sensations like the cold, pain or an itch tends to multiply the cognitive resistance towards them. Fighting the cold breeds suffering. Acceptance allows you to transcend the suffering. So I surrendered to the pure sensation of the cold. I breathed and basked in it. I thanked the cold without words. I pretended to love the cold until I did.

The cold shock shunts you into the present moment—right into the now. Your awareness hones on the sensations affecting your body as you fall into the rhythm of the breath. You nearly become the breath. You notice the slightly painful needling feeling, like pinpricks, running along the skin that's wrapping tightly around contracting muscles.

The experience is unpleasant for the first 60 seconds until the switch flips. The acute stress affecting your body causes primordial regions of the brain to release endocannabinoids and natural opiates, which allows euphoria to follow. The polar plunger settles into the breath and the swim becomes pleasurable. This was when I opened my eyes.

There was a stillness to my perceptions. I simply existed; with my head sticking out of the water I looked around. I was preternaturally aware of the ocean ripples crisscrossing on the plane of the ocean surface. I heard clear noises – a seabird squawk, the ferry horn. The sky seemed to grow out of the horizon. I was hyper-aware of the sky as a dome. It was uncanny and profound.

I stayed in the water as long as I could – which was about two minutes. My fingers and toes were ice blocks, which is a good indicator to exit. Emerging from the water, a subtle warmth began trickling over me. Wading back to the shore I felt like a champion. I exited the plunge radiating subtle joy. Then I dried myself on the beach.

The polar plunging itself was shocking, but not emotionally taxing. After plunging, the body experiences a precipitous drop in temperature—a phenomenon called "afterdrop." The onset of afterdrop begins at about 10 minutes, when your core body temperature reaches its lowest point. If the wind hit right during afterdrop, my muscles would contract again, causing me to shuffle and stumble along the sidewalk like a stiff arthritic skeleton, shivering madly.

Accepting the cold

Polar plunging for the entire month took mental fortitude. Every new plunge was a fresh experience that shocked my system.By the end of the month, I was mildly amused to confirm that I had some mental fortitude. There were frigid, gloomy days when I did not want to put on a bathing suit and leave my warm cottage, to walk through bone-chilling wind and jump in the ocean. But by practicing a mindful awareness of the dissuading thoughts, I overrode them. And about halfway through March, I learned about Nantucket's healthy population of great white sharks, which added to the fun.

Every plunge left me with a sense of accomplishment. It didn't matter what happened during the day. I could have had a top-ten lazy day; I could have done nothing. But if I conquered the cold, I slept that night knowing I did something.
Because I wore the same clothes every plunge, the locals began recognizing me as I shuttled along my route. The Nantucket community seemed to love what I was doing. Dads slowed their pick-ups and gave me thumbs up, or unrolled their window and asked, "cold today?" Grandmothers walking their granddaughters along the beach cheered me on. Two out of three days, at least two people would interact with me in some way.

Around the 15-day mark, I stood on the sidewalk by the beach, cramming my sandy heel into my shoe with numb fingers. A brown Jeep slowed, pulled next to me and unrolled its passenger window. An older woman filled with exuberance smiled and told me how much she loves polar plunging. After a brief conversation – after I said I was phoneless—she scrawled her email onto a torn piece of loose-leaf paper and handed it to me. Then she was off.

Her name was Hannah, and for the rest of the month she became my cold-water swimming partner.

She was—and is—a 64-year-old badass. The second time we plunged, gale force winds sweeping over the island were so strong that they literally halted me mid-stride – at 6'3", 200 pounds. White-capped waves churned the Harbor. I asked if she still felt okay swimming in these conditions, expecting hesitancy. She haughtily replied "of course!" and stormed into the water.

Polar plunging with Hannah made the experience different altogether. Instead of deep introspection, plunging became a community event. We chatted while entering the water. She relayed pertinent island gossip while we dried on the beach. Plunging with others makes the activity an outlet for social engagement. It satisfies the human instinct we have to meaningfully connect with others.

Hannah gifted me two books about cold-water and mindful swimming. She brought me pieces of baklava and Irish apple cake in to-go containers. She introduced me to girls my age (an alternative to Hinge). After having a little lonely of a winter, polar plunging, saying yes and Hannah herself helped me connect into the heartbeat of Nantucket.

After one of our last swims together, Hannah said, "You know, a lot of people will balk at you for swimming in the cold. They'll think you're crazy. But with the way it makes you feel, isn't plunging the sane thing to do?"

My March polar plunging was a magnifying glass on humanity. Next winter, I'll repeat this experience – maybe in Nantucket, at the same beach with the same friend. I encourage you to join me, from a pool, tub or lake, or from your own special spot in the monumental ocean.

Noah Miller is a Newsweek special projects journalist. He's writing a book called The Miller Manifesto, about his phoneless year and his digital minimalism protocol.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.