Case Study: How Stoic ice baths helped a student reduce anxiety and procrastination

Stoic otter ice bath.

Anika reached out to me earlier this year asking to participate in the AWP Reader Experiments challenge I advertised earlier this year. As a 22-year old graduate student in Pune, India, she felt that she needed ancient wisdom to help her with a few things most of us struggle with: anxiety, procrastination, and a shortage of gratitude.

After thinking about it for a quite a while, I came to the conclusion that Anika’s issues were primarily “in her head,” suggesting that the solution lies in being able to develop some tools to master her own mind.

Fortunately for her, there is an entire ancient wisdom tradition designed to do exactly this: Stoicism.

Because I don’t want to prescribe anything that I haven’t personally done myself, I gave Anika two rituals to perform over a six-week period.

  1. Ice baths or cold showers 3x per week
  2. Negative visualization 10 minutes per day

The ice baths allow Anika to observe how her mind reacts before, during, and after a physically uncomfortable event. By inducing anxiety on her own terms, she will also be able to learn ways to control it. I suspected it might also help with procrastination, or at least, help her become more aware of her mind when she procrastinates. Procrastination is often a response to difficult or mentally intensive activities. If Anika can avoid procrastination with ice baths, perhaps it can spill over into other areas of her life.

Negative visualization, a term coined by William Irvine in his book A Guide to the Good Life – The Art of Ancient Stoic Joy, is the practice of imaging all the ways your life could be more terrible than it is now. You imagine that people you care about could die, that you could become homeless, etc. This practice allows you to appreciate that your life is not as bad as it could be, and in theory, it should help you be less affected by negative events should they happen. I hoped this would help Anika cultivate a sense of gratitude for the life she has now, something we all routinely forget to do.

I also gave Anika several books on Stoicism for her to read.

  1. Letters from a Stoic– A collection of Seneca’s letters to his friends explaining his Stoic philosophy for different situations
  2. Enchiridion – Epictetus’ maxims for living that provide good ways of thinking about life in a Stoic manner
  3. A Guide to the Good Life – The Art of Ancient Stoic Joy– A modern take on applying Stoic principles to living by a contemporary philosopher, William Irvine.

As a bonus, I also assigned Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’ wartime journal as Roman Emperor that illustrates his Stoic way of thinking.

Armed with these rituals and literature, Anika made significant progress of 6 weeks of Stoic practice. Here’s how she improved.

Sphere of control

If you’ve ever been nervous about jumping into a cold pool, you’ll understand what Anika went through her first week of ice baths.

Every time I have to take a cold-water bath I am literally having a mind game of my own where I am trying to convince myself that I have to do this.

Anika won this mind game by asking herself, “what is the worst that can happen?” She even went above and beyond the assignment by taking six cold baths the first week.

The best part about the bath is that, as soon as I am done, there is sudden rush of warmth, which is so good. The bath is so worth it.

This is the physical ritual that I personally used in my own experiment to concretely practice controlling my own mind. When trying to change the way you think about things, it’s easy to simply say you’re going to try to “think more positively” or “be less negative,” but without an actual physical ritual, it becomes difficult. And like anything, the more your practice, the more skilled you become.

The cold baths have gotten better for sure.

I would tell myself, it is just cold water. It’s only a difference in temperature; it will be like taking bath with normal water. Then I feel braver.

But cold water is not our biggest challenge in day-to-day life.

For Anika, one of her regular challenges was schoolwork. Like any student, tests would cause a bit of anxiety and unease.

Anika however, learned about the Stoic practice of analyzing what is in your control, and what isn’t.

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed. 

– Epictetus

Anika asked herself, “What part of the test-taking experiencing is in my control?”

The answer? Studying. And I started. It is as easy and simple as that.

The natural fear of failing a test caused Anika anxiety and to procrastinate because thinking about failing is stressful. By using Stoic “sphere of control” analysis, Anika was able to put aside her anxiety of test-taking and realize she should simply do what she can (studying) and not worry about the results.

What percent of our lives are spent worrying about the outcomes of our efforts rather than the effort itself? Life is much more unpredictable and uncontrollable than school, so our worries only increase.

But what if we could practice the Stoic technique of only focusing on what is in our control? What other situations would this be useful?

The difficulty of “other people”

The late Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist writer, wrote, “Hell is other people.” While this is an extreme view (and not really what Sartre meant), I can safely say that many of our problems are often caused by other people, people that we can’t control.

And it’s not that people just bother us per se, but rather, groups can encourage us to engage in behaviors that are decidedly un-Stoic and cause us grief.

Anika, from what I gathered from our conversations, is a highly social person. She also lives in a student dorm so there is an added social dynamic in which even your home is highly social (I can feel the introverts shuddering).

Staying in the hostel [dorm], I realized that I was wished I were a stoic from the beginning.  

Here the peer pressure seems to be at a max, because you are studying,eating and staying with the same set of people. Gossip is everywhere. Whenever my friends get together, we plan to go to a new club because it is ladies’ night (Thursday that happened). I even had a so called wardrobe crisis.

While you may see yourself as one type of person, the type of person you become with your peer group can be very different.

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.
– Seneca: Letters from a Stoic

Anika, due to her Stoic practice, was able to observe how social dynamics affected her.

This week I was reading about how to be Stoic in a social circle . And it amuses me how some things don’t change. The author says , “People tend to talk about certain things… and most of all, about other people”.  90% of the time, [my friends] talk about who is doing what. This is crazy. I do find myself giving in and forming opinions & judgments of others.

My roommates like to complain quite a bit (ironic that I am saying this after writing the previous sentence- but Seneca acknowledges that we do get irritated or annoyed by certain people) – it just made things so simple when i read that “when we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our shortcomings”.

Through and through, being mindful can change everything, even if they are menial tasks. And on the other side it can consume lot of energy too. Being introspective is not easy.

Nobody’s perfect, but to borrow from rehab procedures, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. Anika noticed how easy it was to follow the herd and participate in gossip. This didn’t line up with the vision of the type of person she wanted to be so she became frustrated, and was tempted to blame others (her roommates).

But instead of obsessing over the flaws in her roommates, she turned inward, and used the Stoic advice of reflecting on her on flaws.

Jesus said something similar: “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” We must view others from a place of humility.

It’s important to remember that our flaws never go away entirely. We can’t completely change our nature. But Anika made significant improvements in managing her behavior in a social context. 

Compassion and appreciation

In American culture, it’s encouraged to think positively, to imagine all the ways you can be successful. The goal is to encourage and motivate you.

In contrast, negative visualization is the practice of imagining the ways your life could be worse, with the goal of learning to appreciate your current circumstances, and to help inoculate you against misfortune.

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

– Epictetus

This is a difficult practice, and something Anika had trouble performing in a vacuum. However, she was able to find a more effective way to practice it.

For the first few times, I had some difficulty [negative visualization]. I tried to imagine a lot of bad things that could happen to me or something or someone I am close to and it wasn’t effective until, I read about it in the book, “A Guide to the Good Life” and what a great explanation of the technique!  

I totally agree with the author that negative visualization is often more impactful when you see someone else going through something and simply wish for it never happen to you.

Seeing someone else’s misfortune in person is an opportune time for you to reflect that misfortune can strike anyone, even you. If you turn on the news on any given day, you’ll usually see coverage of someone or some group of people experiencing something terrible.

The effect of this exposure and practice is a cultivated appreciation for your life as it is.

There are so many instances when I notice people around me are cursing about how bad the mess food is, how bad the weather is, how bad the course is, how bad the teachers are, how they don’t have this or that, or drown into wishful thinking of desiring something. In that moment I think that maybe I am better off because I am thankful for whatever I have and I am not like my friends.

Death and misfortune seem terrible to contemplate, but ironically, it may energize you!

The biggest achievement that stayed with me was “living like it is your last day”. Once in class and once at this NGO where I volunteer, I found myself a bit out of order, bored and absolutely disinterested. It suddenly changed for me as soon as I thought what if it were my last day to do this! It all changes. Accepting impermanence is one of the hardest things to do!

By the end of the experiment Anika realized something profound about hardship and suffering.

I resonated with the fact that the lack of happiness and living in hardship or suffering through any illness, problem, heartbreak can either make an individual very vengeful or make him more spiritual. It is during these moments we question the very purpose of where we are and why we are!

I think this is why it is essential for some suffering to take place. That is why it is said that people create and find such paths on their own. Spirituality cannot be passed on like that until it comes from within.

Of course, no one desires to induce suffering to attain a spiritual goal. But Stoicism teaches you a way to achieve some of the same benefits by using your mind to imagine what a terrible situation would be like for you and for others. By consistently reflecting on how anything can change at a moment’s notice, for better or for worse, you can not only become more resilient to negative events, you can also cultivate a deeper and more meaningful spiritual life.

Simplicity

It’s telling that the ancient traditions I have researched all advocate living a more simple life, at least in terms of worldly pursuits. And these traditions were formed long before career mobility and iPhones and Twitter existed! It makes me wonder what the ancient Greek equivalent of a harried executive looked like.

Anika was attracted to this minimalist approach to living and began experimenting with a few ways to reduce distraction in her life.

She began getting rid of unnecessary clutter and material goods.

I cleaned up another part of my room and cleared out the clutter. The minimalist approach is still working. My table and chair are still clean…. It is such a revelation to be able to work with a neater environment.

While being a minimalist in your physical environment can feel good on its own, Anika understood that the real benefit of minimalism is allowing you to focus on the the things that mater.

I was intrigued by the concept of a “grand goal” the William Irvine writes about it in his book. He says, “our culture doesn’t encourage people to think about such things [a grand goal of life]; indeed, it provides them with an endless stream of distraction so they won’t ever have to”.

This has not changed one bit even if the kind of distractions we have now might have changed. This is partially due to the society I come from and the way my family raised me. My parents never told me to figure out the thing I value the most in life. They probably wouldn’t know if one ought to have that kind of thing figured out even without having to attend college. I am not criticizing my parents, I am trying to emphasize the fact that if they don’t practice consciousness they wouldn’t expect to teach the kids either! So that is understandable.

I wish as a community we could practice together and help each other figure what we want.

While no one expects a young person to have a grand purpose figured out at age 22, it is a shame that in the ever expanding culture of meritocracy we don’t expect young people to contemplate it at all! Achievement is encouraged, but for its own sake, not necessarily because it is directed at some greater good. Even the “follow your passion” advice has become some sort of achievement based goal. If you follow your passion, you’re doing better than everyone else because you are happier than they are!

Anika has an entire lifetime to learn about the things that matter and the things that don’t. But she is off to a good start by beginning to subtract the unnecessary distractions from her life. This has been helpful in reducing her procrastination.

Yes! I am not procrastinating much! I have finally started to publish. Pushing myself- i was able to publish my first post on Medium. I have a log of articles and things I want to write about but I keep on going into wishful thinking. So now, whenever the Stoic though occurs that what if today were the last day, then what should I do? I published my first post. YAY!

When you get rid of distractions, you understand that there is nothing separating you from doing the truly important. Sometimes it’s to write a Medium article, other times it’s to be a friend. Whatever it is, performing it with a sense of purpose and ownership is the goal of Stoicism.

The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Reflections

For a six week program, I was quite pleased with Anika’s progress. She took ice baths, practiced negative visualization, read several books on Stoicism, and achieved some very profound insights, all while maintaining a busy student schedule.

I followed up with Anika a few months after her experiment and asked her a few more questions about her experience:

Would you recommend others conduct a Stoic experiment? Why or why not?

I would love to recommend the experiment to others. In fact, I told my closest friend about the experiment and she was quite excited for me. 

What the most discouraging part of the experiment?

There was one week, where I didn’t read much and I was stressed and mostly forgot to be mindful. To get back into the Stoic mode then became quite discouraging.

What was the most meaningful result of the experiment?

What became meaningful is that I was actually able to do this for the entire 6 weeks. The fact that I had to do a weekly check-in made it seem obligatory and ritualistic. It was the binding force to continue the helped me maintain the practice. I was able to relate to the philosophy because it is realistic and practical in its approach to life.

Anika did a fantastic job and I bet her ancient Stoic attitude will help her deal with the inevitable frustration doldrums of post-university life.

Well done.


Image via Indulgy.

  • Ashish Nair

    Great stuff Dale (and Anika).