We chat with Scott Carney, New York Time bestselling author of What Doesn’t Kill Us and The Wedge, about how freezing water can revolutionize the way we deal with physical and emotional stress and the one thing we can all do everyday to become more resilient.
Ned: 2020 has been a crazy year. How are you doing? I know you have a lot of insights into human resilience. Can you offer any words of wisdom for these times?
Scott: 2020 has been incredibly difficult because people have now realized that the environment matters, that stress is coming in from the outside world in ways that we cannot control. And what I have to offer for people is to realize that even if we cannot control world events, if we cannot control the things in our immediate environment, as least we have some control of how we respond to those things. And what I want to offer is that people still need to get outside, they need to get exercise, they need to give themselves stimulus of physical stress (for instance, an ice bath, breathing protocols, other things that are difficult) so that the anxiety of the moment does not sort of over power them and they don’t have a physical outlet for that. That is a key to the wedge.
Ned: So, you and Wim Hof go way back, like you probably just call him Wim. I know you spent a lot of time with him at his training center in Poland, and you’re really the first journalist to bring him into public consciousness and now he’s a household name. He seems like a superhuman, and I’ll include you in that category too! What can us mere mortals take from your learnings and apply to our daily lives.
Scott: Here’s what I really have to say and it’s super super important. It’s that Wim Hof is not superhuman. He may be a prophet opening up the doors to new ways to think about our physiology, but he is also a complete madman, a person who, you know, is willing to push himself to limits, to, you know, in some cases can be even dangerous. He’s even almost hurt himself in his pursuit of what you might say are his powers or his expertise. And I want people to realize that being a guru is really not what Wim should be. What we need to think of him as is a person who opened a door to a new way of thinking about ourselves, not that he himself is something more than a human. The things that he is able to do, the things that he is able to teach, are just human powers, and we all have access to those things. Wim is simply an example and a doorway to show people what is possible. But you can do the same things that he can — and actually pretty quickly.
Ned: So, I know you beat Wim Hof in chess — your reputation precedes you! (I know the pride that comes with that. when I was in first grade I was in the local paper for beating my mom in chess, but in fairness she didn’t actually know how to play — I assume Wim knows how to play?) Anyway, I’d be interested to know, is there anything else you schooled him in?!
Scott: Well, you know, I did beat him in chess, and I am eternally proud of that. I’ve actually beaten him twice in chess. He has never beat me! We’re 2-0 at the moment. Hopefully we’ll get a third chance at some point or another. Is there anything else I’ve schooled him in? I mean, no. He is this very powerful person and, you know, I followed him up the mountain, but I think the one thing that was interesting, when I first met him in Poland, you know, there isn’t really a “Wim Hof Method”, it’s really more of a set of principles and, you know, what is now sort of codified (his sort of breathing protocols, the 30 breaths, the exhale breath hold, and then the pushups and what not) that really wasn’t around when I was first with him. He was just sort of an intuitive guy and the method actually changed over and over again to what it is now, what is codified. And I think when I first met him, because it was one of the very first training sessions, I think me and the other people in that group were at the beginning of that process to make something more formalized versus just paying attention to your sensations. You may notice in the very first writings I had about Wim, the method was basically just: hyperventilate a lot until you feel tingly. There were no numbers of repetitions. It was just ‘do this and then there’s a squeeze’ and there were other things, so it was very informal and has only gotten more codified. And I think I helped Wim sort of order his thoughts initially. I helped him be able to present himself as, rather than a circus freak, as somebody who was serious. And simply because I was there early, I had some influence on how the method has developed, although, honestly the credit goes to Wim. I mean, it can’t go any other way than that.
Ned: So, I used to read about people doing cool and extreme things and feel this overwhelming sense that I should be doing those things too. Like, after I read Born to Run I went straight out and bought those toe shoes. And I am not a runner, and needless to say, I didn’t become one. And that feeling can create a tremendous sense of lack in you. Then, five years ago, I grew and birthed a tiny human being, and after that, I was kinda like, that’s as cool and extreme as it gets. I’m good. And all those shoulds kinda melted away. It’s so obvious, but it’s also so easy to forget sometimes, that we don’t all have to be into and doing the same things. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you seem to have this drive to really immerse yourself in experiences and push yourself to the limits of human endurance. Say I’m less pushed to push myself. Can I still tap into this stuff? I know that some of the big things that have come out of the Wim Hof Method is that cold exposure can increase stress resilience and improve your immune system, both things everyone could use right about now. Like, how can I tap into this in my tiny apartment in the city during quarantine?
Scott: Well, you don’t need to do the most extreme cold exposure or stress exposure to get benefits and, honestly, anything that is difficult, anything that you go out into the world and try, and have hesitation about trying, is a moment where you’re training yourself to push your boundaries. And I think that it’s important to have some sort of routine. You know, honestly, I love the Wim Hof Method. That is certainly my go-to for everything. But you need something that does push a limit. You don’t need to transform into an extreme superhuman who takes on gorillas and beats them up in the forest or anything like that. You don’t need to do ayahuasca every day or anything like that. But you do need to challenge yourself. Like Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” And you should, you should get out there and at least try to push one boundary once a day. Put it on your to do list. Just do one thing that makes you uncomfortable. And by doing that, you’ll find that more things actually are comfortable to you. But it doesn’t mean that even though I’ve written these books about Wim Hof and The Wedge where I’m doing all these exciting, crazy things, it doesn’t mean that I have become some sort of six-packed, super dangerous, superhuman person all the time that should be intimidating. No, these are things that ordinary people need to be able to do and incorporate into their lives. It’s not about the end result of becoming some monster human who has more grit than the other guy. It’s about trying to push your own limits.
Ned: So, there’s this thing, and it’s everywhere — it’s in our phones first thing when we wake up, it’s on our commute to work, it’s in our relationships — and it’s called The Wedge. What is The Wedge and how can understanding it help us live better and feel better?
Scott: The Wedge is that ability that humans have to look at their sensations and realize that every sensation is a choice. You can only sense things in the world that offer you a choice. You know, for instance, your heart is beating right now, but you can’t really usually feel that. It’s not like you can decide ‘well, I want to turn off my heart.’ But if you jump into the ice water, there’s this clenching sensation which is overwhelming, and yet you do have the ability to decide to relax in that environment. And so, once you realize that your big human brain is there to offer you the ability to override the automatic programming in your body, what that does is gives you incredible control over the things we thought were uncontrollable and that changes the way we feel anxiety, that changes the way we deal with physical and emotional stress. So, you know, the easiest way to think of it is a place between stimulus and response where you, as the bearer of your body, has some agency, has the ability to intervene in automatic processes. And the more you use The Wedge, the more ability you have to overcome those unconscious and automatic drives.
Ned: So, The Wedge is all about changing the way you respond to stressful situations. And you’re so good at it, you’ve done things like climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in -30 degree weather in nothing but a bathing suit. I’m curious, are you just like a zen master all the time? Like, in your daily life too? Or is there still regular old stuff that really gets your goat?
Scott: Yeah, I’m not a zen master. The important thing here to remember is that no one is superhuman. You know, we are all just human. So anything that I have been able to do is something that anyone can do. Infact, if you look at me in my daily life, I also enjoy sitting on my couch and watching Netflix. What the difference might be from some other people is that I can also decide I’m going to do something that looks extreme, but I have confidence that I am able to do it and I can look at my sensations — those sensations that say ‘no’ — and I can realize that those sensations and that impulse to say no is a choice. And I can push myself into those environments. So, realizing that there is a choice lets you push your limits and that makes you realize that the limits of most humans are a lot farther out than we expect with the anxiety that we anticipate what a danger might be. Which is not to say that humans can do anything, that we can go into any environment and thrive, because it’s not true. In the battle of man versus nature, nature always will win, but what we anticipate are our limits are a lot farther out than what we expect. So, all I’m able to do is look and say, hey my limits are a little further out there, and I’m able to dig in.
Ned: So, I’m a big fan of my creature comforts. Like, George Costanza “if it were socially acceptable I’d drape myself in velvet” level. What I find so interesting about The Wedge is that, it’s almost like, you gotta let go of your attachment to comfort to push through to the other side and ultimately experience more comfort because you’re now moving through the world with more ease and control over your responses to stress. I don’t know, kinda like exposure therapy. How do you let go of your attachment to comfort and push through? Where do you start?
Scott: All of us, we love comfort. We evolved to love comfort. But the thing is that comfort is not an ideal state. It’s not a place that you arrive and say ‘this thing is comfortable.’ Comfort only really exists in contrast to stress. You know, think about the ultimate comfort. I’m sitting on my couch, and I’m watching Netflix. And I sit there, and I watch Netflix and it feels pretty good. But if I do that all day, I’m going to start to get achy. Right? I’m going to start to be like, ugh this isn’t comfortable anymore. I need to actually get more comfortable. And now you’re in your bed and then that’s more comfortable, but if you stay in your bed all the time, then you’re even more achy. And then all of a sudden you realize that the more comfortable you are, the narrower the range of places you can inhabit that are comfortable. So to actually achieve comfort, what you need to do is to become more resilient to more and more things. Comfort is essentially the reward for experiencing stress. So, think about our ancient ancestors, let’s say they climbed up a mountain and they had to get some berries or something on the top of the mountain. So they climbed up to the top and it was a really hard exertion and they made it all the way back down to their shelter and they sat down on their cave floor and they’re like, ahh this cave floor is so relaxing, because they were finally safe, they had this sensation of having accomplished something and then actually reaping the reward. So the comfort was only achievable in contrast to the effort. So, what I’m suggesting is that, if you’re able to push your boundaries, you’re able to feel comfortable in more and more environments. Which is not to say that you have to live your life only doing extreme things. You need to do both. You need to go have your adventure and you need to go back home and rest. And the more you have that contrast, the more ability you have to thrive. And, indeed, the more ability you have to relax and enjoy those comforts.
Ned: So, you talk a lot about how no matter what we’re experiencing in life, we are living in our emotional past. I think this idea or something similar comes up a lot in mental health, but it’s less widely understood when we’re talking about our physical health. It’s interesting because a lot of people use Ned for chronic pain, myself included, and what I understand about pain is that we experience pain long after an injury has healed because our nervous systems hold onto pain like our brains hold onto memories. What are some simple practices we can do to get out of that emotional past trap?
Scott: Yeah, this is all true. OK, so when you experience — there’s actually a lot to unpack here — but when you experience anything in the world, right, your brain, that’s where consciousness more or less sits, when it gets information coming from the outside world, it comes in as a pure signal. Right, it’s just data that your senses are collecting from the outside world. And it needs to travel through your nervous system before it gets to the brain and it only becomes a real conscious thought inside the brain. And the process by which that occurs is that sensation, that data comes in and your brain grabs it, and it bonds that sensation with your current emotional state, especially if it’s never felt this sensation before. So, let’s say you got injured in some way, your emotional state is going to be upset and the pain of that injury is bonded with that upsetness. Now, the next time you feel that same sensation, your brain, in order to figure out what that means, it actually accesses the stored value of that sensation that already exists there and you actually re-experience your prior emotional state when you had the experience in the first place. So that we’re always living in our emotional past as our senses trigger past emotions. It's just the way we’re wired. So chronic pain. There’s a couple things going on with chronic pain. But one of them is that your emotions can actually trigger pain. Because sensation and emotion are bonded, the sensation can trigger an emotion or an emotion can actually trigger a sensation. So the way we fix this — and this is true for PTSD which is the emotional recurrence because when a traumatic event happens there’s many sensations that your body is picking up, usually calm and relaxing sensations for most of us but that get bonded with say a roadside bomb in the case of a soldier and now those calming sensations are attached to traumatic emotions, that’s where PTSD comes from. Chronic pain, I believe is the opposite. That’s where current emotions trigger prior pain. Although I’ve done less research in this, to be fair, but I think it’s going to work backwards the other way. And what we can do is attempt to create new associations with pain or emotional trauma, realizing that these bonds happen. So, when you experience a new stress, you can say “no, this experience is actually a positive experience.” And you start to rewire by intentionally creating associations between pain or emotional fatigue or things like that and then bonding it to new, more happy sensations. That’s the way you’re sort of able to rework and re-experience the future.
Ned: You’re objectively a really interesting person who’s done a lot of really interesting things. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about yourself?
Scott: The most important thing I’ve ever learned is that we as humans have an obligation to take risks in life. I mean, that’s really the purpose of being alive. At the end of our lives — you know, we’re here for a certain period of time — but at the end, death is coming, and no matter what you do in your life, you know that death is coming and probably death is going to suck. Right, if life is a song, it ends in a minor key. And that’s that moment of death. Now, what I’ve realized through doing lots of risky things, seeing friends die doing all sorts of difficult things, having all sorts of difficult experiences in my life, is to realize that if we are absolutely certain that this is coming, that means that in our life, we should not try to avoid it. Like, there’s no sense in trying to avoid death. What we need to do is make our experiences right here and right now meaningful by taking on challenges, by doing things that make us better, more interesting, more fulfilled individuals without the worry of death. Because once you realize that it’s coming, you just sort of have to let it go. And I think a lot of people in the world don’t want to think about death. We want to avoid it, we want to ignore it, we don’t want to look it solidly in the face and then accept that it’s coming and that it’s probably not going to be good. But once you are able to do that, that leads to liberation. And that leads to the understanding, it’s like ‘great, if I know it’s coming, if I know it’s going to be bad, what do I do with my life right now?’ And what you do, the only answer, I think, is to make your life right now as meaningful as possible. And then sometimes that can mean taking risks, right, because if you take a risk, as long as you’re not taking a risk that’s going to kill you, you know that it can’t be worse than the ultimate risk that we’re all taking.
Ned: So, I know the great CBD sauna experiment was an epic fail, but I hope you haven’t written us off completely! What’s your favorite Ned product and why?
Scott: Oh, I know, my CBD sauna experiment was an epic fail, but no I have not written you off completely. I bet there is a way to make a CBD sauna oil that’s amazing, but right now I am using eucalyptus! However, I do really really love CBD oil if I need to get to sleep. You know, like, that is something that you know while there are breathing techniques that certainly will put me out, I’ll notice it, if I take sort of a nicely concentrated CBD oil and my mind has been roving and having trouble settling down, that will put me to bed in like 10 minutes, and I love it! And I probably take it two or three times a week.