Have you ever jumped in cold water? Been forced to take a cold shower when the rest of your family or roommates used up all the hot water?

Growing up in the Seattle area, a favorite family activity was boating. I grew up with a hero (aka: dad) who’d often go for slalom ski runs on the lake before work. I followed suit, during a time when wakeboarding was a brand new and relatively unknown sport.

The lakes in the Pacific Northwest are beautiful. The only problem is the moderate climate means the lake water hardly warms up, even in the peak of the summer. For a period, we were wakeboarding year round, hacking ways to beat the cold temperatures with a combination of dry suit technology, gloves, and coolers full of hot water.

The feeling of jumping in to Seattle lake water is forever etched in my memory. A more extreme shock in January than in June, certainly, but I have to admit that even in the early summer months the water will still take your breath away when you jump in.

It’s really an uncomfortable feeling. It’s not fun. As a teenager, I’d go out with my dad and friends and we’d help psyche each other and ourselves up for the challenge, knowing how much fun we’d have once we got through that initial discomfort. Even then, it took commitment to make that leap.

If you’ve ever had a similar experience, I’m sure you’d agree that initial shock is really not enjoyable. But did you ever notice how awake and alive you feel after?

That’s not a coincidence.

I’ve spent a lot of time this past year studying the brain, primarily to learn new ways to optimize my performance, energy, and overall health. Every living thing is made of cells. Our cells are powered by our mitochondria: organelles responsible for generating our energy. That jolt from jumping in cold water is actually good for mitochondrial function. The more we can optimize our mitochondrial performance, the more energy we’ll have.

Research shows the same is true of other kinds of fear.

As we’re able to identify the things which we’re afraid of (step 1, but often disguised), and then choose to face those things head on, our mitochondria respond with improved function. Can you remember a time you intentionally did something, no matter how small that thing is, that you were afraid of? Do you remember how you felt after? I’d bet you didn’t regret doing that thing you were afraid of.

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
— Eleanor Roosevelt

I went to a family reunion last week. My cousin owns a beautiful home on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington and is kind enough to let our unreasonably large extended family enjoy it for reunions. This was the first reunion I’ve been to since I moved to Nashville in 2012, so I got to see cousins and family I hadn’t seen in 6 years and longer. We had three boats out there with any combination of toys and watersports equipment you could dream of.

Having enjoyed owning a boat in Nashville the last several years, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve gotten used to the bathtub water temperatures we enjoy in lakes in the South. It’s not uncommon for the water temperatures to be between 85-88 degrees all summer. So when I dipped my toe in that River water in Washington and looked at the 65 degree water temperature reading, I decided I’d be too cold to get in and spent 3 days in the comfort of my dry clothes.

I didn’t mind at the time. I didn’t feel left out and had a great time. But now that I’m back in Nashville and have a few minutes to reflect, I really regret NOT jumping in. Not because I particularly wanted to jump on a tube or catch a ride behind the boat. But because I don’t know the next time I’ll be able to go to another reunion. What if it’s another 6 years? I wish I would’ve taken the opportunity to jump in and swim around with my dad and my sisters. That cold water would’ve been a little painful and uncomfortable for a minute, sure. But more painful is the feeling of regret I have now, wondering how long it will be until the next time we’re all together as a family again. I’m reminded of a favorite saying (italics mine),

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you *didn’t* do than by the ones you *did* so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
— Mark Twain^1

So get out there. Sail away from your safe harbor and jump on in. Find something that makes you feel scared. Then, choose to conquer it. Your brain just might work a little better after.

[1]: Commonly attributed, perhaps incorrectly, to Mark Twain.