Does cold water help anxiety? While there are various methods available to improve mental well-being, one fascinating approach gaining traction is cold water immersion. Cold water immersion involves intentionally exposing the body to cold water, whether through cold showers, ice baths, or natural bodies of water in nature. While many consider this a one-off thrill reserved for the polar bear plunge, an increasing number of cold-water worshippers continue this habit throughout the year, motivated by both physical and mental health benefits. Although it may initially seem uncomfortable, the potential mental health benefits that come from this practice are worth exploring.
Learn how cold water immersion can improve mental health, from boosting mood to reducing stress and anxiety, as well as enhancing mental clarity and focus.
The Research Behind Cold Water Immersion
Studies have supported the benefits of cold-water immersion on mental health. While researchers are quick to clarify that the scientific evidence is still limited, there are countless accounts that cold water helps with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If full immersion isn’t possible, splashing cold water on your face can help with anxiety as well.
Cold water immersion is picking up traction globally. In the UK, there is a club of cold-water swimmers who plunge year-round. On the West Coast of BC, there are a group of people who, for varying health reasons, submit themselves to a weekly cold swim and hold this ritual accountable for improvements in mood and overall health.
Hydrotherapy, the practice of applying or bathing in water of varying temperatures for therapeutic purposes, is not a new phenomenon. Use of hydrotherapy dates back to Hippocrates who believed cold water to be a treatment for lassitude.
In more recent history, Thomas Jefferson credited his morning cold water foot bath with ‘maintaining his good health.’ And in the 19th and early 20th century, the “water cure” was extolled by Sebastian Kneipp, a German forefather of natural medicine and fierce advocate of the benefits of hydrotherapy.
Now, modern, guru-type figures like the Iceman, Wim Hof are vocal proponents of cold-water immersion in conjunction with mindfulness and breathing techniques to regulate the nervous system.
But does cold water help anxiety? And if so, how does it work?
How does cold water help anxiety?
There are several compelling theories that might convince you to take the plunge.
The Vagus Nerve
The Vagus Nerve has long been implicated in mental health and stress-related conditions. This nerve connects the brain with all of our organs and turns off the sympathetic state or ‘fight-or-flight’ response we often have to our environment that brings about feelings of anxiety.
It turns out, even if it’s only splashing our face, cold water exposure activates the vagus nerve which slows down our breathing and heart rate and switches us into a state referred to as parasympathetic mode — more commonly known as ‘rest-and-digest’. This is relevant to our mental health because research demonstrates that prolonged and chronic stress results in changes in the brain found in anxiety and depression. Meaning, cold water can help anxiety attacks and reduce unpleasant symptoms.
We know cold water immersion increases the production of mood-elevating hormones and neurotransmitters (beta-endorphins, noradrenaline and dopamine) that can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety by changing the chemistry in our body and brain.
As we learn more about mental health, the model is shifting from simply a chemically imbalanced, brain-centric model to include other factors, including systemic inflammation. Researchers are considering that cold-water immersion may act like a systemic ice pack, helping to reduce inflammatory markers that may contribute to anxiety and depression
The human body has extremely high concentration of cold receptors on the surface of our skin. When these nerve endings are simultaneously activated, the brain receives a huge influx of sensory information that can have an antidepressant effect. Try to think about something other than the cold when you’re dipping into a glacial lake!
It’s possible this flood of sensory information from the skin to the brain acts as a pause button on the neurological processes that are part of depression and anxiety. When we’re immersed in cold water, we may be interrupting certain neurological cycles that contribute to anxiety. This is a form of mindfulness — grounding you to the present moment.
Plunging into the cold acts as a short-lived physiological stressor. It temporarily puts our system into sympathetic, survival mode. While we don’t want to spend our entire lives in a stressed-out sympathetic mode, brief and repeated exposure to physical stress may actually improve our overall stress response in a process called cross-adaptation.
Cold water immersion stimulates the body’s adaptive stress response, which can improve its ability to handle stress in the long-run. Some researchers propose that by practicing cold-water immersion regularly, individuals are developing a physical resilience to the stimulant of cold. Regular exposure to cold water can help build resilience and strengthen the body’s stress-coping mechanisms. By habituating to the cold, you are developing an adaptive response to one form of stress, which may translate into other unrelated stress triggers. In other words, you are training your body to adapt and become more resilient to general stressors.
Reduce Panic Attacks
Cold water can also help with panic attacks. If you feel one coming on, try this practical way to use cold water for anxiety. Dunk your face in cold water while holding your breath for 15-30 seconds. This reduces blood flow to non-essential organs and instead focuses blood to the brain and heart — reducing panic symptoms.
Feelings of Accomplishment
Lastly, the psychosocial aspect of cold-water exposure can’t be underestimated. The sense of achievement, the commitment to oneself and to a ritual, and the opportunity for social connection when practicing regular cold-water immersion are all thought to play a role in improving mental health conditions. For those struggling with mental health, this serves as a reminder that you can do difficult things and overcome discomfort.
Cold Water for Improving Anxiety
While jumping in a cold lake, ocean, or river isn’t always possible, having a cold shower at home is! As a general rule, start slow and acclimatize through repeated exposure in the form of short doses of cold-water exposure followed by warm clothes, warm drinks, and warming exercises. By incorporating cold water immersion into your routine, you can experience these mental health benefits and improve your overall well-being.
It’s important to note that cold water immersion may not be suitable for everyone, especially those with certain medical conditions. It’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new therapy or wellness practice. Particularly if you are pregnant, have cardiovascular issues, or have other health conditions, consult a doctor before taking the plunge.Feeling like you need support with anxiety? A Wellin5 counsellor is available. Learn more.