The cold can be an incredible ally when it comes to managing anxiety, and even depression. Cold water immersion or “cold plunges,” “ice dives,” and “ice baths,” is becoming increasingly popular in the realm of health and wellness. Although more research is needed to solidify cold exposure as confirmed therapeutic modality for the treatment of anxiety, early research suggests that exposing oneself to the cold has positive benefits on one’s physical and mental health. 

How Cold Water Immersion Therapy Works

The cold can help reduce inflammation, as evidenced by the age-old practice of icing an injury or bruise. Inflammation has been shown to be associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression and lowering inflammation has been proven to have a positive impact on one’s mental health. Immersing oneself in the cold also releases a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, and dopamine. This endorphin release serves to stimulate the brain and naturally induce a euphoric feeling to combat the symptoms of depression. However, these hormones and neurotransmitters are also associated with the stress response. 

How would putting your body into a stress state be helpful for managing anxiety? When you immerse yourself in the cold, your body senses the threat and immediately begins to counteract it by activating your parasympathetic nervous system. Your body is trying to slow down your heart rate, decrease your breathing, and prepare you to “survive.” In this counterintuitive process, the further you go into stress the further your mind and body will rebound in relaxation. Your brain activity will shift from the prefrontal cortex, the “thinking brain,” to mammalian brain, or “feeling brain.” Your thoughts slow down, your mind grows present, and you are nowhere but in the moment. 

Research is currently investigating how and to what extent cold exposure contributes to resiliency and stress tolerance. Through repeated exposure to cold temperature, the body becomes accustomed to the experience of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones being released into the body. Thus, over time, the body builds more tolerance, and the mind builds more confidence. 

Cold Water Immersion Strategies

Using the cold as an ally to support your mental health can look many ways. Here a few strategies: 

  • “Ice Dive” – an ice dive involves filling up a bucket of water and ice and submerging one’s face in the cold water for roughly 30 seconds. This is a quick, in the moment strategy, to reset your nervous system in times of intense anxiety, panic, or emotional dysregulation. 
  • “Cold Plunge/Ice Bath” – an ice bath or cold plunge involves submerging one’s whole body in ice cold water via a tub, lake, pool or other avenue. Ideal temperatures for water are anywhere between 45 Degrees and 59 Degrees Fahrenheit. One typically submerges for anywhere between 2-3 minutes and 15 minutes depending on the temperature of the water and one’s experience with cold exposure. This practice is often combined with some form of intentional breathing or meditation.
  • “Cold Showers” – Cold exposure can be easily built into your regular routine, just turn that hot water down in the shower! Showers can be taken in cold water for the entirety of the shower or one can simply turn the knob cold for last 30-90 seconds of the shower. It’s great way to find stillness and stimulate energy at the beginning of the day!