Does dunking your face in ice water benefit mental health?

Key Takeaways:

  • Cold water therapy can reduce anxiety by activating the vagus nerve, reducing inflammation, and building stress resilience.
  • Face dunking triggers the mammalian dive reflex, slowing the heart rate and relieving acute anxiety immediately.
  • Face dunking is a quick, accessible cold therapy that should be used alongside professional support for optimal benefits.

The chill of ice baths and face dunking might not be everyone’s first thought for boosting mental health. Still, it’s been a social media phenomenon with celebrities from Bella Hadid to US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dunking their faces in bowls of ice water, claiming everything from glowing skin to anxiety relief.

With the hashtag #ColdWaterTherapy garnering millions of views on TikTok, could there be more to these cold experiences than meets the eye? Does cold water exposure help reduce anxiety?

Let’s dive in and see if it’s worth taking the plunge…

The idea behind cold water immersion

Cold water therapy isn’t a novelty of the digital age; its roots run deep through history. The ancient Spartans, for example, used cold water baths to build resilience and strength. In Japan, the Misogi ritual involves purifying oneself with ice-cold water, a practice believed to cleanse the spirit and body. Similarly, the Finnish tradition of ice swimming, often followed by a sauna session, is a testament to the enduring belief in cold water’s revitalizing effects.

Cold exposure, as jarring as it might sound (and feel), activates the body’s natural stress response, but in a way that, over time, can build our resilience to stress. When done correctly, cold water immersion introduces a controlled form of physical stress to the body through brief, repeated exposure to cold temperatures. This process momentarily activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, often associated with the ‘fight or flight’ response, preparing the body to face immediate challenges.

This might sound counterintuitive for anxiety management, but the controlled short-term extreme stress imposed by cold exposure can strengthen the body’s response to stress over time. Think of it like a brief, controlled workout for your stress response system.

The theory is that regular cold water immersion can train your body to become more resilient to the stress induced by cold temperatures. This training can result in lowered heart rate and blood pressure and, most importantly, a reduction in the severity of anxiety symptoms.

How does cold water therapy help anxiety?

Cold water exposure can help improve mental health in various ways:

Activation of the vagus nerve

One primary way cold water therapy may help reduce anxiety is by activating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, a crucial part of the parasympathetic nervous system, regulates the body’s stress responses, acting as a bridge between the brain and various organs.

Exposure to cold water stimulates this nerve and activates the vagus nerve’s calming pathways. This physiological change can slow down the heart rate and reduce the body’s stress levels. This, in turn, can lead to a state of calm and relaxation, helping to alleviate symptoms of anxiety.

The simplicity of vagus nerve icing—using just a cold compress or even splashing cold water—makes it a practical technique for daily stress management.

Anti-inflammatory properties of ice

video therapy appointments

Want online therapy? Start sessions instantly— Stress-free and easy to use.

As we learn more about mental health, scientists are realising that it is more than just a chemical imbalance in the brain; mental health can also be influenced by chronic inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury or infection.

Just as we’d ice a muscle if we pulled it, cold water therapy—cold showers, winter swimming, and face-dunking—can be like an ice pack for the whole body, helping reduce systemic inflammation, which in turn can reduce anxiety and depression.

Builds stress resilience

Regular cold water immersion can act as a form of stress training, helping the body learn to cope with stress more effectively. This process, known as hormesis, involves exposing the body to a controlled amount of stress (in this case, cold), which can lead to adaptations that improve the body’s stress response mechanisms. Over time, this can build resilience against anxiety by enhancing the body’s ability to handle stress.

Releases endorphins

Cold-water swimmers regularly report euphoria from cold-water swimming, known as the ‘cold water high.’ That’s because cold-water exposure can stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. This result is an endorphin rush, which can significantly improve mood and reduce feelings of anxiety.

Enables mindfulness

If you’ve ever tried cold water submersion or taken a cold shower, you’ll be (painfully) aware that the only thing you can think about is how cold you are. Research suggests that this is because when the cold receptors on our skin are simultaneously activated, a tsunami of sensory information is sent to the brain, flooding it with signals that interrupt or even override the neurological processes that cause anxiety.

Does dunking your face in ice water calm anxiety?

Dunking your face in a bowl of ice water may seem like a small act, but it’s one with big implications for managing anxiety.

This simple technique involves filling a bowl with cold water and ice and dipping your face into it for short intervals, typically 15 to 30 seconds.

While the optimal duration and frequency of face ice baths can vary from person to person, the consensus is that even brief, regular sessions can be effective.

This practice takes advantage of the mammalian dive reflex, an innate physiological response to cold water that has calming effects on the body.

Get matched with a counsellor

Understanding the Mammalian Dive Reflex

The mammalian dive reflex is triggered when cold water touches the face, specifically around the nostrils and under the eyes. This reflex is not just a reaction to the shock of the cold water. Still, it is a deep-rooted survival mechanism that slows the heart rate, reduces blood flow to non-essential areas, and optimizes respiration by conserving oxygen.

This natural, protective response helps the body manage stress more effectively and can provide a moment of peace and calm and immediate relief from panic attacks and acute anxiety episodes.

How to give yourself an ice facial or ice dunking

Ready to try it out? Here’s how:

  1. Fill a bowl with ice-cold water. The colder, the better, as long as it’s tolerable.
  2. Take a deep breath and hold it.
  3. Dunk your face in the water for 15-30 seconds.
  4. Repeat a few times, always ensuring you’re breathing comfortably between dunks.
  5. Focus on the sensation and the calm that follows.

Remember to listen to your body and proceed with caution, especially if you have health conditions that could be exacerbated by sudden cold exposure.

Face dunking vs full ice baths

While ice baths offer a more intense and body-wide exposure to cold, dunking your face in ice water can be a quick and accessible way to trigger a calming response.

It’s less time-consuming, doesn’t require special equipment or space, and can be done any time you feel anxiety levels rising or a panic attack on the horizon. For many, this method is a practical daily tool that complements other anxiety management techniques.

Take the next step towards managing anxiety with professional support

As you contemplate adding cold therapy to your anxiety management toolkit, remember that these practices are most beneficial when used in conjunction with professional guidance and support. If you’re looking to explore other avenues for anxiety management, we’re here to help. Our team at Well Beings Counselling offers a range of therapy options tailored to meet your unique needs.

vWhether you’re curious about cold therapy, mindfulness, or seeking support with anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out. Together, we can craft a personalized approach to support your journey toward mental well-being.

Contact us today to learn more and take the next step in your wellness journey.

Frequently Asked Questions

Using ice or cold exposure can be a helpful tool for some people during anxiety attacks. The shock of the cold can shift your focus away from panic symptoms. It's like hitting a reset button, signalling your body to calm down.

While it's not a cure-all, it can be a useful technique to have in your toolkit for managing anxiety. For more comprehensive strategies for managing anxiety, Well Beings Counselling offers various services that might interest you. Check out our Anxiety Therapy page for more information.

Ice dunking might offer temporary relief from the physical symptoms of social anxiety by activating the body's natural calming response. However, it's important to remember that social anxiety is complex, and while ice dunking can provide a momentary sense of relief, addressing the root causes of your social anxiety through therapy or counselling can offer long-term solutions.

Well Beings Counselling has resources and professionals to help you navigate and manage social anxiety more effectively. Explore our services to find support that resonates with your journey.

Yes, incorporating breathing techniques can enhance your experience with ice dunking. Learning to control your breath helps you stay calm and centred during the initial cold shock, making the practice more manageable and beneficial. It's all about balancing the body's physical reaction to the cold and your ability to maintain mental calmness.

Cold showers can be effective in reducing panic symptoms for some people. Sudden exposure to cold water can help divert one's mind from panic triggers, temporarily pausing the cycle of panic symptoms.

Remember, while cold water therapy, including ice dunking and cold showers, can offer immediate and temporary relief from anxiety and panic symptoms, they're most effective when used as part of a broader, holistic approach to mental health.

Consulting with a professional can help you understand and navigate the best strategies for your unique situation. Feel free to contact Well Beings Counselling for guidance and support tailored to your needs.

Counselling Services in BC and ON

Our clinic offers specialized counselling services if you’re in British Columbia or Ontario and are looking for longer-term support. Our counsellors and psychotherapists are trained to help you navigate all issues. We provide a safe, confidential space where you can begin your healing journey.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

Table of Contents