More people are trying cold showers and icy dips to help manage pandemic stress and boost overall wellbeing.
While some of us have been keeping cosy in our Oodies through lockdown, others have been taking it all off and plunging into icy water.
Whether in the form of ice baths, ocean swims or jumping into a chilly backyard pool, cold water therapy has been booming through Covid times. Google searches on the benefits of cold water immersion shot up 1300 per cent over the past year, according to analysis by Semrush, as more people seek its potential health and wellbeing benefits, or simply look for an exhilarating hobby to break up the monotony of lockdown. So, is it time you took the plunge?
Mind over matter
Used therapeutically in some cultures for centuries, cold water immersion was more recently popularised by Dutch extreme athlete, Wim Hof. Nicknamed The Iceman, Wim Hof has set world records for his subzero feats, and trains instructors in his method, centering on cold water immersion and breathing techniques to flood the organs with oxygen-rich blood. Among the claimed benefits are increased energy, reduced stress, and an immunity boost.
“In cold water, blood moves from your extremities to create a blood-rich environment around your organs to protect them,” explains Wim Hof Method instructor Asher Packman, who runs the Fifth Direction wellness studio in Melbourne. “That constriction and dilation of veins and arteries is an incredible workout for the circulatory system. It’s like bicep curls for the heart.”
Policy executive Heather Whitaker began taking ice baths two years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer, looking for ways to reduce inflammation. The unexpected mental benefits have kept her coming back as she nears her three-year cancer-free milestone. “I’m afraid of getting into the water every time, but when I overcome these small moments of fear, it has a real mental and spiritual outcome,” she says.
A stress ‘vaccine?’
Whitaker’s experience resonates with the behavioural therapy technique of distress tolerance – particularly relevant in the heightened anxiety of Covid times, according to clinical psychologist and wellbeing consultant Emily Toner.
“Being able to tolerate really cold water can teach us to cope with other types of stress,” she says, adding that low distress tolerance is a predictor of depression, anxiety and PTSD in young adults.
This idea of low-dose stress building our resilience is also known as hormesis – a kind of ‘stress vaccine’, according to Packman.
“Rather than seeing stress as a threat, we can treat it as an opportunity – something manageable to make us much more resilient to the stress we can’t control,” he says.
Increased self-confidence is another boon. “Jumping into cold water can be a metaphor for all fears in life,” Packman says.
On a physiological level, Toner says exposure to cold water stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain through the face, chest and down to the stomach. Bringing scientific weight to the old wives’ remedy of splashing water on your face at times of stress, stimulating the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls bodily functions, as opposed to the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system. “It elicits a relaxation response, calms your heart rate and slows your breathing,” Toner says.
Having your face submerged in water triggers another response called the diving reflex. “It’s basically your body trying to conserve oxygen in water,” explains Toner. “Your heart rate slows down, and this decreases levels of (stress hormone) cortisol.”
Locked down in Melbourne, Heather Whitaker has been unable to continue her wellness studio ice bath sessions, but gets a daily dose of cold therapy through turning the heat off for the last few minutes of her showers. “It’s never pleasant, but there’s something nice about starting the day knowing you’ve overcome that hurdle – it makes everything easier,” she says.
Packman suggests aiming for as close to zero degrees as possible, and allowing your body to come back to its natural temperature gradually.
Having bathed in rivers and glacial lakes, he believes the beauty of nature amplifies the wellbeing perks. “Something different happens when you get into cold water in nature – the benefits seem to exponentially multiply,” he says.
A word of caution comes from Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president, Dr Karen Price. Acknowledging evidence that cold water soaks can help with muscle soreness, she says more research is needed around other claims. Caution is particularly needed if diving into deep waters to avoid ‘cold shock’ and the associated drowning risk: “While it might be invigorating … proceed with caution and know your limits,” she says.