How to Chill Out and Reduce Stress with Cold Water

If you’re like me, you experience some periods in your life when everything becomes a little too intense. You may feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. These acute episodes can feel like panic to many of us and are very difficult to deal with.

Your Body Arousal During Distress

The physical arousal we experience may include:

  • Racing heart,
  • Chest pain,
  • Tingling limbs,
  • Sweating, etc.

These symptoms are all controlled by our sympathetic nervous system. It’s kind of like an alarm informing us that we are in danger. This system is important for survival. However, when it misfires, we suffer the consequence in the form of intense anxiety or panic.

It can seem like the distress will never end, and we would do almost anything for a little relief. The medical community has a number of pharmaceutical treatments, including a class of drugs called Benzodiazapines.

These drugs are very effective at lessening acute stress, but they have a number of side effects and have an elevated risk of substance use disorder. This begs the question, are there any natural ways to help us get through intense distress and arousal without the use of pharmaceuticals?

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How the Diving Response Can Help You Chill Out

One possible fix could be the mammalian diving reflex. The diving reflex can be observed in all mammals, not just those that live in water. So, what exactly is the diving response?

man in water with water splash

It includes a number of physiological reactions that are triggered when met with certain environmental conditions. That’s a fancy way of saying our bodies do certain things when we hold our breath while simultaneously submerged in cold water. The response overrides basic homeostatic reflexes.

While submerged in water, mammals are deprived of their oxygen source and therefore must find a way to adapt. According to W. Michael Panneton of the Department of Pharmacological and Physiological Science, St. Louis University School of Medicine, “The cardiovascular system helps remedy this problem of anoxia. A controlled reflex of onset bradycardia, a parasympathetic response, is foremost and reduces cardiac output dramatically, which by itself would induce a precipitous drop in arterial blood pressure.

Thus, the sympathetic nervous system counteracts the ensuing pressure drop, and a massive peripheral vasoconstriction commences redistributing circulating blood by reducing blood flow in cutaneous, muscular, and splanchnic circulations, but a maintained or augmented flow to the central nervous system and heart.”

Essentially, when our face is cold, wet, and we hold our breath, our parasympathetic nervous system engages and our heart rate decreases.

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How to Apply the Diving Response to Your Daily Life

So, how can you use this information to assist you when you are feeling panicked or overwhelmed? Obviously, if you are able to go swimming in cold water or take a cold shower, that would be ideal. However, it is not realistic to think you will have access to a pool or shower every time you experience severe distress.

In the absence of those options, there are five steps you can take that may help you utilize your diving response in these situations:

  1. Pour cold water in a large bowl.
  2. Take a few deep breaths.
  3. Dunk your face into the water.
  4. Hold your breath in the water for 15-30 seconds if possible. If this induces distress, try less time.
  5. Pull your head out if the water.

Because you may not always be able to dunk your head in a bowl of water whenever you are feeling severe distress, there are some other strategies that have been shown to elicit some similar bodily responses.

You can try ice packs or cold wash cloth on your face while holding your breath. Your body’s response may not be as robust, but it is definitely more convenient to do this in certain situations.

Experimenting with the diving reflex can be an effective way to regulate your emotions and your body when you’re feeling overwhelmed. It may be especially attractive to you if you’re not too keen on taking pills. However, because the diving response engages your cardiovascular system, it is very important to talk to your medical professional and make sure she or he clears you to try this exercise.

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