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Your complete guide to cold plunging – Cold Corner

Find all the top tips, newest articles and insights related to cold plunging, cold therapy and ice bathing. Discover all the benefits from this column where we bring first hand experience and mix it with science. Whether you want to know how to start cold plunging or you want to enhance  your cold journey even further, this is for you.

How to manage stress – is cold exposure the cure we secretly knew all along?

In Finnish we have a saying “jäitä hattuun”, which means “put ice in your hat”. It resembles the English saying, “go cool off”. It’s only really ever heard in situations where someone is perhaps a little too heated or going on overdrive. But what does it have to do with cold exposure?

Most of us have or probably will experience stress at some point in our lives. We are exposed to different stressors constantly. Most of us must learn ways to cope and manage stress as very few are born with a natural talent for handling stress effectively. For me, finding techniques for managing stress is like finding a needle in a haystack. However, I’ve found that deliberate cold exposure has been helpful. It’s been proven to be a universally helpful hack for stress management and below I outline why. So how does it work in reality?

To put it simply, cold exposure creates stress in our body. As crazy as it may first sound, putting yourself in the right kind of stressful situation has a positive effect on managing and relieving stress. The key word here is right.

Research shows that exposing yourself to the “good kind,” known as hormetic stress, poses just enough challenge on your body without strain or fatigue. Hormetic stressors are of moderate intensity, they produce stress resilience, and you can quickly recover from them. 4  According to another study made on perceived stress it was shown that people seeking to reduce their perceived stress should in fact expose themselves to hormetic stressors such as cold exposure combined with breathing techniques.2

Cold water immersion creates an opportunity for us to expose ourselves to this good stress and helps us to not only build our stress tolerance, but it also teaches our body and mind techniques to manage those situations when they occur. 5   It has been researched that cold exposure poses a physiological challenge in our body and by building our cold tolerance through habituation we can work to minimize this physiological strain that cold exposure has on us. 1

The initial cold shock we experience when immersing into cold water is a collection of physiological responses evoked by stimulation of peripheral cold receptors. In other words, when our skin touches the cold water the body reacts with a reflex of inspiratory gasp, hyperventilation, increased heart rate (even tachycardia), and peripheral vasoconstriction (constricted blood flow). 2,3  When we experience stress there is an increase in norepinephrine and epinephrine which are similar neurotransmitters to the ones that are also primarily present under cold exposure (norepinephrine and neuropeptide). 5 & 1  With regular immersions and breathwork we can decrease the fortitude of the initial cold shock and better control our heartrate and other physiological responses.

It is as much physical as it is mental. Knowing you can control the situation and how your body reacts to it is a power in itself. Consequently, in the ideal world, when we face other stressors with similar responses, we are then better able to manage the situation and our reaction to it.

I am no way near perfect to managing my stress when a stressful situation occurs. However, in the moment, a dip in the ice bath helps me to calm down my body and mind and refocus. What I call the happy hormones (dopamine and adrenaline) kick in, and I feel immediate relief and sense of calm. It took me a couple of times, less than one would imagine, to be able to reduce the cold shock and learn to trust my body to handle it. After a few months I barely reacted when immersing and after 30 seconds or was able to lower my heart rate to levels I wouldn´t be able to do consciously without the help of cold water. So maybe one day I will learn to adapt those skills even more into my everyday stressors I face in life. Until then I will continue to build my stress tolerance through plunges in the cold bath or through ice in my hat if necessary.

Pro tip: If you ever feel stressed at work or school, going into the bathroom to rinse your face with cold water can at times be just the trick to help you to calm down!

Disclaimer: This post is reviewing published academic articles and evidence. All information gathered are interpretations and is meant for informative purposes only.

It is advised that if you are suffering from any specific disease, consult your doctor before starting cold water therapy. Being exposed to extreme temperatures for too long adversely affects your health, so caution is recommended.

Articles reviewed in this post:

  1. Castellani, J. W., & Tipton, M. J. (2015). Cold Stress Effects on Exposure Tolerance and Exercise Performance.Comprehensive Physiology. doi:10.1002/cphy.c140081
  2. Siegfried Kopplin, C., & Rosenthal, L. (2022). The positive effects of combined breathing techniques and cold exposure on perceived stress: a randomised trial.Current Psychology42, 27058–27070. doi:10.1007
  3. Tipton, M. J., Golden, F. S., Higenbottam, C., Mekjavic, I. B., & Eglin, C. M. (1998). Temperature dependence of habituation of the initial responses to cold-water immersion.European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology78(3), 253–257. doi: 10.1007/s004210050416
  4. Epel, E. S. (2020). The geroscience agenda: Toxic stress, hormetic stress, and the rate of aging.Ageing Research Reviews63. doi:doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2020.101167
  5. https://www.hubermanlab.com/newsletter/the-science-and-use-of-cold-exposure-for-health-and-performance