Do Cold Plunges and Ice Baths Really Boost Your Mood and Eliminate Anxiety?
Cold plunging is a mega health trend due to cascading health benefits experienced both physically and mentally.
If you played sports in high school, then you likely saw athletes use cold plunges or ice baths to increase their recovery and eliminate pain.
It turns out that physical recovery is just one of many health benefits of cold plunging.
Perhaps the most underrated benefits are mood enhancement and elimination of anxiety.
Anxiety, Depression, Suicide rates are higher than ever: Hormetic Stresses like Cold Plunging could be the answer!
We are simultaneously the most comfortable generation and the most depressed.
Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are the highest they have ever been in spite of our advancements. Even crazier—the wealthiest nations suffer the highest rates of mental illness. We are more miserable than ever even though we have more comfort than ever. How can this be? What is the underlying problem?
Thanks to research from Dr. Anna Lembke (Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences) and other brilliant scientists, the culprit has been found: cheap, abundant dopamine.
We are too comfortable for our own good. We have access to pleasure at our fingertips with smart phones, junk food at every street corner, and myriad of prescription and recreational drugs to numb us from pain.
Our mind and bodies are not designed for this new environment we live in.
They were designed to deal with tremendous stress and adversity for survival. It turns out that pain and pleasure are co-located in the brain, meaning they are located in the same region. Pain and pleasure work like opposite sides of a balance beam / teeter totter.
Our bodies want to stay in homeostasis, not tipped to one side or the other. Any deviation from neutrality is a form of stress.
The problem with modern life is that we have too much pleasure stimulus.Pain has an advantage on the evolutionary scale. It needs to reset much higher than pleasure.
So if we keep hitting the pleasure button with cheap dopamine, we are setting ourselves up for a tail whip swing back to pain. And for many of us, it gets stuck there to compensate for the cheap dopamine.
The inconvenient truth is that we are evolutionary programmed to encounter stress, friction, challenge every day of life.
If we do not set up challenges that engage us with life, if we don’t experience pain, then we are setting ourselves up for more prolonged episodes of pain in the form of anxiety and depression.
It’s as if we have an internal judge keeping track of our effort. If we don’t put in effort that induces healthy stress, also known as eustress, the internal judge fires off. This internal judge is trying to protect us.
Our ancestors dealt with daily challenges; our internal judge is from this era and sounds alarms that are no longer relevant.
Since this judge is always here monitoring our environment, the only way to silence the judge is to create useful stress.
The best strategies for silencing the judge: exercise, intermittent fasting, sauna, and cold plunging.
These stresses are deeply tied to our entire nervous system.
They help us regain homeostasis by doing something challenging to the body and mind.
They induce useful pain for us to experience the pleasure side of the teeter totter.
Cold plunges and ice baths improve your mood by resetting your nervous system. Fight or flight activation releases from your brainstem a cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones.
Increase tremendously. Norepinephrine and Adrenaline by 500%, dopamine by 250%.
Many other molecules, neurotransmitters, and hormones are released. This is
responsible for cascading health benefits. When it comes to mood, depression, and anxiety, placing the body under acute, low dose stress like a cold plunge resets the mind.
These three neurotransmitters are called catecholamines. Cold plunging is special in that in activates all three simultaneously.
Many activities that spike up adrenaline and norepinephrine fail to do the same with dopamine.
Anxiety is Quelled and Mood Enhancement Lasts Throughout the Day
Another reason why cold plunges are so powerful is that dopamine remains elevated several hours after being in the cold water. Dopamine is the core component of reward seeking and motivation.
Many people report feeling more engaged, focused on their goals after cold plunging. In addition, perception around your current problems and challenges change. They are no longer as big of a threat.
The cold plunge increases adrenaline and anxiety short term through stressing the body, and the result is an ability to handle mental anxiety, perceptually, much better.
Cold plunging at 59° and below activates your fight or flight response. The colder the water, the faster and more acute the fight or flight response will activate.
According to Dr. Rhonda Patrick, 20-40 seconds at 39° Fahrenheit can fully activate the fight or flight response.
The reason why fight or flight activation is critical is because it causes your brainstem to release enormous amounts of norepinephrine and adrenaline.
Cold Plunges May Be Better than Meditation at Boosting Mood
What happens to your anxiety and mood during and after a cold plunge? How long do the effects last?
Immediately, cold water takes you out of your head and into your senses. You cannot be thinking about your problems and experiencing the cold at the same time. It’s an immediate grounding to the present moment—perception and awareness increase many fold.
The cold water stimulates your entire nervous system, almost like sending tiny shocks throughout your whole body.
Any anxiety or depression is confronted by fight or flight, intense adaptation. Your body is making life or death tradeoffs—restricting blood circulation to your limbs and keeping your vital organs warm. This requires energy and work.
In addition, to extend your cold plunge duration, you must fully accept the cold. Your initial response may be to fight the cold, and that may help in the beginning. But the only way to stay in and develop resilience is to accept.
Some have called cold plunging “forced mediation” or “excruciating mindfulness.” It tears you away from egoic modes of thought. This happens almost immediately.
Depending on your tolerance, at 37° all you need is 20 to 60 second cold plunge for a full reset. At 59°, four to six minutes sessions are comparable.
How to Get Started with Cold Plunges and Ice Baths for Mental Illness, Depression, Anxiety
The best way to get started is with cold showers. Turn the knob all the way cold at the end of the shower and push yourself to last as long as you can.
If you do this every day, you will be amassed by how your tolerance will increase. As you learn to stay longer and longer, you will experience a significant boost in your mood.
Graduate to full submersion
Once you have a handle on cold showers, your next step is to graduate to full submersion. This can be done in your bath tub or a receptacle big enough to hold water and ice.
You will find that full submersion in colder water leads to a stronger adaption response. It will get you to the state of mental clarity faster and more reliably.
Buy a self-contained cold plunge
Once you can handle full submersion, we reccomend buying a self-contained cold plunge. This will eliminate all set up times and allow you to explore different temperatures.
You will be able to reliably and consistently address your mental health. You will have the ability to boost your mood and eliminate anxiety at your finger tips.