Disclaimer: The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.
You may have seen anyone from fitness enthusiasts to social media influencers touting the benefits of cold therapy. But as interest in cold water therapy grows, it begs the question: Can cold therapy improve your mental health? Let’s dive into the potential mental health benefits and the science behind cold water therapy – plus important safety considerations.
Table of Contents
What is Cold-Water Therapy?
Cold-water therapy is essentially what it sounds like – the practice of using cold water, no warmer than 59 degrees Fahrenheit, for a therapeutic purpose, either physical or mental. A few different types of cold therapy exist, including the following:
- Cold water immersion – submerging the entire body, from the neck down, within an icy bath, sometimes for up to 15 minutes.
- Cold showers
- Contrast bath therapy – this is much like cold-water immersion, but involves switching limbs from cold water to warm water for intervals that total up to 30 minutes.
Cold Therapy’s Rise in Popularity
Cold water therapy isn’t new – in fact, cold water’s use to promote good health dates back centuries. The practice of cold-water immersion may date back to the ancient Greeks – Hippocrates recommended cold-water therapy and even 18th-century doctors recommended cold baths for to treat a wide variety of health conditions.
But the idea of cold-water immersion has gained traction in recent years. The Wim Hof method, for example, developed by extreme athlete Wim Hof, involves techniques like ice baths and cold showers. Organizations like Mental Health Swims have also seen a surge in popularity, highlighting the concept of cold-water therapy as a tool for mental well-being.
Why Cold-Water Therapy?
Cold-water immersion triggers the release of stress hormones like noradrenaline and cortisol, which drives the invigorated feeling most enthusiasts describe. Plus, increases in mood-regulating brain chemicals, like dopamine, may explain the post-immersion “high” that’s often reported.
The activation of the parasympathetic nervous system also plays a role in relaxation and inflammation reduction. And some even pose that adapting to the shock of cold water may enhance overall stress tolerance.
Potential Mental Health Benefits
Cold-water therapy, particularly in the form of the Wim Hof method, is associated with a range of mental health benefits. It may aid in decreasing pain, regulate the nervous system, decrease stress, and improve mood.
Specifically, exposure to cold water stimulates the vagus nerve, which is the component of the autonomic nervous system responsible for regulating breathing and heart rate. Some research also shows that cold therapy may be linked to reduced cortisol levels, which means it has potential to ease feelings of stress.
Participants in one small study also reported feeling more alert, inspired and attentive after just one five-minute session in a 68-degree bath.
How to Stay Safe During Cold-Water Therapy
If you’re interested in giving cold-water therapy a try, experts emphasize the importance of safety and moderation. A little exposure may be good, but too much may pose risks. The dangers associated with cold therapy are real, and they include hypothermia, arrhythmias, and the risk of drowning.
The American Heart Association has cautioned that the most dangerous time is within the first 60 seconds of a cold-therapy session until breathing regulates.
It’s best to start slow and easy. Session durations of no more than two to five minutes are recommended, and more research is needed to determine the optimal “dose” for mental health benefits.
Is Cold Water Therapy for Me?
Performed safely, cold water immersion may offer mental health benefits. While it’s not a cure-all, cold therapy can be a part of a holistic approach to managing your mental well-being. However, caution and moderation are key, and it’s crucial to consult with your doctor before diving into cold water therapy.