explore skills: Ice and anxiety: using cold water

Interrupt your Meltdown

Marsha Lineman has a great anxiety hack!

Cold water and holding your breath can interrupt your anxiety

Fill a large bowl of water and ice. Put your face in it. Hold your breath. Repeat.


But seriously though, it works.

Next time you are having a panic attack, or dissociation or you are just ugly crying and need to get ahold of yourself, try it.

Its called the Mammalian Dive Response and we are so lucky to have it. Basically, just by putting your face in cold water, your body reacts as though you are diving underwater. Your heart rate slows. Blood flow to nonessential organs is reduced and blood flow is redirected to the brain and heart. And this process, well… it kind of shuts down auxiliary functioning and brings your parasympathetic nervous system online. That’s the part of your nervous system that says, “Chill, baby, it’s all gonna be alright.” Also known as the relaxation response.

If you are feeling particularly nerdy, this Ted article about Your Body’s Amazing Reaction to Water is fascinating! https://ideas.ted.com/science_of_freediving

Of course, sometimes when you are having a panic attack, maybe you don’t happen to have a large bowl of ice water handy? It happens to the best of us. A few years ago, I was in my office when a panic attack struck. I received some really bad news and suddenly it felt like the room was spinning. Personally, if I even think I am going to have a panic attack, I get terrified of having a panic attack. Make sense? I did not have a bowl to fill with ice water, so I grabbed a couple of cans of La Croix from the fridge and pressed them over my eyes and forehead, breathing deep, then holding my breath for 30 Mississippi’s (also known as seconds.) I “came up for air” took another breath and HOLD. I repeated it three times. And then my mind was calm enough to use other skills.

So here is my Dive Response Hack. Yup. Cold soda cans are one option when no bowls of ice are handy. You can also carry instant cold packs in your car/your purse/your desk at work/your bedside table….lol, you can pretty much stash them anywhere that you think you might need them.

The Ice Bath for Mental Balance

The summer that I was 13 years old, I experienced my first cold plunge. I got super hot in a sauna, then ran out on the dock and dove into the lake. Wow! It was painful but so invigorating. It turns out that taking a cold soak once a day for five to ten minutes is a boost your parasympathetic nervous system! (Remember the “Chill, baby, its all gonna be alright” part of your body.) The research shows that a regular cold plunge can help to ease depression, and potentially reduce anxiety. Personally, I like to take a hot bath at night, leave the water overnight and take a cold plunge before my shower in the morning. Sometimes, I will end a hot shower by standing in the cold water for a few minutes.

I have been doing this for years. And then I watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix.

I hope you will watch it. Its a lovely story of a documentarian, Craig Foster, who alludes to having struggled with severe depression. His depression causes him to retreat from life and return to his childhood home in South Africa on the beach. He begins skindiving daily.

Watching the film, I saw a man experiencing the dive response over and over. Of course, the relationship he develops with this wonderful octopus is the main story. But as a therapist, I experienced another narrative: A man’s emergence out of depression. And I suspect that the daily, prolonged diving in cold water could be a factor. The daily adjustment of the nervous system through the dive response is fascinating to consider.

I hope you will take a look at the Ted article and watch My Octopus Teacher to enhance your engagement with this skill.

And take advantage of that Dive Response yourself! Whether to immediately ward off a panic attack, or try a gradual reset of your nervous system.

If you have Marsha Lineman’s book “DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheet, 2nd edition”, you will find her guide for using cold water on Page 330.

Here are a couple of other articles that might be of interest:



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Diana is a licensed professional counselor based in Nashville. She has been teaching DBT skills for the last ten years after writing her master's thesis about making DBT skills training interesting and engaging. She loves using story telling to help illustrate how skills can be used.

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