Cold water therapy- whether cold water swimming, cold water immersion, cryotherapy, or any other variation thereof- has grown in popularity incredibly rapidly over the past decade or so. People become almost addicted to it, and it’s easy to see why: the clarity, energy and positivity to be gained from cold water therapy are often quite profound.
It may seem counter-intuitive to engage in cold water therapy, especially in more extreme variations like cold water swimming or cryotherapy. After all, who wants to plunge themselves into temperatures in the 2-15 degree C range, exposing themselves to ice cold water, when they could take a nice warm bath instead? However, the physical and mental health benefits practitioners gain, alongside the feeling of attachment to nature and themselves that comes from taking part in something so primal, soon explain the phenomenon.
The effects of cold water immersion
Anecdotal and scientific reports on the beneficial effects of cold water immersion have been widely recorded (though the science is young and data is still growing on the subject). Many fitness and wellness professionals, authors, journalists and bloggers have touted cold water immersion as something of a panacea for both mental and physical health.
There is good reason for this. Immersing oneself in cold water on a regular basis elicits some quite profound physiological changes, whilst the act of doing so promotes self-control, a sense of mindfulness and a confidence and clarity of thought that are instrumental to building a healthy, positive mindset.
If you try cold immersion therapy, you will find yourself becoming incredibly present. Whilst this may sound a tad nebulous – how, indeed, do you measure or even define ‘presentness’? – it is a real, valuable thing from which many people benefit. It is hard, when immersing yourself in cold water, to think of anything but the cold water and how you feel in the moment. The physical sensations and mental struggle take over, meaning that all other worries, all other external inputs, all other stresses and distractions are removed.
You live in the moment, completely and whole heartedly.
In addition, there are some physiological changes that occur both instantaneously and over time with regular use of cold immersion therapy that contribute to greater personal positivity.
For starters, cold water immersion can make you happier. It can even be used to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety. A recent report published in the British Medical Journal found the effects of cold water swimming had an anti-inflammatory effect and could therefore be a potential treatment for depression, as depression often comes hand in hand with high levels of inflammation in the brain.
As our extremities become colder and the cold receptors in our skin are activated, electrical impulses are sent from our nerve endings to our brain. Simultaneously, blood is directed to our core organs. This fresh blood delivers more oxygen and nutrients and brings about a gentle detoxifying effect in our brains. All of this will lead to greater energy levels overall as vascularity improves.
Studies have shown that cold water immersion can also increase levels of dopamine, serotonin and beta-endorphins. These all contribute in very major ways to levels of happiness and perceived wellbeing. Increased levels of dopamine, serotonin and beta-endorphins will help to fight depression and lessen symptoms of stress and anxiety. In addition, they are central to pain management, meaning that overall wellbeing will improve with regular cold immersion therapy, and those suffering from depression and stress due to chronic pain conditions in particular stand to benefit.
Cold water swimmers quite often report on the ‘post-swim high’ or ‘glow’. This is an intense feeling of euphoria brought about partly by the exercise itself, partly by the feeling of centred mindfulness, and partly by the increased levels of dopamine, serotonin and beta-endorphins that will be rushing through their bodies. Cold immersion therapy delivers similar results, leaving participants euphoric immediately post-treatment and happier and calmer in their daily lives.
In addition, cold water immersion can help you to sleep better. Sleep deprivation and long-term fatigue can lead to increased anxiety and instances of depression. On the flip side, improved sleep patterns and an increased depth of sleep will lead to a decrease in depressive symptoms and an increase in agency as you are more able to cope with stress.
Finally, cold water immersion can be a fantastic coping mechanism for stress. Repeated use can help to train the fight or flight response as the body’s stress mechanisms are triggered by the sudden exposure to cold. The human body’s fight or flight mechanism is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us to cope with potential threats. It often comes into play in dangerous, high stress or uncomfortable situations, and is a completely natural and logical response. By stimulating it using cold water immersion, we release cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone) and increase our heart rates and blood pressure.
We experience at least minor versions of the fight or flight nearly every day of our lives. Hopefully, we don’t often experience it in full, though most of us will do so at some point in our lives. However, this minor response is still a direct consequence of stress. Over time, this can become chronic: long-term stress can lead to some serious physical issues, such as high blood pressure, heart concerns and muscular tension.
Cold water adaptation- a process in which repeated immersions in cold water can reduce this chronic stress response as the body grows used to the cold water- can potentially mitigate this high-stress response to external stimuli. By triggering the body’s fight or flight mechanisms in a controlled environment, our bodies can better learn how to deal with it in our day to day lives.
Though this is largely scientifically unsubstantiated for the moment, it certainly chimes with a lot of cold water advocates’ experiences and personal testimonials. Many people report lowered perceived stress levels when undergoing regular cold water immersion therapy. Indeed, many people begin it in the first place as a treatment for stress, anxiety and/or depression (a triumvirate that commonly come together). Cold water immersion therapy can therefore provide you with a possibly well-needed way in which to cope with the stresses and challenges that daily life throws your way.
It is this combination of increased levels of dopamine, serotonin and beta-endorphins, resistance to cortisol and other common stress symptoms, and improved sleep that will tend to make practitioners of cold water immersion therapy happier, calmer and more energetic.