Cold immersion therapy- in which participants immerse themselves in water cooled 2°C (35.6°F) and 10°C (50°F)- has been growing in popularity in recent years, as proponents sing from the rooftops, claiming it can do everything from improving immune function to aiding recovery from exercise and injury, from relieving symptoms of stress to improving mindfulness and willpower.
These claims are beginning to be born out. The research, such as it is, concurs with many of cold water immersion practitioners’ claims. One of the main areas of research revolves around the link between cold water immersion and controlled breathing.
We’ve got a bit of a virtuous circle here, as breathing and cold water immersion practice are intimately linked. Improve the control you have over breath and you improve your ability to tolerate cold water immersion; practice cold water immersion regularly and you improve your ability to control your breath, no matter how stressful the situation might be.
The mechanics behind breathing in cold water
The initial response to cold immersion is colloquially known as ‘cold shock’. It’s characterised by a rapid, significant drop in skin temperature (if not core temperature) and changes to breathing. The breath change includes hyperventilation, hypocapnia, tachycardia, peripheral vasoconstriction, and hypertension.
The responses reach a peak within approximately 30 seconds of immersion. They will then adapt over most individuals’ first 3 minutes of immersion.
An inspiratory gasp happens almost as soon as an individual is immersed in cold water. This is perhaps the most dangerous response associated with sudden exposure to the cold: the shock is enough to act as a precursor to drowning or cardiovascular problems. Its severity and the effect it has on an individual can make or break cold water immersion practice. Generally, hyperventilation will then occur, taking place within a litre or so of total lung capacity: this will be responsible for the sensation of dyspnoea (difficult, laboured breathing) experienced upon immersion.
In fact, the ‘cold shock’ can reduce maximum breath hold time by up to 30% of its pre-immersion level, and any breath holding will be followed by hyperventilation and resultant profound hypocapnia. This shock is divorced from any change to the body’s temperature (other, of course, than the temperature of the skin). It comes before any change to the body’s core temperature. This speed lends support to the idea that its origin is neurogenic, initiated by cold receptors in the skin and the brain’s reaction to them.
However, there are a couple of ways to ease both the shock and subsequent hyperventilation and ultimately take control of your breathing during cold water immersion practice.
Method of immersion
Firstly, the manner in which you enter the water will have a large impact on your breath. If you go for a staged immersion, lowering yourself into water gradually, you can expect ventilation to increase at a much lesser rate than would occur with a non-staged, immediate immersion- the increase can be more than twice as much in the first ten seconds during a non-staged immersion.
So, if you’re just starting out, it may be worth considering taking immersion slowly (unless, of course, you want to rip the proverbial plaster off and just be done with it!) The ‘cold shock’ factor to your breathing will be greatly reduced, with less hyperventilation and less panic induced. Then, as your body adapts over a period of weeks, you can consider taking the plunge far more quickly, with full immediate immersion being the ultimate goal.
This process will bring better control over time, which will build up your tolerance to distress whilst diminishing your body’s response to it.
This brings us to the second way to ease this hyperventilation and take control of your breathing during and surrounding cold water immersion: the stress response involved and taking this in hand.
Handling the body’s stress response
The hyperventilation experienced alongside the cold shock response will be accompanied by a sympathetic overdrive. It is an artificially elicited stress response, which can be an incredibly potent tool for stress management.
Current theory suggests that bearing and overcoming such elemental stresses as provided by cold water immersion can help to reprogram our threat detectors to some degree. We are, as a species, far more comfortable in the modern world than our bodies are designed to be. Most of us face no serious threats on a day-to-day basis as we are warm, comfortable, well-fed and safe with modern labour-saving devices and a fair degree of mastery over our surroundings keeping us from having to go through any degree of physical duress.
We are, essentially, always within our comfort zones by default. We are never given the chance to feel real, primal threat. As a result, we have no way of dealing with stress symptoms when they crop up. Artificially inducing these symptoms, however, can accustom our bodies to them, with breath control being paramount in managing them. This will, in effect, make us more resilient to stress- both physical and mental- as our bodies adapt and learn to cope with it.
This is born out: those who are more experienced with cold water immersion experience a far lesser degree of hyperventilation and dyspnoea in the first ten seconds, and in the first three minutes, than those with less experience.
Regularly taking part in cold immersion therapy, and thus regularly provoking this response, can adapt our bodies to fear and stress. It will do so in a controlled environment (in this case, in a Cryotubs ice therapy bath as part of a cold water immersion practice). This will help us to prepare our minds and bodies for situations that are out of our control, or to allow us to bring a sense of control to otherwise stressful events.
We then enter the virtuous cycle mentioned above as cold water immersion practitioners: submitting to cold water immersion will adapt us to stress and to continuing to breath naturally under duress, whilst learning to control the breath will allow us to become more adept cold water immersion practitioners.
Cold water immersion and breath work
Willpower, self-control and commitment are all needed for anybody looking to take advantage of cold immersion therapy. You really do need to possess solid levels of willpower even to take the first step into cold water immersion; keeping yourself in the water, and returning to practice time after time, will increase this base level of willpower.
Breath control- conscious breathing techniques, such as yogic pranayama- forms a cornerstone of practices like that of Wim Hof- the ‘Ice Man’ himself, a key exponent of cold exposure. Breath work in this way is key to improving willpower for anybody.
It will reinforce the mindful benefits gained from cold water immersion, and the mindful benefits of cold water immersion will in turn make a practitioner more expert at breath control and meditation.
Conscious breathing practice requires patience and dedication, as does cold water immersion. Each will work in concert to improve a practitioner’s focus, reduce their stress levels and create a self-aware state of mindfulness conducive to improved willpower.