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Ice Bath Psychology

Updated: 4 days ago

What happens to brain waves during cold water therapy?


Thin woman immersed in ice bath up to her chest, arms crossed covering her breastplate.
Whole body cold water immersion can put the brain into a deep meditative state.

Summary

  • Whole body cold water immersion activates the fight-or-flight response in the autonomic nervous system.

  • Paradoxically, brain wave data collected from subjects submerged up to their chest in freezing cold water is characteristic of a deep meditative state -- even when compared to experienced meditators who are warm and dry.

  • Cold water therapy may be an effective method for building psychological resilience to stress.



"Everything you want is on the other side of fear." - George Addair *



Two women in meditative preparation for the ice bath, measuring brain waves with the Muse headset.
Meditative preparation for the ice bath, measuring brain waves with the Muse headset.

Although the metabolic benefits of ice baths begin at water temperatures in the low 50's Fahrenheit, the psychological benefits sometimes don't emerge until the water gets colder.



For me, that doesn't happen at temperatures greater than 35F, so he has to keep his Forge that cold.


In Stress vs Cold, I wrote about some of the psychological benefits of deliberate cold exposure and how changing the story you tell yourself about your stress can extend your life. That was when I discovered that a freezing cold ice bath calms brain wave data better than meditation.


At least, for the people I tested.


To investigate whether the same benefits were available to someone without experience in ice bath meditation, I invited a successful personal trainer who was new to deliberate cold exposure to try the before/after brainwave protocol.


She began by meditating indoors, warm and dry, while I measured her brain waves using the Muse headset.


Then, she plunged nearly up to her arm pits in a freezing water ice bath for 4 minutes.


Woman relaxing in ice bath with eyes closed and hands crossed over her chest.
A novice to deliberate cold exposure might get the same mental benefits from ice baths

These were her results. On the left is her brain wave data while warm and dry, and on the right is her brain wave data in the Morozko Forge.


Brain wave data supports ice bath psychology, showing calm brain states during cold water immersion.
Notice that the brain is more active when warm and dry (left) than when in the ice bath (right). During whole body immersion in freezing cold water, the brain waves plunge into the most calm state, and remain there for the duration of the cold exposure.

Her results are typical, albeit counter-intuitive. The calming effect of whole body cold water immersion is immediate and durable. For those who are inexperienced at normal meditation, an ice bath practice may be a way for them to realize the benefits of meditation without the hundreds of hours of practice ordinarily required.


Ice bath meditation is different from any other kind of meditation. The first reaction of your body when plunging into freezing water is something called the "gasp reflex." It is an autonomic, fight-or-flight response that might convince you that you're about to die.


Overcoming that reflex requires gaining control of your breathing first, and control of the other automatic reactions in your body second.


In the video below, a more experienced cold plunger narrates the experience of her mind and body while immersed in the Forge. Although she once suffered from Raynaud's syndrome (a complex psychological disorder that causes her body to overreact to cold temperatures) she adopted a practice of deliberate cold exposure to treat her Type 2 diabetes, and arrest the growth of an inoperable tumor that developed on her liver.


To gain these ice bath psychology benefits, she had to overcome her anxiety. In this respect, an ice bath may be ideal for treating mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.


When you try a freezing cold ice bath for first time, your experience might be to fight the cold sensation, or to use willpower to overcome the urge to jump out of the ice bath.


You might look like this woman, who lasted less than 11 seconds in the Forge, and jumped out smiling.


But when you're ready to get the psychological benefits of ice baths, you won't feel the need to fight the cold any longer. And you won't jump out.


You will stay calm.



* Quotes about fear and desire have also been attributed to Jack Canfield and Napoleon Hill and Mastin Kipp. My favorite way of putting it paraphrases Kipp:


Fear is a compass that points you in the direction of your dreams.
 

About the Author

Thomas P Seager, PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University. Seager co-founded the Morozko Forge ice bath company and is an expert in the use of ice baths for building metabolic and psychological resilience.





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Recent research has been documenting the benefits of cold water therapy for treating depression. After 3 months of open water swimming, this young mother was able to resolve her depression and quit all of her medication. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6112379/pdf/bcr-2018-225007.pdf

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