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Couples Therapy: Love in the Ice Bath

Updated: Feb 2

Love potion protocols for partner cold plunging


Couple holding hands in ice bath

Summary

  • Sexual attraction, romantic crushes, and love attachment are all indicated by different hormones and neurotransmitters in our bloodstream. An ice bath can stimulate production of all of them.

  • Whole-body cold-water immersion with your partner might be good couples therapy, by creating a neurochemical love potion in your brains.

  • Follow this protocol to maximize the therapeutic benefits of your partner cold plunge: 1) touch one another while in the ice, 2) breath together, in synchrony, 3) gaze into one another's eyes for two straight minutes, and 4) rewarm with exercise in the sun (if available).


What is love?

Three different brain systems of love

According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD (e.g., Why We Love, Fisher 2004) there are at least three different brain systems identified with love:


  1. Lust -- e.g., the sex drive. As human beings, we experience an involuntary, biological urge towards pro-creation that causes intrusive, indiscriminate thoughts and lustful fantasies. In both men and women, higher testosterone levels are associated with stronger sex drive.

  2. Romance -- the obsessive, possessive, jealous feeling that focuses craving for emotional attachment with a single person. Romantic love is characterized by increased levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.

  3. Familial attachment-- the profound sense of attachment and caring for the well-being of another. It is non-sexual, non-exclusive, and not obsessive. Familial love is what motivates use to care for our children, our brother and sisters, or even our pets, and it is associated with increased oxytocin and vasopressin.


As I wrote in a separate article called 'Love has 3 meanings: In which are you?' all three types of love can co-exist at once:

We can be in lust, in romantic love, and familial love with the same person, all at the same time. Or not. None of these loves are exclusive of each other. They can come and go, rise and fall, in any combination. - Seager 2018.

Brain chemistry of love

In her research, Fisher records brain scans and measures blood levels of neurotransmitters and hormones that correspond to these three different types of love. For example, she states that being "happily in love" stimulates activity deep in "the reptilian core of the brain" that manufactures dopamine and triggers wanting, craving, motivation, and reward systems (The Brain in Love, Fisher 2008).


More recent research confirms Fisher's findings. Love creates a measurable chemical signature that suppresses serotonin, and raises dopamine, oxytocin, cortisol, vasopressin, and norepinephrine (Sayin & Schenk 2019).


Although research can identify the characteristic neurochemical patterns of love, what has never been researched is whether the process also works in reverse. Could activating these same hormonal & neurotransmitter responses in some other way cause two people to fall in love, as a result of their shared brain chemistry?


No one has tested whether the neurochemical signature of love is exclusively the result of feeling in love, or whether stimulating the right neurochemistry can also cause feelings of love.


In my experience, it can.


How to fall in love with anyone?

One of the most famous studies of creating love and attachment was called 'The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness' (Aron et al. 1997). In it, researchers designed a 36-question protocol for generating feelings of intimacy between two people by prompting increasingly personal revelations. They wrote:

One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure. The core of the method we developed was to structure such self-disclosure between strangers. - Aron et al. (1997)

The method proved so successful that at least one pair of participants who met in a laboratory study began dating and eventually became married. After subsequent studies showed similar success, a college writing teacher attempted to replicate results in her personal life by inviting a man to a 2-hour session of increasingly vulnerable self-disclosures based on the protocol ('To fall in love with anyone, do this' Catron 2015).


She and her heterosexual, male counterpart proceeded through the three dozen questions, progressing from innocuous queries like "For what in your life do you feel most grateful?" (Question 9) to more difficult, like "Tell your partner what you like about them; be very

honest this time saying things that you might not say to someone you've just met" (Question 28).


After they'd responded to all the questions, the writer and her counterpart stared into one another's eyes for four straight minutes.


It worked, and she wrote a book about it (Catron 2017).

Do you know when you're in love?

Whereas Fisher explains love as a biological phenomenon, the authors of the 36-question love protocol did not track neurochemical markers of attachment, closeness, or intimacy. Instead, they use standardized psychological measures, and their research has examined love relationships exclusively through a psychological lens. For example, they write that "pair-bonding, in the context of enduring adult romantic relationships, is the observable behavioral manifestation of an intra- and inter-psychic process of connecting with one’s partner" (Branand et al. 2019).


The difficulty with psychological definitions of love is that they rely on self-reported representations. In this case, researchers validated their reporting instruments with markers of reduced relationship threat, increased efficacy in coping with conflict, and extent of overlap in Facebook profiles. Nevertheless, I'd be interested in a study that investigates the relationship between self-reported measures of relational intimacy and Fisher's brain scans or other neurochemical makers.


Remarkably, one study that comes close is the Socially Evaluated Cold Pressor Test (SECPT). Long considered a valid psychological study for measuring stress response, a group of researchers at State University of New York Buffalo (SUNY-Buffalo) and University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) adapted the test to study the extent to which loving relationships help study subjects adapt to and manage stress.


The ordinary SECPT immerses a study subject's hand into ice cold water and records biophysical responses of stress such as heart rate, blood pressure, and length of time willing to keep the hand immersed, so that these measures can be compared to self-reported pain, distress, anger, and performance on math problems. In this variation, the researchers studied participant responses to the SECPT in either the presence of a spouse, close friend, or a family pet. During the test, pets were free to move about the house and spouses "were told that the experiment was about 'social support and reactions to stress' and that they could be supportive during task performance in any way they chose."


The results showed that the presence of pets improved stress responses in their owners better than most spouses. In other words, most study participants felt better supported by animals than by humans.

While the idea of a pet as social support may appear to some as a peculiar notion, our participants’ responses to stress combined with their descriptions of the meaning of pets in their lives suggest to us that social support can indeed cross species. In informal conversations, pet owners repeatedly told us that they talked to and confided in their pets and that having a pet nearby made them “feel better.” We believe such reports indicate a need for a social support measure that could accurately assess and describe the meaning of pets in their owners’ lives relative to other (human) sources of support. - Allen et al (2002).

The close correlation between what study subjects said about their pets, and the ways that their bodies responded to stress in the presence of their pets suggests that the feelings we report about our relationships can be a reliable indicator of the neurochemistry of the relationship.


But can the process work in reverse? Could a love potion of the right neurochemical mixture create real feelings of love between two people?


Lust, romance, & attachment bonding in the ice bath

The SECPT study demonstrates that many people feel unsupported in their marriages. If Fisher is to be believed, then it is likely that people in unsupportive relationships fail to experience the kind of neurochemical rush that is characteristic of love.


For example, a deficit of oxytocin and vasopressin might be associated with feeling a lack of familial love, whereas a deficit of dopamine and norepinephrine (sometimes called noradrenaline) might be associated with feeling a lack of romantic love. A lack of sexual desire has long been associated with deficits in testosterone and norepinephrine. In fact, a new study of sex drive in newlyweds reveals that it is testosterone, not mood or marital satisfaction that accounts for differences in sexual desire (French et al. 2022).

These neurochemical realities beg the question:


If we could induce production of love hormones and neurotransmitters in two people in the ice bath at the same time, could their shared neurochemical experience cause them to fall in love?


That's been exactly my experience. Back in the Spring of 2019, at a photoshoot in Sedona AZ with AJ Kay, I wrote: "When you activate your sympathetic nervous system (SMS) in the company of your Lover, staring into one another's eyes, the whole world melts away to leave only the connection between you."


I always thought that the phenomenon we experienced was something love researchers call "misattribution of arousal" (e.g., White & Kight 1984). According to this theory, sharing an exciting experience, like a scary movie, can increase attraction. Because the ice bath activates the sympathetic nervous system, I assumed that the thrill we had in the ice bath increased our mutual attraction like two teenagers on a roller coaster ride at the State Fair.


Some studies do show that couples watching thrilling movies engage in more touching and talking (Cohen et al. 1989), and roller coasters can make others appear more attractive (Meston & Frohlich 2003). But as it turns out, the scientific research on arousal in romantic contexts is inconclusive (e.g., Walster & Bersheid 1971, Harris et al. 2009). Young men report enjoying the thrill more than the young women with whom they are on dates, perhaps because in one study 55% of the women reported "holding on to their dates" (Martin 2019). The increased touching may coincide with a surge in oxytocin (Bowen & McGregor 2014) -- nonetheless, my initial hypothesis that an activating experience like the ice bath draws a couple closer has only weak support in existing studies. So I've changed my hypothesis to something more like this:


Cold plunging as a couple engages every neurochemical transmitter associated with the three brain systems of love.


Let's examine that idea, step-by-step through every one of the chemicals on Fisher's list, and see if it can explain what happened between me and AJ when we ice bathed together.

Testosterone (lust)

In 'What happened to my testosterone when...' I shared the experiences that raised my testosterone levels from a perfectly respectable 736 ng/dL in September 2017 to an astronomical 1180 ng/dL in August 2018. The key for me was to ice bath before exercise (rather than after), although I didn't understand why until AJ discovered a study that compared the testosterone-boosting effects of exercise before and after cold exposure (Sakamoto et al. 1991).


The Japanese researchers discovered that an ice bath after exercise (e.g., for recovery) suppressed testosterone levels in the blood of their subjects. However, and ice bath followed by just 20 minutes on an exercise bike boosted blood serum testosterone levels. These findings have convinced several men to precool prior to their workout. For example, Jason has boosted his testosterone results to 913 ng/dL (at age 42).


And I just retested mine in Sep of 2022 -- at age 56 years old, 214lb and almost 6ft tall, my total testosterone is 1075 ng/dL.


Nonetheless, our interest in partner ice baths is not exclusive to men. It turns out that testosterone is also the most important sex hormone in women.


Typical blood serum concentrations of testosterone in women are 2-3 times greater than typical concentrations of estrogen.


Hormonal lab results confuse this fact because estrogen concentration is reported as picograms per milliliter (pg/mL), and testosterone is reported as nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL). To compare testosterone measurements in ng/dL to estrogen in pg/dL, you have to multiple the testosterone numbers by ten. Only then does it become obvious that, although women have much less testosterone than men, healthy women still have several times greater concentrations of testosterone than estrogen.


As with men, testosterone levels in women typically decline with age -- although they probably don't have to. If my own experience is instructive, then it's likely that youthful testosterone levels can be maintained well into middle age.


Nonetheless, women undergo a unique sexual transition in menopause. Because testosterone in women is produced by the ovaries, many women undergo a loss of testosterone when they discontinue ovulation. Despite that, testosterone is rarely prescribed for menopausal women except as a remedy for low libido. There are no US FDA-approved treatments for testosterone insufficiency in women, meaning for women who do seek testosterone therapy "clinicians have no choice but to prescribe T off-label, using T products approved for men but at a much lower dose appropriate for women" (Traish & Morgantaler 2022).


And what does testosterone do for women?


Just like in men, increased testosterone boosts sex drive in women (Davis & Tran 2001). Moreover, there is some evidence that deliberate cold exposure has the potential to stimulate increased testosterone in women, just as it can in men. An obscure Polish study on whole body cryotherapy reported:

After completing a series of whole body cryotherapy treatments, there was a significant improvement in libido. (Although) the change in this parameter should concern mainly men, in this research the change covered both sexes equally. - Rymaszewska et al. (2006)

Thus, it may be that the couple who ice baths together, and exercises together, will also experience a simultaneous boost in libido that kindles sexual desire between them. My experience, despite jokes about shrinkage, has been exactly this.


If there ever was a love potion, the ice bath might be it.


Dopamine & norepinephrine (romance)

In 'Can cold water swimming cure depression?' I wrote about the massive increases in both dopamine and norepinephrine that accompany whole body cold water immersion. For example, Šrámek et al. (2000) measured increases in dopamine of 2-3 times pre-cold exposure levels -- a surge so great that it may be impossible to remain in a bad mood after completing an ice bath. However, Fisher's research in romantic, possessive love suggests that these chemicals are not just associated with a general feeling of euphoria, but that they focus obsessive romantic attention on a single individual.

A study of 10 healthy young adults at the early stages of heterosexual romantic relationships seems to confirm Fisher's findings. Researchers compared brain activity in study subjects who viewed pictures of their love interest to activity when viewing a picture of an opposite sex person with whom they had no love interest. They discovered that dopaminergic sectors of the brain were more activated by romantic partners than by controls (Takahashi et al. 2015).


Oxytocin & vasopressin (attachment bonding)

Studies on administration of exogenous oxytocin and vasopressin have already demonstrated that these chemicals change orientations towards others. For example, oxytocin has a reputation for being the "cuddle hormone" because of its association with nurturing (Parmar & Malik 2017). Oxytocin and vasopressin together stimulate maternal, nurturing behaviors -- but they also promote aggressive behaviors in mothers who perceive a threat to their young. In this way, we can say that oxytocin and vasopressin promote familial love in both the caring for and defense of those we love.


Unfortunately, measuring oxytocin and vasopressin in the body is problematic (Leng & Sabatier 2016), complicating interpretation of studies. Nevertheless, we can make some inferences about vasopressin by observing its actions on the body. In 'Are you getting enough vasoconstriction?' I wrote about how cold exposure causes contraction of the smooth muscle tissues that control blood flow to the extremities. These contractions are intended to reduce thermal losses, protect the vital organs in our torso, and it explains why our fingers and toes hurt so much in the ice bath.


What I didn't explain was that the hormone responsible for inducing these contractions is vasopressin (Henderson & Byron 2007). Curiously, oxytocin is also induces muscle contractions -- specifically, of the uterus during labor. Oxytocin is sometimes called the bonding hormone because it also promotes production of breast milk, and it should come as no surprise that nipple stimulation increases oxytocin levels.


Moreover, oxytocin is critical to cold thermogenesis. When researchers in Japan exposed oxytocin deficient mice to cold temperatures, they found that (compared to control) the deficient mice were unable to maintain body temperature (Kashahara et al. 2007). This may be because oxytocin originates in the hypothalamus, which is one of the thermoregulatory centers in the brain (Kashakara et al. 2013). Although I could find no studies measuring oxytocin levels in the human bloodstream resulting from cold exposure, that fact that oxytocin is critical to cold thermogenesis suggests that an ice bath likely stimulates oxytocin production in the hypothalamus.


Thus, we can infer from the physiological responses of the body to cold exposure -- namely vasoconstriction and cold thermogenesis -- that the neurochemicals vasopressin and oxytocin principally responsible for regulating these autonomic responses to cold exposure are likely activated by the ice bath.


Neurochemistry of the ice bath = love?

The remarkable finding of this review is that practicing deliberate cold exposure with your partner is likely to generate within you both the exact same neurochemical signature that characterizes lust, romance, and loving attachment, as summarized in Table 1 below:

Love system

Neurotransmitter or hormone

Ice bath science

Relationship benefits

lust & desire

testosterone

when followed by exercise, ice bath results in lasting increases

increased libido (sex drive) & sexual function in both men & women

romantic love

dopamine, norepinephrine

ice bath boosts levels by 3-4x multiple

feelings of euphoria, desire, & intense pleasure

attachment

oxytocin & vasopressin

implicated in vasoconstriction & cold thermogenesis

increased bonding & protective feelings

The Love Potion Protocol

When you're ready to try cold plunging with your partner, you don't want to rely exclusively on the power of deliberate cold exposure to generate the neurochemistry of love -- you want to ensure that those feelings are directed exclusively towards one another.


married couple in the ice bath together
Deanna & Jim Telford practice partner plunging together at Cell Regen in Hood River OR. The anxiety of the ice bath may cause couples to miss an opportunity to gain the full therapeutic effect of the ice bath. Tips to bring you closer while partner plunging include: holding hands, staring into one another's eyes, and breathing together.

Here are four tips that might enhance the relationship building experiences for you both.


1) Touch each other

When touch is already one of your principal love languages (as it is with me), the urge to hold your partner's hands while you experience the ice bath may be overwhelming. Regardless, there is a deep body of scientific literature on the importance of touch for building close, committed romantic relationships -- even among those who are otherwise attachment avoidant (e.g., Debrot et al. 2021). One study revealed that touch between romantic partners synchronizes patterns of neural activity, increases pair-bonding, and strengthens romantic love (Long et al. 2020).


When you touch your partner in the ice bath, you increase the sense of connection and communication between you.


2) Synchronize your breathing

In 'Dangers of deliberate cold exposure' I wrote about the importance of maintaining structured breathing to avoid autonomic conflict that could result in an irregular heartbeat. Considering that the heart is considered the bodily locus of romantic love, it might make sense that maintaining a regular heartbeat during a partner plunge is a good way to steady and strengthen a relationship. However, synchronizing breath -- as in, breathing together -- will likely create an even stronger bond. A new study of couples on blind dates discovered that the measures of physiological synchronicity with the strongest correlation to attraction were also the most subtle. Whereas overt expressions like smiling and laughter together were not reliable indicators of attraction, synchronization of invisible characteristics like heart rate and skin conductance were good predictors (Prochazkova et al. 2022).


Breathing in synchrony with your partner bonds you both.


3) Stare into one another's eyes

The science of what is politely called "eye-gazing" in human beings has established that staring into the eyes of a member of the opposite sex makes them more likeable, attractive, and in love. For example, researchers in Massachusetts paired 48 undergraduate men and 48 undergraduate women who were previously unknown to each other. In the experimental group, subjects were instructed to gaze into one another's eye for two minutes, whereas the control group was instructed to gaze at hands.


Subjects who shared a two minute gaze reported greater feelings of attraction, interest, and warmth.


Because two minutes is also more than enough time for neurotransmitters like norepinephrine to reach the brain, the findings of the Massachusetts study suggest that couples who can tolerate a two minute ice bath together will likely reap the full neurochemical benefits of both the cold exposure and eye-gazing.


4) Rewarm together by exercising in the sunshine

Rewarming with exercise after your ice bath is critical for building the testosterone levels that are critical for libido and sexual function. It doesn't have to be a lot. Remember that in the Japanese study, it took only twenty minutes on the exercise bike was enough to boost testosterone levels. Nonetheless, my favorite with AJ has been an hour-long hot yoga class immediately after emerging from my Morozko. As I wrote in Precool Your Workout, doing the the ice bath first extends my stamina and improves my workout performance -- which is a feeling I especially enjoy when showing off in front of my Lady.


What I've only recently discovered is that it might be even better for our love life if we moved our recovery workout outdoors in the sunshine. A new study (Parikh et al 2021) discovered that exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) light -- the portion of the solar spectrum best known for stimulating Vitamin D production in the skin -- also causes a cascade of neurochemical responses that ignite sexual passion in mice and humans. Males experience an increase in testosterone, and report that females more attractive. Females become more receptive to male advances, and spend more time grooming the males.

Couples can get a double love boost after their ice bath by exercising together in the sunshine.


Couples cold therapy

It's hard for me to imagine the ice bath approach to couples therapy going mainstream any time soon, given the level of vulnerability and surrender required to plunge into the freezing water. And it's not likely that practicing an ice bath together will resolve power struggles, disputes over finances, or arguments about household chores. Nevertheless, a therapy that increases sexual attraction and function, boosts mood and romantic love, strengthens bonding and attachment, and creates a general feeling of euphoria in the company of your Lover might help melt away all the other, negative things that drove you apart in the first place.


That's what happened for me.

 

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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