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Realizing Mental Potential

Paradoxical psychological benefits of cold


Summary

  • A Swiss reporter tries cold plunge therapy for the first time, under the tutelage of Wim Hof certified Instructor Beat Brun.

  • Her experience surprises her. Instead of unbearable discomfort, she laughs while submerged in the cold water.

  • Brun claims that the mental benefits are the most compelling of all the reasons to practice cold plunge therapy.

  • Recent critics of cold plunge therapy can't seem to get their heads around the paradoxical psychological benefits of stress in the ice bath. The key may be in understanding the difference between partial- and whole-body cold water immersion.


Physiological, Immunological, and Psychological Benefits

The science of cold plunge therapy can be organized into three categories:

  1. exercise performance & recovery (physiological)

  2. immune system and endocrine benefits (immunological), and

  3. improved psychological response to stress (psychological).


Exercise Performance

Most of the research and popular media is about exercise recovery. For example, I've summarized much of the science & experience in several other articles here:


Immunology

Also, there's some new research in immunological response -- e.g., Professor Mike Tipton at the University of Portsmouth Extreme Environments Lab writes that "short-term stress readies the immune system to deal with injury or infection" (Tipton et al. 2017). One of the most interesting lines of research is in the relationship between cold plunge therapy and autoimmune disorders. For example, in Cold Plunge for Multiple Sclerosis and Multiple Sclerosis Relief I explained that physical therapist have understood since at least 1959 that "cool baths" are effective for managing multiple sclerosis. Similar experiences in relieving rheumatoid arthritis, improving Parkinson's, and managing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) suggest a complex and beneficial relationship between cold therapy and a broad range of autoimmune disorders.


Psychology

Still, Wim Hof instructors like Beat Brun often say that the psychological benefits are the most important, and that's where the least research has been done. What little exists is focused on something called the Socially Evaluated Cold Pressor Test (SECPT).


The SECPT is a standardized protocol for inducing stress in subjects for the purpose of evaluating their response. It requires submerging the subjects' right hand in freezing cold water for 3 minutes, while under observation. Researchers then measure heart rate, cortisol levels, and other markers of physiological response to cold exposure stress, and ten years of collecting data has shown that the SECPT is effective for creating "autonomic arousal" -- i.e., the fight or flight response.


For those of you that are practiced cold plungers, you're probably amused (as we are) by the relative insignificance of submerging just one hand, for just three minutes, when we've been practicing daily whole body cold exposure. But the SECPT wasn't developed for practiced plungers like us, and that's the point.


When subjects practice with the SECPT, researchers often find that Stress Inoculation helps subjects gain control of the autonomic anxiety response, exactly as Wim Hof claims.


The question that hasn't been answered yet is whether regular practice of whole body cold exposure in an ice bath strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system to the extent that it can make us more calm, relaxed, and creative in other stressful conditions.


Beat Brun believes it can.


To test his claims, a Swiss reporter decided to try Beat's workshop for herself. She and Beat created a video of her experience, and we've taken the trouble to translate it from German to English.


"My Stress Reactions"


[Anna, speaking]: "Let's face it, I'm stressed. You're stressed. We all are stressed. Today I am learning how to deal with stress, in ice cold water."


[Anna, narrating]: (I am) going to a workshop in my jogging pants. This is the dresscode here.

[Anna, speaking]: I think we are good. This is Beat, our instructor.


[Beat]: "We breath deep into our belly, 30 times."


[Anna, narrating]: And this is us. We pump ourselves with air. With these techniques, we activate our bodies. I will have nasty muscle soreness tomorrow.


We visualize how we will go into the water. This does not make me less skeptical.


[Anna, speaking]: "I am very much sensitive to cold, so I do not think now that ultimately I can hack it in the cold water. We will see!"


[Anna, narrating]: Beat explained to me that we all have stress reactions: shortness of breath, loss of concentration, panic. These do not matter.


[Beat]: "By consciously breathing deep and slow, we condition ourselves to have a new stress reaction. And you can apply this adaptation in your everyday life.


"When you are with your Boss, or in another stressful situation, you can do what you have practiced in the icewater, so that you don't breathe improperly or make mental mistakes. You stay present, and you can focus on your breath to control your stress."


[Anna, narrating]: That's what we are trying to do in Lake Obersee today -- a relaxing place when the water is not 46F degrees.


[Anna, narrating]: My stress reaction says "You could just lay on the couch!" but my motivation has a love-hate relationship with stress.


[Beat]: Relax yourself. Exactly! With your exhale, you reassure us.


[Anna, narrating]: After two minutes, the pain subsided, and the good hormones kicked in.\


[Anna, speaking]: "OK, now I must laugh!"


[Anna, narrating]: Beat says bio-optimization is a technology for consciously breaking our stress reaction.


[Anna, speaking]: I found the challenge of the water the most difficult. Because we talked so much about how we would feel pain, I felt more pressure when we jumped in the Lake. But I also never thought that I could have endured it so lang, and I feel like it was pretty cool.


Cold calm

Many others have experiences similar to Anna's. After the initial shock of the "gasp reflex," a whole body cold plunge will result in a calming response that results from the "dive reflex."


The dive reflex is a parasympathetic nervous system response that calms the body, slows the heart rate, slows the metabolism to conserve oxygen, and shifts the brain waves into a deeper mediative state. It is common to all mammals, and it serves to prepare the body for a long dive.


Top Chef Brooke Williamson describes the experience as "very peaceful and meditative, and exactly what I needed."


Paradox of the ice bath

The idea that something as activating and stressful as an ice bath could also somehow prepare the mind and body to better handle stress sounds like a paradox.


How can stress be relaxing?

Critics of cold plunge therapy can't seem to get their heads around the idea what they're anticipating will be a stressful response can also be relaxing. The paradox might be resolved by an investigation by Finnish researchers that compared the physiological response of partial-body cold stimulation vs whole-body cold immersion.


Ilkka Korhonen (2006), from the University of Oulu in northern Finland discovered that heart rate increased in young men who submerged only a hand or foot in cold water. But heart rate decreased when the same men were subjected to mild cryotherapy (+10C) for two hours. Korhonen concluded "a sudden local exposure to severe cold would be more stressful than a long lasting, milder exposure to cold, even when the latter is applied to the whole body."


Critics of cold plunge therapy who have only tried cold showers, or the cold pressor test, have likely only experienced the gasp reflex, without ever experiencing the paradoxical relaxation associated with dive reflex.


References

  • Korhonen I. Blood pressure and heart rate responses in men exposed to arm and leg cold pressor tests and whole-body cold exposure. International Journal of Circumpolar Health. 2006 Apr 18;65(2):178-84.

  • Tipton MJ, Collier N, Massey H, Corbett J, Harper M. Cold water immersion: kill or cure? Experimental Physiology. 2017 Nov 1;102(11):1335-55.


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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