Cold Water Immersion – particularly on the face – activates what is known as the Divers Reflex. This is commonly advised as a method for anxiety and stress relief, but how does it actually work?
The Divers Reflex is particular to mammals and is an involuntary physiological survival response. Immersing the face in particular in cold water simulates conditions in the body as if undergoing asphyxia – the deprivation of oxygen. The trigeminal nerves in our faces detect the cold water and communicate with the vagus nerve, and consequently the parasympathetic nervous system. This kickstarts a reaction that slows down our heartbeat and breathing. It is thought that this happens as a way to preserve those precious oxygen stores for various organs so that we have a better chance of survival in these life-threatening situations.
During a panic attack, prompting the heart and body to slow down can help regulate our physical response, and relieve emotional intensity fairly quickly. As an involuntary physiological response, the divers reflex does not require the same long-term training as more cognitive methods do, yet is more of a quick fix for particular moments of anxiety.
Wild swimming is a popular activity in more temperate climates for all that it brings in terms of wellbeing. However that may be inaccessible, and it has a slight entry barrier in that it often requires building up to, to ensure the body can tolerate temperatures safely without risk of hypothermia. The good news, is that you don’t need to jump into bodies of cold water. Simply splashing cold water on your face (Cold Face Immersion – CFI) for 15 seconds whilst holding your breath can trigger the Divers Reflex. It is worth noting that the trigeminal nerve receptors are in higher density around the eyes, forehead and nose, so for CFI to be truly effective, a full face submersion is necessary. These receptors can also distinguish between a splash and rain/cold air – the latter will not be effective – and are optimally stimulated at temperatures between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius.
The next time you feel intense emotional anxiety coming on, try Cold Face Immersion to return you to a calm, ‘resting state’.