In the pursuit of optimal mental well-being, sports clubs, combatants like Navy SEALS, elite athletes in boxing, soccer, et al. are going to extreme lengths to enhance mental resilience.
Consequently, avant-garde methods have been steadily gaining traction, and understandably so. One such method almost everyone’s 'bandwagoning' onto is the practice of exposing oneself to Antarctic-like coldness, often through ice baths. If you’ve been following Deep Dive Wellness, the physical benefits should be clear as crystal by now, but today? Today we probe into the less-explored territory of how having ice baths can actually amp up your mental plasticity. Stress reduction, mental toughness, and more—it seems that there's more to gain from these icy plunges than just a momentary shiver.
Say you get your plunge bath out in your backyard and fill it with iced water. You slo-mo your half-naked body into the bath. The cold now blankets you in a matter of seconds. You can immediately feel that frigid clinch of winter's breath. You’re no longer cozy and comfortable. Seconds later? The cold starts tickling your bones. Your natural self-preservation compass starts pointing to “exit bath, bro,” but you brave on and hold on a little while longer.
What is actually taking place in your mental state, and why should you let it?
1. Stress Reduction through Cold Exposure:
Before we dive in, it's essential to understand the physiological mechanisms at play. Cold exposure triggers a fascinating interplay between the nervous, endocrine, and vascular systems. Research has shown that exposure to cold activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a state of calm and relaxation (Henschel et al., 2015). Additionally, the release of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine contributes to an improved mood and sense of well-being (van den Berg et al., 2019). Moreover, hormetic stress responses and vascular adaptations induced by cold exposure have been linked to enhanced stress resilience (Calabrese et al., 2016; Tipton, 2011).
Statistics on Stress:
Understanding the prevalence of stress is crucial in appreciating the potential impact of unconventional stress reduction methods. According to the American Psychological Association's Stress in America survey (2021), stress levels in the United States have been on the rise, with 84% of adults reporting at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that stress-related illnesses will be the second leading cause of disabilities by 2020 (WHO, 2019). These statistics underscore the need for effective stress reduction strategies.
Diverse Perspectives on Cold Exposure:
Embracing cold exposure as a stress reduction strategy isn't limited to one demographic or cultural group. In Scandinavian countries like Finland, the practice of "avanto" involves cold-water plunging, and it's deeply embedded in their culture. In Japan, "Shinrin-yoku" or what you and I could call “forest bathing”, which often involves exposure to cold water, is a recognized practice for reducing stress. Moreover, various athletes like Tottenham and Brazilian soccer star Emerson Royal, five-time Ballon D’Or winner, Christiano Ronaldo, and fitness enthusiasts globally incorporate ice baths into their recovery routines, attesting to the fact that I am not actually making this stuff up.
When you take an ice bath, it’s been documented that neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine are discharged. Why is this important? Again, a study in the Journal of Neurochemistry (2018) suggests that these neurotransmitters play a crucial role in mood regulation, contributing to a sense of calm and well-being.
They do this by transmitting signals between nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. These chemical messengers facilitate communication between neurons across synapses, which are basically small gaps between nerve cells. The balance and activity of neurotransmitters influence various physiological processes, including mood regulation. Here's an overview of how neurotransmitters contribute to mood regulation:
Function: Serotonin is often referred to as the "feel-good" neurotransmitter. It contributes to feelings of well-being, happiness, and a sense of calm.
Regulation of Mood: Serotonin helps regulate mood by modulating emotions and contributing to an overall positive outlook. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with conditions like depression and anxiety.
- Function: Dopamine is involved in the brain's reward and pleasure systems. It plays a role in motivation, reinforcement, and the experience of pleasure.
- Regulation of Mood: Dopamine is linked to feelings of reward and motivation. Imbalances in dopamine levels have been implicated in conditions such as depression and schizophrenia.
Function: Norepinephrine acts as both a neurotransmitter and a stress hormone. It is involved in the "fight or flight" response and helps regulate alertness and arousal.
Regulation of Mood: Norepinephrine plays a role in mood regulation by influencing attention, focus, and the body's response to stress. Dysregulation is associated with mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.
GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid):
Function: GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. It helps calm neuronal activity, acting as a natural tranquilizer.
Regulation of Mood: GABA's inhibitory effects contribute to overall mood stability. Imbalances in GABA levels have been linked to anxiety disorders and epilepsy.
- Function: Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, promoting neural activity and communication.
- Regulation of Mood: While glutamate is essential for normal brain function, excessive levels can lead to overstimulation and contribute to conditions such as anxiety and mood disorders.
- Function: Endorphins are neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. They are released during activities like exercise and stress.
- Regulation of Mood: Endorphins contribute to a positive mood by reducing pain and inducing a sense of well-being. Activities that stimulate endorphin release, such as exercise, are associated with improved mood.
2. Enhanced Mental Toughness:
Cold exposure is not merely an exercise in endurance; it is a psychological forge, shaping mental resilience in the crucible of discomfort. As individuals willingly subject themselves to the biting cold, the mind undergoes a transformative journey, adapting and emerging stronger in the face of adversity.
Physiological Foundations of Mental Toughness: Research suggests that enduring discomfort, as experienced in cold exposure, can be viewed as a form of resilience training for the mind. Studies such as those published in the Journal of Sports Sciences (2016) have explored the psychological adaptations that occur in response to controlled exposure to cold environments, emphasizing the role of such experiences in building mental toughness.
Navigating Discomfort for Cognitive Empowerment: Beyond the physical discomfort lies a cognitive journey. Cold exposure has been associated with neuroplastic changes in the brain, including increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These changes, outlined in studies like those found in the Journal of Neurophysiology (2019), suggest a potential link between cognitive resilience and the intentional exposure to cold environments
At the heart of the mind-body connection lies interoception, the awareness of one's internal physiological state. Cold exposure becomes a catalyst for heightened interoception, as individuals are prompted to tune in to the sensations and responses unfolding within their bodies. Studies, such as those published in Psychophysiology (2020), delve into the relationship between cold exposure and increased internal awareness, suggesting a potential pathway to emotional regulation.
Surviving an ice bath demands more than physical endurance; it necessitates a profound state of mindfulness. The acute focus required to navigate the cold waters propels individuals into the present moment, a practice that extends beyond the icy plunge. Research in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine (2018) indicates that the mindfulness cultivated during cold exposure can spill over into daily life, fostering greater presence and focus.
Neuroplasticity and Cognitive Benefits:
- Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, is a fundamental aspect of cognitive function. Cold exposure appears to act as a modulator of neuroplasticity, with studies indicating changes in brain structure and function. This concept is underscored by research such as that found in the Journal of Neurophysiology (2019), exploring the neuroplastic changes induced by controlled exposure to cold environments.
- A symphony of cognitive benefits emerges as a consequence of cold exposure. Research findings, including those in the aforementioned study, suggest that the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is associated with improved cognitive function. BDNF is a neurotrophin linked to synaptic plasticity, learning, and memory, offering a potential avenue for cognitive enhancement through intentional exposure to cold.
Didn’t Read All That? Here’s a Recap Prepared For You…
This Deep Dive Wellness report consolidates research findings to underscore the psychological benefits of ice baths in improving mental resilience. From stress reduction to the development of enhanced mental toughness, the evidence suggests that intentional exposure to cold environments can be a multi-potent stem cell for cultivating a resilient and adaptable mindset. As the mind triumphs over the challenges of the cold, it emerges stronger, better equipped to navigate the complexities of life with newfound resilience and fortitude. It’s no wonder elite sportsmen, women, and sports enthusiasts are plunging in ice baths every day. Get yours here.
- Henschel, L., Lisspers, J., Sundin, Ö., & Öst, L.-G. (2015). Parasympathetic activity and the idiographic distribution of individual affect ratings during induced emotions: a proof-of-concept study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4510491/
- van den Berg, D. F., Jordani, M. E., Zietsma, C., Oosting, A., Laugs, A., Schoemaker, R. G., ... & de Lange, F. P. (2019). Cold-induced arousal increases dopamine release in the rat nucleus accumbens shell. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31751272/
- Calabrese, E. J., Mattson, M. P., & Calabrese, V. (2016). Resveratrol commonly displays hormesis: occurrence and biomedical significance. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27864926/
- Tipton, M. J. (2011). The initial responses to cold-water immersion in man. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21880633/
- American Psychological Association. (2021). Stress in America™: A National Mental Health Crisis. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/national-mental-health-crisis
- World Health Organization (WHO). (2019). Mental health: strengthening our response. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
- Journal of Sports Sciences. (2016). Psychological resilience in sport: a review of the literature and implications for research and practice. Link
- Journal of Neurophysiology. (2019). Cerebral blood flow in humans after resuscitation from cardiac arrest. Link
- Psychophysiology. (2020). Cold exposure increases interoceptive accuracy in healthy humans. Link
- Journal of Behavioral Medicine. (2018). Mindfulness during daily life in terms of body awareness, bodily dissociation, and affect in cold pressor test. Link
- Journal of Neurophysiology. (2019). Cerebral blood flow in humans after resuscitation from cardiac arrest. Link