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The secret to stress management: get cold

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. But don’t forget to add ice! Stress is certainly an inevitable part of everyday life but it shouldn’t be a crippling one. Learning how to manage stress and adapt to the challenges of modern living can be easier than you think – if you’re willing to get a little chilly!

The benefits of ice baths are as ancient as they are scientific. So before you go thinking it’s just a fun party trick, let us explain the science of why cold therapy is the secret to stress management.

What is stress and why is it such a big deal?

Whether you’re running from a tiger or answering an angry email from your boss, your body turns on its fight or flight response to deal with that stress. If you’re actually running from a tiger this is very important to keep you alive. However, if you’re answering angry emails, stuck in traffic, or dealing with any other modern stress that doesn’t actually need your body to flood itself with cortisol to keep you safe, that stress response could be doing more harm than good.

Chronic stress (or constantly being in fight or flight) is like leaving the doors to your home wide open – completely vulnerable to any threats. It can weaken the immune system, increase risk for cardiovascular issues, disrupt your mood, result in anxiety and depression,  and leave you feeling on high-alert. Managing your stress protects your body and fortifies your mind, ensuring greater health and overall well being.

Cold therapy actually activates your fight or flight response, but instead of hijacking your nervous system, it recalibrates it. As your body adapts to the cold it can reduce your heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension creating a sense of relaxation.

Simply put… practice really does make perfect. By putting your body into a stress state followed by a relaxed state, it teaches your fight or flight system to reset. This builds your resilience to stress and equips you with the tools needed to navigate life’s challenges with greater ease.

Why cold therapy helps you manage stress

When you immerse yourself into cold water, several physiological changes follow that impact the way you perceive and handle stress, including:

  • Boost of Endorphins. Immersion in cold water releases a cascade of endorphins. These natural mood-boosting hormones reduce stress and create  an overall sense of well-being.

  • Activation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The shock of the cold water triggers a response that activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is  responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response and promotes relaxation.

  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in our body running from the brainstem down to various organs. When cold water stimulants the vagus nerve it releases neurotransmitters and neuropeptides that regulate stress and inflammation.

  • Regulation of Cortisol Levels. Prolonged stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels that negatively impact our health. Cold exposure has been shown to regulate cortisol levels, helping to reduce the side effects of chronic stress.

  • Prefrontal Cortex Activation. Cold plunges activate the prefrontal cortex, strengthening its connection with other brain regions involved in core cognitive functions. This can result in better emotional regulation, stress perception and overall decision-making.

  • Neurotransmitter Balance. Cold immersion influences the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin and dopamine. This can help stabilize emotions, improve mood and support a sense of well being.

The Takeaway

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable to better manage your stress. By willingly and consistently subjecting yourself to controlled discomfort, cold plunges challenge your endurance while giving your body the training and tools it needs to better manage and adapt when you face real-life stressors.

This builds mental, emotional, and physical resilience, empowering you to navigate the ups and downs of life with far more capacity.

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