It’s January in Vancouver, and I’m neck deep in the icy Pacific Ocean. I don’t have the protective warmth of a dry suit or even a wetsuit. Just my bikini, a toque pulled down over my ears and some Neoprene water socks. Trying to deepen my shaky breaths, I tell myself to just push through for a few more seconds. And then a few more seconds after that. Again and again until I eventually emerge. It feels like an eternity, but I’m only submerged for about 30 seconds. By March I will be sitting in the water for 1.5 minutes, but I wouldn’t believe you if you told me that now.
TikTok and Therapists: My Introduction to Cold Water Therapy
Cold water therapy is the act of submerging oneself into water below 14.4 degrees Celsius to gain various health benefits. I first heard about cold water therapy on TikTok. I was fascinated by videos of people cutting holes into thick ice atop frozen lakes and then getting into the water in only their bathing suits.
Other people would fill kiddie pools with cold water, add bags of ice and then get in with a group, sometimes while others nearby would encourage them to relax and take deep breaths. People on the sidelines would say things like, “Just three more deep breaths” or “Just two more seconds!” before everyone would get out.
Being from Canada, I had a few New Years Day polar bear dips under my belt, but I wasn’t even considering cold water therapy when I first saw all those videos of other people doing it. I figured it was just a strange new health trend and I didn’t see any reason for me to participate.
A few months later I was talking to my therapist about my mental health struggles. I have ADHD, OCD and occasional depression but my main issue has always been my anxiety and panic attacks. I started getting panic attacks when I was 10 years old and have been to see countless psychiatrists and therapists since. I take medications for it and have other techniques to calm myself, but I still struggle sometimes.
While we were talking, I asked my therapist if she had any recommendations for things I could do to help when I’m in the middle of a panic attack. She said that, if possible, I should hold ice in my hands. The ice acts as a grounding tool and helps to bring your nervous system out of its fight or flight response. It helps you to focus on your surroundings and your body and less on your anxious thoughts. She also said that if I ever want to help alleviate anxiety, prevent anxiety or otherwise ground myself, I should step into a cold river while barefoot.
Sisu and Cold Water Therapy: Inspiration from Finland
After talking with my therapist about how cold water and ice may help to calm my anxiety, I turned to the internet to find more information. After Googling things for awhile I came across a book called Finding Sisu: In Search of Courage, Strength, and Happiness the Finnish Way by Katja Pantzar.
In the book, Katja moves from Canada to Finland where she learns about many different healthy lifestyle habits that instill in the body and mind a sense of sisu, or grit. These habits include walking, cycling, healthy eating and cold water dips in the icy ocean.
In the book, Katja mentions that she started out by dipping in and out of the cold water quickly before gaining the strength to stay in for a bit longer. She met lots of Fins who regularly go for cold water dips and joined a group of them regularly too. Some said the water gave them energy, helped them feel rejuvenated, helped heal their skin from rashes or eczema, and more. Katja found the water brought with it a lot of mental health benefits too.
After reading the book, I was convinced. I knew that for my mental health and my physical health, I should at least give cold water therapy a try. I started with ending my showers cold, then moved to taking cold showers more regularly. After that, I headed out with my friend for a cold dip in a lake that was still partially covered in ice. It was very fast. We ran in and ran out, tripping over each other on the way. Next, I worked my way into the ocean with my husband Arturo standing onshore for support and safety.
I’ve seen a big difference in my overall mental health since I started going for cold water dips and taking cold showers. When I have panic attacks, I am able to calm down much faster if I hold ice in my hands too. My energy throughout the day has increased and when I feel tired now, I know that I’ll feel way better if I can just get myself into some cold water.
History of Cold Water Therapy
Cold water therapy has been practiced in different ways for over 5,000 years in places such as ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. It was originally used to help treat muscle fatigue, skin problems and other health issues.
Today, cold water therapy is quickly gaining more popularity around the world. Some people get started by watching videos, hearing about it on social media or reading books like Finding Sisu. Others learn about it because it’s already part of their culture. Some people start cold water therapy because they are athletes, and their coaches suggest they take ice baths for quicker muscle recovery.
Another way people are joining in is by getting started with the Wim Hof Method. It’s a program designed by 65-year-old Dutch athlete Wim Hof that combines special breathing techniques, mindset and concentration exercises along with gradual cold exposure to help people gain the health benefits associated with cold water therapy.
Health Benefits of Cold Water Therapy
While many people report their own noticed health benefits of cold water therapy, not all of them have been studied or are backed up by science. The health benefits that have been researched extensively and are backed by science include the following:
- Less muscle soreness and faster muscle recovery
- Faster cool down if you’re overheated
- Decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Immune system and anti-inflammatory benefits
Cold Water Therapy Risks and Safety Tips
Swimming or immersing yourself in extremely cold water can be risky. If you’re not careful, don’t take proper precautions and/or have pre-existing health conditions, the cold water can cause hypothermia, cardiac issues, fainting, heart attacks and in extreme cases, even death.
Here's how to stay safe:
Talk to your doctor first
Because cold water therapy directly affects your heart rate, circulation and blood pressure, you should talk to a doctor before you try it. It’s especially risky if you have pre-existing health problems. Plus, with anything that poses a danger it’s always a good safety measure to talk to your doctor first regardless of how healthy you are.
Go with a buddy
Dangerous cold water temperatures can affect your mental reasoning and emotions so make sure you always go with a buddy. Take someone you trust and have them help to monitor your condition especially when you go out in open waters.
Don’t stay in the water for too long
You can still experience health benefits from just a short dip (just a few minutes or less) so you don’t need to try to stay in too long. Staying in the cold water for too long will increase your risk of hypothermia and other health problems.
Warm up when you get out but avoid hot showers
To stay safe, you will need to warm up when you get out. However, it’s best to avoid hot showers as the shock of the sudden temperature change and resulting blood flow change can cause you to faint.
As soon as you get out of the water, put on a hat and gloves, get out of your wet clothes and dry off. Then put on warm dry layers of clothing. Drink something warm and have a snack. Sweet foods and sugar can also help to increase your temperature.