- As a former addict, I tried cold exposure to manage my panic disorder and avoid drinking and pills.
- Ice therapy helped regulate my emotions; it also can aid in workout recovery and gut health.
- This is an adapted excerpt from “Soberish: The Science-Based Guide to Taking Your Power Back From Alcohol” by Kayla Lyons.
The first time I was introduced to cold exposure was through a therapist who was helping me learn how to cope with my panic attacks without using drugs. The reason I ever got started on benzodiazepines — drugs like Klonopin, Valium, and Xanax — was because I was suffering from panic disorder and could barely leave the house. I had basically become a shell of a person. Fast-forward five years and I was heavily addicted to Klonopin and also abusing alcohol to self-medicate.
My anxiety was so severe I really couldn’t make it more than a day or two without drinking or using pills. I hated the way I was living, but not having alcohol or my pills scared me even more than continuing to lose friends and watch my life spiral out of control. And so the cycle continued — until that fateful moment when I realized I had to stop or I was going to end up another statistic of Big Pharma and Big Alcohol.
Cold therapy benefits for mental health
I’ve been using different forms of cold exposure therapy for the past seven years and in my opinion, it’s still one of the most effective tools for grounding myself and releasing uncomfortable emotions instead of avoiding them by using alcohol or pills. When I’m experiencing severe anxiety or panic attacks in situations like driving alone or being in crowded spaces, my body tends to go into fight-or-flight mode, which includes a rapid heartbeat, hot flashes, tunnel vision, and an acute sense of doom. Not fun. All of this is happening because of old triggers telling me that I’m not safe — and so my body jumps into action to try to protect me.
To ground myself in these moments, I use ice to help jolt my system out of this mode. The ice helps me to focus on the physical sensation of the cold rather than the negative sensations happening because of my anxiety. To this day, I carry an ice pack or a bag of ice with me pretty much everywhere I go. When available and when my negative emotions are more overwhelming, I’ve also used cold showers in these moments. It’s helpful for me to know I can turn to a tangible tool that has effectively worked for me for years. Over time, I have tried higher levels of cold exposure through cryotherapy and ice baths. Both have been extremely beneficial in helping me to regulate my emotions on a deeper level, face my fears, test my mental strength, and improve my physical health.
Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine and host of the “Huberman Lab” podcast — one of my favorites — says deliberately exposing yourself to cold for just 11 minutes a week can help you achieve the benefits of cold exposure. This could be distributed throughout the week in one- to five-minute increments. No need to shiver; it’ll be fine, I promise! Some of the mental and emotional benefits of cold exposure include:
Reduces inflammation and symptoms of depression
Research has shown a correlation between depression and higher levels of inflammation in the body. The dysregulation that inflammation can cause, like suppressing your immune system, can directly affect the way you respond to treatment like antidepressants.
Even if you don’t have a history of depression, inflammation can make you more susceptible to it. Inflammation in the body is a direct response to something that your immune system deems an irritant. And, yes, besides being a depressant in its own right, alcohol can be one of these irritants, especially when it comes to its effect on the gut. Symptoms can include pain, redness, heat, swelling, or general discomfort.
Normally, we think of inflammation as being caused by something physical like exercise or something foreign like a virus, but inflammation can also be our body’s response to stress. Have you ever experienced neck or shoulder pain because of stress? Migraines or tension headaches? These are perfect examples of our body trying to tell us something; however, we usually just don’t listen or we use surface-level fixes like over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatories. The Wim Hof Method, in which breathing exercises and cold exposure are paired, has been scientifically proven to suppress inflammation, improve sleep, and decrease stress.
Did you know that deliberately exposing yourself to the cold releases both epinephrine — adrenaline — and norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter made up of dopamine? At first, the release of these two neurochemicals can make us feel uncomfortable and tell us to “get out!” This is where we need to practice mental strength and fight the urge to step out of the cold. Through this exposure, we stand to gain increased levels of energy and focus that can be lasting and as effective as a cup of coffee. Cold exposure also releases one of our favorite neurotransmitters: dopamine, the pleasure chemical. Using cold exposure like cold showers, cryotherapy, and cold baths causes the prolonged release of dopamine.
Increases happiness levels and regulates emotions
Using the Wim Hof Method for breathing and cold exposure, you can learn to develop and find your own sense of happiness, which you may have lost to some degree through alcohol. Learning proper breathwork techniques can play a huge role in helping us learn to control and regulate our minds. Controlled breathing exercises can help you activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), relieve stress, and make you feel more comfortable. Proper and deliberate breathing can influence and control your emotions, allowing you to take your power back and increase your happiness. The same way in which cold exposure can decrease symptoms of depression, it allows for the increase of dopamine transmissions in the neural pathways, boosting your mood naturally.
Cold therapy benefits for physical health
If you already exercise regularly, or plan on adding intuitive movement into your practice, it’s important to allow your body to recover from physical exercise. Every time you exercise, your body is depleted of energy and temporarily damages muscular tissue to allow for muscle growth. This means you need to allow time for your body to rest and recover in order to avoid injuries, inflammation, or delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Coupled with our other tools of proper nutrition and sleep hygiene, cold exposure can be extremely beneficial for workout recovery as it reduces inflammation and muscle soreness caused by exercise. It also allows for better sleep, which means more time for your body to rest and restore itself.
Reduces blood pressure
As someone aged 30 who suffers from high blood pressure with no history of obesity or smoking, who exercises regularly, and has been in recovery from alcohol use disorder for almost seven years, this benefit was a big one for me. If I run down the list of things that cause high blood pressure, I don’t check any of them except one: STRESS. I take an SNRI for my OCD, medication to help me sleep, and hormonal birth control, so the last thing I want to do is throw a high-blood-pressure pill into the mix if I can avoid it. By practicing cold exposure and breathing techniques, I’m working on lowering my blood pressure. Practicing consistently helps lower your heart rate and strengthen your immune system along with helping the absorption of nutrients and oxygen into your cells more effectively.
A weak immune system can lead you to be more susceptible to viruses and diseases, so a healthy system is vital for your overall health. As we mentioned earlier, a suppressed immune system can also negatively impact our mental health. Managing our stress is a big part of keeping both our immune system and our blood pressure in check. Breathwork is a powerful stress reducer and maintaining breathwork each day can help strengthen your immune system.
Having a proper metabolism is important for a plethora of reasons: good gut health, serotonin production, and, of course, the production of food into fuel. Metabolism allows our body to make food into energy that we use for essential functions. Some of our basic metabolic functions include:
- Circulating blood.
- Digesting food.
- Growing and repairing cells.
- Managing hormone levels.
- Regulating body temperature.
Cold exposure is a great way for us to force our bodies to produce heat through the response of shivering. Shivering generates heat, which helps the body improve its metabolism in a natural way. Exposing the body to the cold on a safe and regular basis can increase the metabolic rate by about 16%.
Excerpted from “Soberish: The Science Based Guide to Taking Your Power Back from Alcohol” by Kayla Lyons (Watkins Publishing, 2023). Reprinted with permission from Watkins Publishing.