The “Dive Reflex” Tip My Therapist Taught Me to Soothe Anxiety in Seconds

published May 8, 2023
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Person splashing water on face
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While preparing for a breakup that had me in near-constant anxiety for months, I worked with my therapist on building a repertoire of coping skills. I had some in mind — watching funny videos, talking to friends, bubble baths — but I knew I needed one that would calm my body down, not just my mind. When you’re shaking and hyperventilating, distractions and calming words don’t always cut it.

One of the most helpful tips she gave was to dunk my face in a bowl of ice water and hold it there for 30 seconds, if I could manage it. This is a dialectical behavior therapy skill under the acronym TIPP, which stands for (change your) temperature, intense (exercise), paced (breathing), and progressive (muscle relaxation). These techniques are especially helpful when you feel unable to regulate your emotions as they basically encourage your body to, well, chill out. I typically use them when I’m tempted to engage in unhealthy coping skills, am on the verge of a panic attack, or feel utterly overwhelmed by sadness or anxiety that even “Modern Family” can’t fix.

As I dunked my face repeatedly in the days after the breakup, I joked to my mom that the sensation of freezing water gave my brain no room to be stressed about anything else. But a therapist can explain the science better.

“Inherently, it is a vital survival reflex that helps to prevent death through the redirection of oxygen to both the heart and the brain when cold water wets the face and nose,” says Teri Wilder, a licensed mental health counselor with Thriveworks in Lafayette, Indiana, who specializes in anxiety, coping skills, stress, and depression. “This sends a message that the heart needs to slow down, the breathing needs to change, and [it] reduces blood pressure by redirecting blood from the arms and legs to prioritize the vital organs first.” In short, it calms down parts of your body that may speed up when you feel anxious or emotionally activated, from your heartbeat to your blood pressure.

She goes on to explain that once your face is submerged in the cold water, nerves in your face are stimulated, sending a message to your vagus nerve. This tells the parasympathetic nervous system to “kick into gear,” which entails calming your body so it can relax and prepare to conserve energy.

This skill sets off the “dive reflex,” or the way your nervous system slows down when you’re underwater. To activate the dive reflex, ensure your eyes and cheekbones are fully submerged, according to Wilder, as that’s where your vagus nerve is. She suggests staying there for 30 seconds (although a little less has also worked for me). 

“You can repeat a second time if you feel the need, but take a break to breathe in between, ensuring that you’re breathing in slowly through your nose [before submerging it], holding it for a few seconds, then breathing out slowly through your mouth, and give yourself a second to process,” she adds.

The temperature of the water matters, by the way. Wilder says it must be 50 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to work, so use a cooking thermometer or just do the best you can. Personally, I find water with a bunch of ice cubes most helpful. If you don’t have access to a bowl (or don’t want to show off this trick in front of your coworkers), don’t worry — you have other options. Wilder says holding your breath while applying icy cold gel masks, ice packs, frozen vegetable bags, cold towels, splashed cold water from the sink, cold showers, swims, and cold water on your wrist will also work. Whenever you use frozen items, she notes to only hold them for six to eight seconds at a time to avoid hurting your skin.

If you can use a bowl (or sink) full of ice water, even better — especially if you can do it in a “worry room.” I’ve used ice packs before, and they didn’t work nearly as well. Lastly, Wilder warns against using this technique if you have a heart condition or eating disorder, especially anorexia nervosa. For these individuals, a slowed heart rate and reduced blood pressure can be dangerous.

To be clear, this skill feels as awful as you think it would in the moment, so I only utilize it when I absolutely need to. However, with how quickly it works, it’s worth it to me. After a few dunks, my mind feels clear, my body is calm, and my emotions have settled. Sometimes, I even feel a little … hopeful? The benefits are arguably unmatched, given it can bring me from my worst to (at least) neutral in minutes or less.

With the help of this skill, experiencing “big emotions” doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. I allow myself to feel my feelings fully because I know I have this cold-water technique to get me through.