Amid the discerning consumers of post-pandemic wellness culture– in which the prospects for future thriving look increasingly like things we used to do in the past— ice baths and cold plunges are having a pop culture renaissance.
I first heard about cold plunging almost ten years ago, when the talking heads in the New York City wellness spaces that I often frequented offhandedly recommended cold therapy as a way to improve focus.
Specifically, I remember learning that a 30-second cold shower in the morning can jolt you into awakeness better than a cup of coffee (and obviously it would!)– but there was real clinical evidence emerging back then to suggest not only that this was the case, but that cold therapy can also have an enormous slew of benefits for mental health, sleep, metabolism, aging, and more.
In the years since this initial anecdote, that body of scientific evidence has blossomed into a full-on underground cold plunge culture that is now becoming mainstream.
During the pandemic, Wim Hof, also known as ‘The Iceman’, became the star of a wildly successful and widely-watched Vice documentary that made him– and by extension, the Wim Hof Method for cold plunging– a household phenomenon.
Today, Hof leads semi-naked hiking retreats up snowy mountains in Poland for people to experience his methodology in action– but more importantly, there’s all this crazy research emerging about how his once-regarded-as-wonky “mind over matter” breathing techniques can be applied to clinical contexts to prevent disease and boost immunity. This, of course, is to say nothing of the well-documented applications of cold plunging in the realm of mental health.
There are also more lighthearted examples of cold plunging coming to the fore of popular culture, as well.
Harry Styles, more recently, has garnered widespread media attention for doing ice baths throughout his highly anticipated Love on Tour circuit. (The artist claims the cold water helps him manage the stress and mental load of touring.) Podcaster/Silicon Valley philanthropist Tim Ferriss, meanwhile, famously takes a cold plunge every day to help with the management of his notably public battle with depression— and he’s invested a ton of money into start-ups in the field.
There’s also a vanity aspect, too: apparently, model Bella Hadid cold plunges her face into a bowl of ice water to decrease puffiness and dark circles under the eyes.
Acolytes and even entry-level cold plunge enthusiasts, moreover, seem to be positively obsessed with getting into cold water, citing numerous benefits that Western medicine is just now beginning to measure, codify, and understand.
But what, exactly, is cold therapy? And how did the simple act of plunging into cold water become such a revolutionary act?
Ice Ice Baby: What Is Cold Therapy?
Basically, cold therapy is anything that involves systematically “shocking” or “surprising” your body with cold water in any form– whether it’s a cold swim, a cold shower, or even just putting a frozen ice pack on the back of your neck while breathing steadily. All of these rituals are very, very good for your body and mind.
Early research suggests that cold therapy can be as effective as drugs at calming depressive symptoms, for example. So effective, in fact, that cold plunges can be used as a bridge to get people off of medication. Plus, it’s way less expensive than therapy.
Cold plunging, moreover, also boasts an incredible capacity to improve metabolism and the quality of deep sleep, especially when used in conjunction with other mind-body practices.
There are all kinds of benefits for metabolism, mood, and athletic recovery, too. Plunging into cold water daily or weekly helps convert dangerous “white fat” to protective “brown fat”, which is important because much of our body fat turns into white fat as we age.
According to Stanford neuroscientist and researcher Andrew D. Huberman, Ph.D., “cold exposure can be used for boosting metabolism/fat loss or for resilience training. Shivering is more associated with increases in metabolism than it is with resilience training, where you actively resist shivering” because the process of brown fat thermogenesis that results from shivering increases the body’s metabolic rate.
By this logic, if you’re interested in the metabolic benefits of deliberate cold exposure, you don’t need to go as cold as an ice bath– you just need to put your body in water that’s cold enough to induce a shiver response. Once you get a shiver, you’re experiencing the metabolic benefits. (We’ll get more into the merits of specific temperature ranges, below.)
Anecdotally, cold plunging seems to also boost mental well-being over time through conditioned euphoric response. (Think of how spontaneously and joyously kids shriek when they jump into cold water. Kids are naturally more in touch with their bodies because they have less impulse control, and they’re so in touch with their dopamine response that they often start laughing in cold water. Deliberate cold exposure jolts your body and mind back into a similarly playful state, even in old age.)
Ultimately, many aspects of life seem to benefit from cold plunging, and we’re only now just beginning as a culture to unpack the science of why.
Part of the reason why cold plunging might be having such a zeitgeist moment is that it’s not new or complicated at all.
Cold-plunging is an age-old tradition in so many cultures that the specific origins are hard to pin-point beyond the fact that the practice often stems from places with brutally cold winters.
In Scandinavia, the practice of alternating hot sauna sessions with cold plunges into icy bodies of water is a time-honored, almost religiously beloved health practice, as it is in many other global regions and cold-weather countries, from Iceland to Russia and beyond.
Those who cold plunge in these traditional contexts claim that cold plunging is part of any necessary overall wellness routine. Ultimately, people talk about the benefits of cold plunging with the same humility and enthusiasm as dedicated yogis or people who have had spiritual awakenings.
Like warm bathing, which is considered to be a medicinal healing practice in almost every culture, cold baths have the added effect of boosting the immune system for the opposite reason: by shocking the whole system into maximum efficiency.
This also has huge benefits for metabolism because the body has to generate energy (e.g. burn more calories) to stay warm. Plus, the suddenness of cold plunging grounds you almost immediately in the present moment, which is very good for your mind. When your body is screaming at you to stay calm and keep breathing, a certain blissful clarity arises. Useless thoughts spin away.
In that way, cold plunging is sort of anti-Internet. It’s the ultimate immersive, analog experience that you can only have in the flesh.
Really, what you’re doing when you cold plunge is re-wiring your neural pathways to reap the benefit of doing something hard, consistently. Deliberate cold exposure helps you build mental resiliency in a safe context that you can control.
The difference between this practice and actual stress is that cold plunging induces intentional low-grade stress, also known as hormetic stress, which is generally considered “good” stress.
Wim Hof, ultimately, is an extreme evangelist of this kind of stress– though he pushes the boundaries of what many clinicians would consider “safe”. He currently holds 26 world records, including one for running up frozen Mount Everest in nothing more than a pair of shorts.
^ Obviously, not everyone is going to do that. The overwhelming majority of us wouldn’t even deign to try!
But, the philosophy undergirding Hof’s methods is the same as what happens in a simple cold plunge: when we control our breath in this hypothetical, freaked-out state of our nervous system, our mind and body learn resilience on a deep level. Our body learns to calmly endure discomfort, almost immediately.
A cold plunge is an exercise designed to bring this skill into our body. It’s also great for improving blood flow and lymphatic movement, which have the ancillary benefits of increasing metabolic rate and reducing inflammation (which is why everyone from professional athletes to my high school track team has been known to take ice baths).
Remember To Breath; Breathing Is Key
The crux of these benefits stems not only from the cold exposure but from the act of controlling one’s breathing during cold exposure. You also have to remember to breathe; breathing is key.
Slow, steady breathing during cold exposure teaches our nervous system that “everything is okay, despite how you might feel right now”.
Learning to curb that bodily impulse to stress in a somatic way has immeasurable benefits for mental health, too. If you can teach your body how to default to feeling okay even when set against bodily evidence to the contrary, can this improve mental well-being over time?
The answer, according to emerging neuroscientific research, is yes. Cold water immersion increases production of mood-boosting hormones like noradrenaline and dopamine, as well as neurotransmitters and feel-good endorphins.
Because of this, new research suggests, cold therapy could soon be recommended as a treatment for the symptoms of depression and anxiety. (And not in a creepy way like how they used to use cold baths in cinematic depictions of mental hospitals.)
Ritualizing Mundane Challenges
There’s an added benefit to cold plunging consistently, as well, especially if you’re looking to build your body’s capacity for resilience.
Like any skill, your body gets better at it over time. Many people do cold plunges weekly, and some athletes do them daily for recovery. Still, any cold exposure, even a one-off cold plunge here and there– is enough to reap these benefits. Many people experience a serenely calm feeling after their very first plunge.
You can also try integrating cold plunging with sauna in a so-called “bath cycle”– one of my favorite spa-like experiences.
When doing a bath circuit at a dedicated facility, like Scandinave Spa in Vieux Montreal or Aire Ancient Baths, which now has locations in NYC and Chicago, you rotate between short, spunky cold plunges and longer sits in the sauna. The idea here is that the contrast between hot and cold exposure can reinforce the pattern and accelerate the body’s learning.
Alternating hot and cold therapy, moreover, is something that you can approximate by switching between hot and cold showers in the same bathing session. This has a calming effect on the body and can lead to deeper, more restorative sleep.
Best of all, the benefits here can extend to any season– particularly in winter, when seasonal depression strikes, and particularly if swimming in cold water, though plunging indoors can likely elicit similar benefits.
And, anyone can do it– unless you have heart issues or are pregnant. (Though anecdotally, pregnant women in Sweden have done it historically, but this is a highly specific cultural thing. Cold water also increases the risk of heart arrhythmias in vulnerable populations, usually as a response to the initial cold water shock.)
The Big Chill
So what is the ideal temperature range you want to hit when doing a cold plunge? How cold is “cold”?
Apparently, even if the water is just in the low 50s– say, 53 degrees Fahrenheit or 12 degrees Celsius– you get a notable benefit.
Most people start cold plunging in the 55-60 degree F range, as it’s important not to go to an extreme with it.
Experts generally advise listening to your body. Getting into a tub full of 39-degree F water for 20 minutes the first time is probably not a good idea. Ideally, try sitting in water that’s just 60 degrees or less, as there is enough data to show the benefits of this temperature.
And yes, you can cold plunge for too long; hypothermia tends to set in after 30 minutes in freezing water. It’s best to avoid getting this cold for this long when you’re cold plunging, even if you’re a seasoned pro.
In terms of how long to experience the cold, try staying in cold water for 20 to 30 breaths to start. (Otherwise, if in a bathtub or a cold body of water, don’t stay longer than 10 minutes.)
^ This is a great way to ingratiate the body to the idea of cold plunging, but ultimately, you can play around with it.
You could also try just dipping your toes into a cold ice bath to start– you don’t necessarily have to jump in to unseasonably cold ocean water. Research suggests that plunging into water neck-deep can offer a whole slew of benefits, but certain parts of the body, like your fingers, might be more sensitive because they have more nerve endings.
Some people even wear scuba gloves or socks to soften this intensity in the extremities– but those are the dedicated few who typically practice cold plunging in frozen lakes. Most people are not that extreme, but studies show that you don’t have to be. You can still reap the benefits of cold therapy with water cold enough to induce a shiver.
Ultimately, here at Grace & Lightness Magazine, we simply advocate for taking a quick cold shower– cold enough that you gasp when the water hits you.
^ There’s enough evidence to suggest that simply doing this while breathing steadily for at least 10 steady breaths can have a huge impact on your mood. (Whenever we do this we feel unexplainably happy and mildly euphoric for the rest of the day, and our sleep is very restorative on the night that follows. This is especially true if you do this during a nighttime, pre-bedtime shower.)
You can take a cold shower at the beginning or end of a warm shower, too. It doesn’t matter the when so much as the how: you just need to make sure you take calm, steady breaths while experiencing the cold water; this is what teaches your brain resiliency in the face of stress.
Ultimately, when you practice staying calm in the face of stress, your body eventually learns how to make this second nature when you encounter other physical or mental stressors in your life. That’s where the magic of this practice really starts to take shape.
Similar to fasting, resiliency and mental toughness is a huge part of the cold plunge process that builds over time. After every cold plunge, many fans of the practice suggest, you simply feel more alive.
The Frozen Are Chosen
In a recent New York Times article titled Cold Plunging with Maine’s ‘Ice Mermaids’, Greta Rybus aptly points out that Mainers “understand that there is a symmetry in living in a place with extremes– that there is no warmth without stretches of cold.”
The practice of cold plunging, moreover, used to be associated with merely the Polar Bear plunge around New Years time in the U.S.– but now people are doing it year-round, incorporating into sauna rituals, etc– and that movement has a time-honored foothold in New England.
“‘These sessions are a direct experience of the body, anchoring me into the present moment,’” one of the so-called “Ice Mermaids” of Maine, Ida Lennestål, told the Times. “It has taught me to sit with the uncomfortable, both the hot and the cold, to breathe through it. To pay attention. It has taught me to listen to my body and hear what it needs. It’s a ritual. Sacred almost. And the bliss when it’s all over lasts for hours.'”
As a result of this kind of trend piece, companies like Odin Ice Baths are marketing special ice bath tubs for people to install in their homes for cold plunging (usually very privileged folks, but still…).
Ultimately, anyone with access to cold water can do an ice bath, though, even if it’s a cold shower or just jumping into a frigid body of water outside. (You don’t need a fancy setup, as appealing as they are. And again, you don’t have to do a full-on Polar Bear plunge into icy water– simply using deeply cold water achieves the same effect.)
Either way, you should never venture into cold water without a supervised group, especially if you are new to the practice of plunging. And never dunk your head in a frozen body of water unless you have experience with cold plunging! There’s always a risk of cold water shock that can increase the risk of drowning. (This is a scary-sounding but necessary disclaimer.)
Going Deep & Taking The Plunge (Literally)
Nevertheless, for many mortals, cold plunging remains a dubious and fraught undertaking. But, as we wrote in our viral piece, 25 Research-Backed Tips for Meaningful Anxiety Relief, even just icing your wrists can help quell the symptoms of a panic attack, as it physically slows down your thoughts.
^ This is because there are nerve endings in our hands and wrists that connect to the part of our brains that make our thoughts swirl. Chilling our hands triggers a reflex in the parasympathetic nervous system that slows down breathing and heart rate. (Naturally, we’re forced to slow down our thoughts; it’s an unconscious reaction.)
You can even put an ice pack on the back of your neck while breathing slowly and deliberately; it’s thought that you can experience some of the same benefits as cold plunging because it triggers a similar response in your brain and body. Being able to control the adrenaline response with your breath has incredible benefits when it comes to strengthening the nervous system and improving the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Ultimately, there’s a lot worth exploring here, in whatever amounts or methods you can. Taking a cold plunge is an extreme act of radical nervous system work, so it might be something to which you need to gradually ingratiate your body.
Of course, there’s no real easy or proper way to start– you might just have to dive in and start with 10 seconds of cold before working your way up to something longer or more systemic. You’ll feel the endorphin rush in your own time, and your body will eventually show you it’s healing, which is a good indicator if it wants more.
And, you can do a cold plunge any time of day– in the morning, after a workout, at night, etc.
Getting to know your bodily reactions in this way is very intimate work and not for the faint of heart. (Seriously: If you have a heart condition or history of stroke, you should check with your doctor before attempting any kind of cold plunge. That advice is universal.)
But other than that, cold plunging can ultimately be a restorative part of any self-care routine. So try it! See how you feel. Take the literal and metaphorical plunge. The effects are mystifying in a world where not much is surprising anymore, and that alone makes cold plunging a worthy subject of wonder. It might be chilly at first– but, as they say: the water’s fine.
Related: 4 Hydrotherapy Bath Recipes for Restoring Mental Wellbeing. (<— For when you want to get back to the warmth. 🙂 )