Ever had a moment where you feel like your brain is in “crisis mode”. The moment when you are trying to figure out how to calm yourself down, but none of your normal coping mechanisms are working. In fact, you may not be able to think logically at all. What do you do then? According to science, there’s hope!
Scientists have long been aware that aquatic mammals such as whales, dolphins, and seals, can override basic homeostatic reflexes. These reflexes keep an organism in optimal functioning in order to be able to survive for long periods of time under water. However, it wasn’t until much later that scientists realized cold water has the same preservation effect on humans. Further research conducted showed that water triggers an immediate decrease in heart rate. Scientists dubbed this the mammalian diving response, or more commonly known as the “diver’s reflex”.
If you have ever felt the moments of panic described above, these feelings are often accompanied by a pounding heart, increased sweating, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and more. These symptoms are coming as a result of your nervous system, an involuntary and reflexive mechanism that helps to keep us alive, is stuck on hyper-alert and as a result has kicked you out of your comfort zone. When you are having that anxiety, it activates the sympathetic nervous system.
Coupled with the sympathetic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as: the “rest and digest”, “feed and breed”, or the “tend and befriend” system. These names came to fruition because the parasympathetic nervous system dampens sympathetic responses and keeps the body in a restorative and resting state.
Scientists continued conducting further research and studies to better understand what happens during the diver’s reflex. Studies have shown us that the diver’s reflex occurs from signals sent by the trigeminal nerves in the face. When cold water hits the face, a message is sent to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system, connects the base of the brain to the rest of the body and regulates the heart rate and breathing, among other essential functions. Thus, by activating the diver’s reflex, you are able to reset a hyper-aroused nervous system.
When activating the diver’s reflex, your heart rate significantly decreases and an increase in peripheral vascular resistance occurs, leading to a redistribution of blood flow. If you have a heart disorder, low heart rate due to medication, eating disorders, or other medical problems, you should consult with your medical doctor before trying this for yourself.
Now if you are reading this and thinking, “This is great”, followed by “Where the heck am I going to find a place to go diving every time I feel panicked?” I have good news for you! There is a simple, accessible, and quick way to trick your body into releasing your diver’s reflex.
First, you want to find a large bowl, or you can even use your sink. Next, fill it with icy water, the water must be under 50 degrees in order for this procedure to work. However, in my experience, I have found that icy water works best! Next, while holding your breath, plunge your face into the water for 30 seconds. Take your head out of the water and repeat the dunking process again. However, if this isn’t doable or you are not comfortable underwater, there are a few alternative ways to stimulate the same response.
Alternative dive reflex exercises can include: filling a ziplock bag with ice, using a cold towel or frozen vegetables, splashing cold water on your face, rubbing cold water on your wrists, taking a cold shower, and swimming.
Human beings are hardwired for self-preservation through our nervous system. When this system thinks we’re in danger, it kicks into gear to help us survive. But sometimes our body’s physiological “gas pedal” gets stuck against the floor, and we find our brains “stalling”, growing more anxious and irritable. However, by intervening with the diver’s reflex, you will be able to return to a resting state – allowing you to feel cooler both physically and emotionally.