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Why Rapidly Changing Your Body Temperature Can Help in an Emotional Crisis

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Few things are as dysregulating as a mental health crisis — your physical or emotional pain may be so intense it feels like you won’t survive. You may have the urge to act out to manage the intensity, maybe with self-harm or blowing up at someone you love, and the worst part is you can’t think clearly enough to try something different.

When you’re in an emotional crisis, the rational, thinking part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) is largely offline. You’re reacting from the emotional part of your brain (the limbic system, including the amygdala), which channels emotion through your body. When you’re in an emotional crisis, one effective way to bring yourself back into a calmer state of mind is by quickly changing your body temperature.

Why Does Changing Your Body Temperature Help?

Emotions happen in your body, so if you can calm your body, you can reduce the intensity of your emotions too. Rapidly changing your body temperature, for example, activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system down-regulates the fight-flight-freeze-fawn stress response to bring your body back to a resting state. The calming impact of rapid body temperature changes was first observed in scuba divers (and other mammals).

The rapid submersion into cold water while holding their breath activated an automatic survival instinct and slowed a diver’s heart rate to conserve energy and oxygen. It didn’t take long for mental health professionals to notice that clients in crisis could make use of the same response by submerging their face into a bowl of cold water while holding their breath. If you’re a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) disciple, you’ll recognize this as the T in the TIP distress tolerance skill for when you’re overwhelmed.

“When we first start teaching the TIP skills, people find it odd that we’re saying put your face in ice water, but the reality is that when people do it, they realize it’s incredibly effective,” Pam Christy, Psy.D., HSPP, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based DBT therapist, told The Mighty. “It quickly drops your blood pressure, which drops the emotional intensity.”

For many people, using cold water to rapidly change your body temperature works fast, sometimes in just seconds, which is crucial when you’re facing a major mental health crisis. If you’re not keen on dunking your head in a bowl of water or it’s not an option when you’re at work or school, there are many other ways to use cold such as cooling your face with a cold cloth or ice pack or holding ice cubes.

Here’s what some of The Mighty’s community members shared about how cold helps them in crisis:

When I dissociate I stick my fingers in a cup of ice or run them under cold water. It helps me come back and regulates me. If I’m driving and I start to dissociate I turn the air on which also helps just as much. Using cold temperature is the only proven technique I’ve found that helps with my own dissociation. — Megan M.G.

Instead of holding ice which can be problematic I learned to freeze oranges and hold those. I can hold them longer and can try to squeeze them which helps with more intense anxiety or panic attacks and it doesn’t make a mess since the fruit is frozen. — MK Knight

My anxiety manifests as HEAT in my body. I use ice packs on my stomach, eat ice cubes, and hold ice in my hands. This paired with deep breathing and a walk snaps me out of physical anxiety within minutes. — Jen W. L.

What About Hot Temperature Changes?

Though cold water has been historically associated with temperature regulation for emotion, some people find that rapid hot or warm temperature changes are more effective. For example, hotter temperatures usually increase your heart rate, which is typically lower if you’re facing depression or overwhelming sadness. A rapid heart rate increase through a hot shower might help balance your emotions.

Warmth, through hot showers and baths, in particular, relaxes tension in your muscles. Muscle relaxation helps physically de-stress your body, which may release some of your emotional stress too. Quickly heating up your body can also cause a secondary rapid cooling. You step out of a hot shower into a room that’s much cooler in temperature, and your body temperature and heart rate drop, therefore activating a parasympathetic nervous system response. This is also why a hot shower a couple of hours before bed can help your sleep.

Here’s what The Mighty community had to say about using warmth or heat to rapidly change their body temperature to soothe their emotions:

My depression manifests as cold. So when it gets really bad I take a loooonnngggg HOT (as hot as I can stand) shower. I plug the tub so I end up having a hot tub / sauna/ shower combo. Then I curl up under a fuzzy blanket. — Katheryne M.

If I have a panic attack I will start a shower with cold water and then gradually switch to hot water to calm myself down. The cold water seems to snap me out of it and calm my nerves a bit. Kinda like if you throw water on someone to wake them up. The warm water feels like a hug. — Kortney D.

Ways to Rapidly Change Your Body Temperature

To bring your thinking mind back online, we’ve gathered up other body temperature changing ideas from The Mighty community and across the internet to try when your emotional intensity is screaming at 100. Keep in mind this skill is meant to be fast — you don’t need to stick with an extreme temperature for more than a few seconds or minutes — and it won’t make difficult emotions go away completely. Once you’re out of a crisis, you might still be struggling, but this skill can help clear your mind so you can reach for your next plan of action to feel better.

However, if you want to try this skill, and live with health conditions like migraine, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) or an illness that makes you feel light-headed or faint, a heart condition or weak cardiovascular system, talk to your doctor first. A rapid decrease in heart rate or blood pressure may be dangerous and the hot or cold temperature may cause your other chronic illness symptoms to flare. Remember to keep the temperature in a range that won’t cause physical harm when exposing yourself to very cold or hot.

Cool/Cold Temperature Regulation Ideas

  • Submerge head in a bowl of water
  • Dip your hands in cold water
  • Take a bite out of (or hold) a frozen lemon, lime or orange
  • Take a cold shower or bath
  • Pour cool water on wrists or forearms
  • Place frozen ice pack on your eyes or back of your neck (frozen vegetables work too!)
  • Hold ice cubes (or reusable plastic ice cubes)
  • Suck or chew on ice
  • Blast air conditioning in car or house
  • Stand in front of an open window, fan or air conditioner
  • Open the refrigerator or freezer and stand in front of it
  • Walk outside for a short amount of time on a cold day
  • Splash cold water on your face
  • Put a cold compress or wet cloth on your face
  • Consume a cool glass of water or other cold drink
  • Hold a cup of ice
  • Remove layers of clothing
  • Drink ice water
  • Jump in a swimming pool
  • Eat a frozen ice pop or popsicle 

Hot/Warm Temperature Regulation Ideas

  • Take a hot shower or bath (or jump in a hot tub)
  • Rub hands together gently until they’re warm and place over your eyes
  • Run warm water on your forearms
  • Stand near a heating vent or radiator
  • Curl up under a blanket (or wear warm clothing)
  • Drink a cup of hot tea or coffee
  • Use a heating pad or hot water bottle
  • Blast the heat in your car
  • Gently blow warm air on yourself using a hairdryer

Other Things to Try

  • Take an alternating hot and cold (or vice versa) shower
  • Stand, bend over and hold your breath

What are some ways you use temperature to regulate your mental health? Let us know in the comments!

Header image via Andranik Hakobyan/Getty Images

Originally published: February 3, 2020
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