Cool water and calm are best friends. We are mostly made of water. Water constitutes around sixty per cent of our bodies[i]. We count aquatic mammals like seals and whales among our evolutionary ancestors. Renewing that basic relationship with water can help us find calm.
Wim Hof and Ice Baths
Last year I went to a Wim Hof method workshop. Wim is a remarkable Dutchman who has pioneered ways to become “happy, strong and healthy” using breathing exercises and cold water immersion[ii]. Part of the workshop involved immersion in a tub of ice water. This was done outdoors in December. To my amazement, I found the experience both exhilarating and strangely calming.
The Autonomic Nervous System
Now I know what you are thinking. The very idea of being immersed in icy water is awful. It’s difficult to imagine anything less calming. And yes, immersion in cold water does cause a big initial “fight or flight” response. If you have ever been swimming outdoors in a cool lake or ocean, you will recall that gasp and the feeling of your heart racing when your shoulders dip under the water. The nervous system responds automatically to the challenge of this chilly environment by increasing your heart rate and putting you on full alert. You may feel excited and exhilarated.
If you stay in the water another effect soon starts to kick in. You begin to feel calmer. This is partly because you are relaxing into this new environment, and partly due to the dive reflex.
The Dive Reflex
The dive reflex goes right back to those aquatic mammalian ancestors. We humans have a built-in natural response to immersion in cool water. It works best when the face and nostrils get wet, and when we hold our breath underwater. Your body knows it needs to preserve oxygen if it is underwater, so the dive reflex takes over. Your heart rate slows down, and the calming parasympathetic side of the nervous system is activated. Your blood is redirected to your important organs to help keep you alive underwater[iii].
Anxiety and Panic Attacks
The dive reflex is why splashing your face with cool water or even immersing your face in a bowl of water can be a very effective way to cope with panic attacks and anxiety. Water around the nostrils and holding your breath underwater will slow down your heart rate. This can be very helpful if you are feeling anxious and you are struggling to control your emotions[iv].
Heart Rate Variability and Long Term Stress
If we have long term stress, maybe due to a tough job or a difficult family situation, we can sometimes get stuck in a state of constant anxiety. Our ability healthily to handle stress is damaged.
For our long term health and wellbeing, we need balance between the two sides of the nervous system. This can be measured as heart rate variability. The amount of time between each heartbeat should not always be exactly the same. Having some variation in the time between beats is a healthy sign that our autonomic nervous system can switch readily between the sympathetic and parasympathetic modes. Low heart rate variability has been associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes[v].
When I worked as a midwife we kept a close eye on the heart rate variability of babies during more complex births. If the heart rate variability was low, that meant the baby was becoming too stressed by the birth process and might need some help to be born more quickly.
Raising Your Heart Rate and Slowing it Down Again
All this means that activities that first raise your heart rate and then slow it down again are good for you. They tend to help your nervous system get used to switching between the excited and calm states. Cold water immersion does this particularly well. Any type of challenging exercise followed by relaxation is good too. This is one of the reasons why lying down for relaxation at the end of a Yoga class is so important.
Taking a cooler shower than usual is a safe and accessible way to explore cool water and calm. Since the Wim Hof workshop, I now regularly turn down the temperature at the end of my shower. It makes me feel good at the start of my day.
You can do all your washing and stuff at your normal warm shower temperature, and then turn the dial down at the end. You can turn it down a little bit or a lot. It’s up to you. The cold water will make you gasp at first, but then you can let yourself relax into it. Splashing it on your face will help you calm down. Afterwards you feel fantastic. Why not give it a try?
Outdoor Swimming, Paddling and Playfulness
I am a big fan of outdoor swimming. Being around lakes and the sea brings us closer to nature and helps us feel good. Paddling in shallow waves is a great way to release your inner child and have fun. Being around natural water is relaxing.
Of course water can be dangerous. Don’t try cold water immersion if you have any heart problems at all. Never swim alone. If you want to try open water swimming, the safest way is to join a group or find a qualified instructor. Be very careful about any outdoor body of water. The excellent Outdoor Swimming Society has lots of great information about safety on their website. Please have a read if you are thinking about swimming outside. https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/category/survive/getting-started/
Today’s Calming Activity – Take a Cool Shower
Today’s challenge is to try turning down your shower at the end. Expect to gasp a little. Allow yourself to breathe and experience. See how you feel afterwards.
If you have the opportunity, you might like to take a paddle or a little dip in some water outdoors. Be sure to stay safe. Have fun.
Thanks for reading this blog post. I am writing a series of 31 blogs every day this August. I plan to publish them later in the year as a book entitled, ‘Finding Your Calm Space – 31 Ways to Find Calm in a Crazy World’.
I’m Karen. I am a Yoga teacher, Reflexologist and busy mum of seven. I live with my family in Billericay, Essex, UK. In the past I have worked as a Midwife, Health Visitor, Baby Signing teacher and Tax Inspector. I love getting outdoors, swimming in the sea, walking and writing. Helping people relax is one of the things I do best.
You can learn more about my Yoga classes and Reflexology at my website www.thecalmspace.co.uk