How to feel better, according to the experts

It’s a classic move and a TV trope: the protagonist, fresh out of a fight or bad news, sprinkles his face with cold water to calm himself down. Therapists tell Bustle that while it might sound odd, the splash-water technique is a reliable tip when you need to feel better, stat. It’s called the mammalian diving reaction, and even if you’re miles from a pool or the ocean, you can replicate it with your average bathroom sink. No need to go all Leo Creation and fully clothed soak in a tub, however.

“Soaking your face in cold water is a technique for dealing with intense emotional arousal,” Liz Kelly LICSW, therapist at the Talkspace mental health platform, told Bustle. That’s why diving your head under the waves at the beach makes it all a bit lettered: the diving reflex triggers a multitude of soothing responses throughout the body, calming the nervous system. She says it’s often used in dialectical behavior therapy, a kind of talk therapy used to help people calm really intense emotions. If you’re looking for ways to feel better and can’t book a spa weekend in Napa right now, this could be your ticket to feeling more relaxed.

Why putting your face in cold water makes you feel better

Kelly explains that the diving reflex is the body’s physiological response to immersion in cold water. “When people experience the diving reflex, their parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s ‘rest and digest’ mode, is triggered,” she says. “Your heart rate slows down and you feel calmer. It’s the body’s attempt to make sure you survive underwater by conserving oxygen and slowing your heart rate. It also constricts the vessels in your skin, drawing blood to your internal organs. Once your nervous system slows down, Kelly says, you are no longer in “fight or flight” mode and can look at your situation from a more relaxed perspective. It’s a good way to calm down in a pinch.

Soaking your face in cold water also works because of the shock of the temperature change, therapist Meaghan Rice PsyD LPC, also a Talkspace practitioner, told Bustle. “It’s one of my favorite tactics to get away from the rabbit hole,” she says. It’s one of a range of therapeutic techniques known as TIPP – temperature, intense exercise, rhythmic breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation – that can help people in times of distress or intense emotion.

If you’re wondering about the right temperature to make you feel better, the colder the water the better, explains Rice. “When we focus on the change in temperature – the heat turning into freezing cold – it puts us in the moment,” she says. Like many mindfulness techniques, the diving reflex anchors you in the here and now by giving your body a harmless little shock.

The effect may seem subtle, but it is used to help people in life threatening situations. A 2017 study published in American Journal of Physiology on people who had lost a lot of blood and triggered the mammalian diving reflex helped raise patients’ blood pressure as the body sent blood to the heart, thinking it was underwater.

The best way to calm yourself down with cold water

“To make the diving reflex work for you, fill a bowl or sink with ice water,” says Kelly. “Take a deep breath, hold your breath, and submerge your entire face in cold water until your eyes and cheekbones are submerged. Once you feel your heart rate decreasing, pull back. She recommends that if you have any health or heart problems you see your doctor before trying it.

The experience can also be a bit uncomfortable, so don’t force yourself too much. “There’s no doubt that woke me up (for sure!),” Melodi Erdogan wrote for Bustle after trying it on to refresh her skin and close her pores. “But I wouldn’t recommend it for everyday.” It can help you feel better in low doses or in response to stressful emotions, and not as part of your morning routine.

Still not calm your mind? Rice suggests consciously trying to let go of ruminating, worrying, and stressful thoughts. “The past has come and gone, the future is yet to come. So the only thing we can really maneuver successfully is here and now, ”she says. “Put that cold water on your face and dive in!” “


Liz Kelly LICSW

Meaghan Rice PsyD LPC

Cited studies:

Johnson, BD, Sackett, JR, Sarker, S., & Schlader, ZJ (2017). Cooling the face increases blood pressure during central hypovolemia. American Journal of Physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology, 313(5), R594 – R600.

Panneton, WM and Gan, Q. (2020). The response of diving in mammals: advances in its neural control. Frontiers in neuroscience, 14, 524.

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