TikTokers are grabbing for ice to help ward off anxiety attacks, and while this trick won’t cure the anxiety it may help in a pinch.
In one video with 4.6 million views, user @marissalittell recommends dipping your face in a bowl full of ice-cold water to help relieve anxiety. Another video with 1.8 million views, user @authenticmh takes a piece of ice and holds it to the roof of his mouth. In a less messy version, @ruggedcounseling says to put a couple of ice cubes into a bag and hold onto it for 30 seconds. Off TikTok and online, some writers are also recommending using ice to help with anxiety-induced insomnia.
While this icy hack won’t help us completely overcome our anxiety, some mental health professionals say that it could help when the waves of panic come crashing through.
“Sensorial stimulation with cold water can break through dissociative feelings that often accompany anxiety and offer immediate relief from heightened cortisol levels,” Sheri Heller, a New York City — based psychotherapist, told the Huffington Post.
Hanging onto a piece of ice can also be part of a larger tactic to reduce an anxiety attack, clinical psychologist Dr. Jenny Taitz told the Skimm. Changing the temperature is the first step in a dialectical behaviour therapy technique called TIPP, which recommends to respond to an anxiety attack users should change the Temperature, do 60 seconds of Intense exercise like jumping jacks or burpees, Pace breathing for two minutes (Taitz said to breathe in through the nose for four seconds and then out through the mouth for six seconds) and then Progressively relax muscles or focus on releasing one muscle group at a time — like the forehead, tongue, shoulders, etc.
Why does a temperature change help with some anxiety?
While there are a few guesses as to why holding onto ice can help some recover from an anxiety attack, the simplest answer is that an extreme change in temperature can help snap us back to the present.
Grabbing onto a piece of ice can also be thought of as a distress tolerance technique, something that helps getting through an upsetting experience. While there are many different methods of distress tolerance — including radical acceptance, developing self-soothing techniques, and behavioural therapy — ice can help distract from the emotions, giving a temporary reprieve that can be used to re-enter and re-evaluate.
Applying ice to the face or neck may help slow down the heart
Some researchers also believe that applying ice to the face or neck may help activate the vagus nerve, a major nerve in the body that is connected to several different functions including helping the body return to its normal state after a fight or flight reaction.
Previous studies indicates stimulating the vagus nerve with electrodes can cause the heart rate to slow down. This had led some researchers to believe that the vagus nerve can be stimulated through the skin, which, among other things, can help the recovery from stress and anxiety.
In one study from the University of Luxembourg, researchers applied cold- and body-temperature thermo devices to the right side of the neck, cheek and forearms of 61 participants. To make sure they weren’t blending the effects from one location to another, the scientists also varied the order of locations (neck, cheek and forearms in participant 1, cheek, forearm then neck in participant 2, etc.) and if the participants experienced cold or neutral stimulation first. When cold was applied to the neck, the average time between heart beats increased by just over 25 milliseconds/beat, indicating that the heart rate was slowing down.
While these studies are interesting, there’s no large study that shows applying ice to the skin actually stimulates the vagus nerve. More research is needed before we can say exactly why cooling down the face and neck slows down the heart rate.
Too cold for too long can damage your skin
Applying ice directly to the skin is shocking for a reason: the temperature difference can be pretty drastic. Applying ice directly to the skin or keeping the areas too cold for too long can even result in tissue damage.
For this reason, first aid guides recommend wrapping ice or ice packs in a cloth before applying to the skin and only keeping ice on the skin for 10-15 minutes at a time. Once the skin has warmed back up, then it’s safe to reapply.
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