Ice baths, Wim Hof and PTSD
Swimming has always been a popular sport in Britain, but in the last 18 months the hobby of ‘Wild swimming’ has been rediscovered – and people are really feeling the benefits of this (usually) chillier alternative!
We’ve written about the benefits of wild swimming on our blog before – it’s a great way for easing PTSD symptoms. Studies have shown beneficial physiological, psychological, and endocrine responses in your brain as a result. It also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol (typically out of ‘normal’ ranges in people with PTSD) and it also normalises the production of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that is commonly underactive in people with depression and PTSD).
This article looks at how you can get the same benefits of cold water at home, and why the addition of meditation and breath work can drastically reduce PTSD symptoms in some people.
The Vagus Nerve and your Autonomic Nervous System
Author of The Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges, describes the vagus nerve as “the longest in our body; wandering from the brain stem through various organs including the pharynx, larynx, esophagus, nerves of the heart, stomach, pancreas and liver. It also carries out the reverse mission: that is, it receives signals from the internal organs and sends them to the brain to be processed. Its primary job is to mediate the autonomic nervous system or ANS.”
The ANS is made up of two opposite pathways that constantly send information to the brain: Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Problems can occur when people experience a trauma, and develop PTSD in that their vagus nerve gets ‘out of sync’ – so it doesn’t respond to stress as it normally would. Disrupting the vagus nerve and the ANS pathways means they can’t perform their normal functions, and can cause many of the PTSD symptoms we see:
- Activation of the sympathetic nervous system drives hyperarousal symptoms.It helps the body to mobilize into ‘fight or fight.’ Elevates heart and respiratory activity, mobilizes blood to muscle tissue, suppresses non-essential systems, and inhibits frontal lobe functioning. The emotions of fear, terror and panic may come to the surface. The core beliefs driven by the sympathetic activation have to do with safety: “I am not safe.” The stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol are heavily implicated in the fight or flight response.
- Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system drives hypoarousal symptoms. It helps the body to ‘rest and digest.’ It conserves energy as it slows the heart rate and relaxes muscles. These functions include shaking and trembling, rebound gastro-intestinal activity, and numbing. The emotions of submit, shame, disgust, despair, and guilt may come to the surface. The core beliefs driven by the parasympathetic nervous system have to do with submission: “I am worthless, helpless, hopeless.”
- Disrupts the function of the gut — controlling stomach acidity and digestive juice secretion.
- Disrupts the function of the heart — controlling the heart rate and blood pressure.
- Disrupts the function of liver and pancreas — helping control blood glucose balance.
- Disrupts the function of gallbladder — releasing bile, which helps eliminate toxins and breaks down fat.
So, it’s clear that calming the vagus nerve, and getting it back into full function will help reduce the stress responses across your whole body and mind.
So how do you calm the vagus nerve?
There are a variety of ways to calm the vagus nerve including chanting, repeating a mantra, yoga, and also meditation, but ice baths and cold plunges are a simple, fun and very effective way to reduce the stress responses in the body – exactly what’s needed for someone with PTSD!
Ice baths, or even just splashing cold water on your face waken up the vagus nerve and kicks it into action. The cold exposure also “puts a brake on sympathetic system activation by raising tolerable stress limits (and, by default, delaying the release of stress chemicals) and consciously controls arousal – that is, recognising threat and not giving into fear or terror. Learning how to “just be” during the experience has the result of expanding the window of tolerance – that is, when stressors come into your life you can see them for what they are: not life threatening.”
Taking a series of deep, conscious, ‘belly’ breaths interspersed with breath retention can settle the vagus nerve and “promotes the dominance of the parasympathetic system, which can help you bring your body back to a calm state of safety”.
To deal with the levels of cold you’re experiencing, many people find it useful to focus on the moment – to an almost meditative level. Meditation allows you to learn how to control the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems more skillfully and has been shown to “strengthen the left prefrontal cortex, allowing it to more effectively control amygdala activity, the main fear-processing centre of the brain. An overactive amygdala has been associated with conditions such as PTSD”
The Dutch ‘ice guru’, Wim Hof has even created the ‘Wim Hof Method’ which combines these key parts of cold, conscious breathing and meditation to create an easy to follow technique.
The Wim Hof Method
The Wim Hof Method “has been compared with Tummo (inner heat) meditation and Pranayama (yogic breathing). Yet it is something else entirely. While Wim has studied yoga and meditation for many years, this technique primordially comes from what he terms “cold hard nature.” By subjecting himself to the bitter conditions of nature, he learned to withstand the extreme forces of cold, heat and fear.
There are three components of the WHM: breath, cold exposure and meditation.
- The first part is a breathing exercise which can be likened to controlled hyperventilation. This is, of course, an oxymoron. Hyperventilation is something which happens involuntarily. But just imagine the breathing part, without any of stress triggers that normally cause hyperventilation. The breathing exercise involves taking air into the gut (then moving it to the chest and brain) and releasing the breath (80% only). It can be invigorating, with some people claiming to feel light-headed or on a high. Countering the breathing exercise is breath retention (hypoventilation), which is encouraged after 30 inhales/exhales for as long as it takes for the brain stem to kick in (forced inhale).
- The second part of the method is cold exposure. It begins with cold showers: immersing the feet and then follow with legs, stomach, shoulders, neck and back and finally the head. An initial shock, shivering and hyperventilation is normal. The trick is to remain calm and breathe through it. After a few weeks, WHM followers up the ante to an ice bath or stream/lake immersion (10-12 degrees and an immersion time of 10 minutes). [Note: If you don’t feel cold showers or immersion is for you, try placing a cold towel or splash cold water on your face. This activates the ‘dive reflex.’]
- The third part of the method is training of the mind / meditation. Both cold exposure and conscious breathing require patience and dedication. Through focus and determination, you can master your own body and mind, Hof says. “Fear does not go away by itself. You must confront your fear, mold it, then learn to control it in its own irrational reality. Every human being has the power to do just that. To go deep within and confront your inner being is a powerful act. Going deep and developing the will power is the only way.”
Of course – you don’t have the following the Wim Hof method to ease your PTSD symptoms – a dip in the chilly sea, splashing cold water on your face or an icy blast at the end of your morning shower can be enough to help balance the vagus nerve.
Wim Hof Method and PTSD
Justin Faraday, who has PTSD as a result of sexual abuse, discovered cold water therapy through Wim Hof and says it helped ‘heal his broken brain’.
“I’d throw myself into the chilly morning waters and splash around until I figured out how to control my breathing. I started to notice how much better I felt on the days that I swam. My brain felt alive and in the moment. I felt calmer, a feeling that would last from my 9 am swim until finishing work late at night. My memory started getting better too, probably because it was so much easier to focus. I felt emboldened to speak my mind in situations where I would typically feel stifled. I started researching to see if anyone else had similar experiences with the cold. Then I discovered a man named Wim Hof.
Hof has proven that the human brain is capable of consciously controlling aspects of the autonomic nervous system, which was previously thought to be impossible. His escapades have literally forced scholars to rewrite textbooks on the topic. Hof claims that he has helped students overcome depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even bipolar disorder.”
Sam Murray, a former Royal Marine Commando with PTSD, also wasn’t so sure at first, but found the cold water and breathwork to be a ‘life changing combination’. “At first when I came across Wim Hof and breath work I was extremely sceptical. My ego was so entrenched in ‘Sam the former Royal Marine’ and I thought it was way too ‘out there’. Regardless, a part of my consciousness told me to try it. As soon as I did my first session it was like every cell in my body woke up. It required pushing myself to extreme lengths in freezing conditions and nearly getting hypothermia, but nothing has made me feel so alive and ready for life. I’ve pretty much breathed and got into cold water everyday since the first day I tried it in Barcelona in 2019. I immediately began utilising his techniques for my own mental and physical well-being and later introduced other veterans and people who worked in the police and blue light services to them. “
The more you do it, the more it helps
Multiple studies have shown that the repeated exposure to cold water can positively affect the physiological markers of stress: both cortisol release and subjective stress perception were reduced upon repeated exposure.
Go at your own pace
Although some people with PTSD experience a reduction in their symptoms, for others, cold exposure can make symptoms worse – so please go at your own pace.
PLEASE NOTE: If you have a heart condition, asthma or any other condition that may be affected, seek advice from your GP before attempting cold water plunges.
UPDATE: The Ice Bath Challenge
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
- Hacking trauma with the Wim Hof Method
- Trauma, Cold Water and Breathwork: Veteran Sam Murray’s Journey from Healing to Coaching
- Why wild swimming is Britain's new craze
- Change in salivary physiological stress markers by spa bathing
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