Researchers are studying the mental health benefits of cold water plunges.
Some studies say that cold water submersion or swimming can lead to improved mood or decreases in depression and anxiety, but it’s hard to say whether the benefits come from the cold water or from confounding factors.
To plunge safely, people should be mindful of avoiding extremely low temperatures for long periods of time.
Cold plunges are trending on social media, with content creators touting their benefits for both body and mind. But when it comes to scientific backing, researchers are still looking into whether cold plunges can improve mental health and, if so, why.
So far, studies note connections between cold water swimming—sea swimming—and positive changes in mood. Some small studies also link cold water immersion (sans swimming) to mental health improvements. But confounding variables, including whether the key mood-boosting antidotes are movement, cold water, cold temperatures in general, or a combination thereof, currently make it difficult to deem the cold plunge a mental health treatment.
What can be affirmed, however, is that for some people, engaging in cold water activities provides a mental pick-me-up.
If you have patients who are curious about the trend or who are struggling to find mental relief through other remedies, you may want to educate them on why researchers think cold plunges could elevate mood and on how to engage in the activity safely.
How does cold water impact mental health?
Some small studies have found that cold water may have mental health benefits, including improved mood.
In a study on the mental health impact of cold water swimming, researchers found preliminary support for the practice as a “novel intervention for depression and/or anxiety.” In the study, 53 participants (included in the final analysis) underwent an eight-session sea-swimming course. The participants were assessed for depression and anxiety before and after the course, with a three-month follow-up. From the beginning to the end of the eight sessions, participants demonstrated a decline in anxiety and depression scores. Scores marginally increased during the three-month follow-up period but still hovered below baseline scores.
Next year, researchers will launch the first large randomized control study on cold water swimming as a therapy for anxiety and depression. The study will build on the previously mentioned study and will include more than 400 participants, according to NPR.
In a small study on cold water immersion without swimming, researchers found that the practice led to elevated mood. This study followed 64 healthy undergraduate students, 42 of whom underwent cold-water immersion, and 22 acted as controls. Participants stayed in the water— at about 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13.6 degrees Celsius)—for up to 20 minutes. Afterward, they were assessed on different negative facets of mood, including tension, anger, depression, fatigue, and confusion. The cold water immersion group showed significant reductions in all of these categories. In contrast, the control group showed a significant increase in depression paired with no significant changes in the other categories.
What mental health practitioners say
Jeff Yoo, LMFT, a therapist at Moment of Clarity Mental Health Center, says that cold water plunges might have mental health benefits, such as aiding to “the production of norepinephrine and dopamine, neurotransmitters that enhance mood, focus, and pleasure.”
“I also see that it adds to improving the quality of our sleep patterns, which is one of the areas of mental health that is essential for our well-being,” Yoo says.
Alex Dimitriu, MD, dual board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and Founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, says that some of the benefits of cold plunges could be the body’s demonstration of resilience or grit.
“Being able to push through the ‘mental barrier’ and aversion associated with entering a cold bath or shower may have a positive benefit on our ability to overcome challenges and initiate action despite our internal resistance,” Dr. Dimitriu says. “This type of discipline may be beneficial psychologically and may also toughen our psyche by increasing tolerance for pain and our ability to overcome our own resistance and aversion to challenges.”
Still, to stay safe and healthy, it’s essential for people not to resist too hard or for too long. Staying in water colder than 60 degrees Fahrenheit is dangerous and, in some cases, deadly, according to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, a nonprofit that raises awareness for cold water risks. Additionally, the National Weather Service says swimming in water colder than 60 degrees Fahrenheit can induce cold shock, increasing the risk of drowning.
Yoo suggests being mindful of risks by taking shorter dips in less extreme temperatures.
“Mental health issues are not a thing to experiment with unless you are doing it under the direction of a mental health professional that has firsthand knowledge on this particular modality,” he adds. “We often see that some people benefit from one medication while another does not. The same goes for all types of treatments.”
What this means for you
Cold water plunging may have mental health benefits, but for now, researchers don't know exactly what and why. To plunge safely, people should be mindful of avoiding extremely low temperatures for long periods of time.