Why You Should Try Dunking Your Face in Freezing Water at Work

The good news is that you don’t need to have a frozen lake next to your office to harness the power of temperature. (Photo from wikipedia)

There are a lot of things I love about working at EMBR labs, but one of the side effects of being at a fast moving tech start up is stress. Not a day goes by without something going wrong, and while most of the time it’s relatively small things, they still add up and wear on you. This stress comes from caring deeply about the work I’m doing, but that does not it stop it from negatively affecting my productivity and mood.

Because our team cares about Environment, Mind, Body Resonance at work, we all try to view stress as an opportunity to practice mindfulness, first becoming actively aware that we are stressed and pausing to notice how that stress makes us feel, and second by taking action to do something about. There are many different ways we try to relieve stress, and I want to share one of my favorites: The Diving Response.

What is the Diving Response?

If you’ve ever jumped into a cold lake or swimming pool, then you’ve already experienced the diving response without knowing it. In layperson’s terms, the diving response is just when your body slows your heart rate after you are submerged in cold water as a way to conserve oxygen. In addition to slowing your heart rate, your body also resets emotionally from an aroused state (angry, sad, stressed) to a neutral state in order to focus all your attention on being underwater without oxygen. The diving response occurs naturally in all mammals and is also found in some species of diving birds. In humans, it can also be triggered without submerging yourself in cold water by applying an ice pack to right below your eyes at the top of the cheek bones.

In addition to slowing your heart rate, your body also resets emotionally from an aroused state (angry, sad, stressed) to a neutral state in order to focus all your attention on being underwater without oxygen.

On a physiological level, the diving response is characterized by increased Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) activity and decreased Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) activity. The SNS is often called the fight or flight response while the PNS generally helps the body relax, so it makes sense that when someone dives underwater and has to conserve oxygen the body would try to relax so it needs less energy. So that’s the science behind the diving response, but what does it feel like to do one?

The Subjective Experience

It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon when I notice I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. My inbox just went from empty to 10 unread emails over the past hour while I was working on our financial model for manufacturing. All these large numbers and long lead times are stressing me out, and before long I’m noticeably tense and anxious. My colleague David comes over to ask me a question, and he gently and kindly points out that I seem stressed and suggests I take a short break to do something about it.

I walk over to the kitchen area in our co-working space to fill up a bag of ice from the freezer. I take a couple of deep breaths while mentally preparing for the cold to come. I exhale fully, hold my breath, and press the bag of ice firmly below by eyes. My mind goes blank as all previous thoughts escape when I hit the water. All I can focus on is the cold sensation at the top of my cheek bones right below my eyes. I hold my breath as long as I can until it starts to hurt before lowering the ice and taking one giant inhalation. I take a few more slow breaths with before I break out into a smile. Everything suddenly feels more manageable.

The Objective Experience

The graph below shows my heart rate over time before, during, and after my diving response, as measured by a Polar chest strap heart rate monitor. You can see that as soon as my face enters the cold water my heart rate begins to drop. By the time I come out of the water, my heart rate has decreased from 66 to 48 BPM or approximately 27%. Thanks to our understanding of the science, we know that the reason for that reduction is my body’s PNS kicking into gear as it prepares me for being without oxygen by automatically making me more relaxed.

While my heart rate varies of time, you can clearly see the huge drop off from the diving response.

Diving Away from Stress

Besides just feeling less stressed, I love practicing the diving response at work because it reminds me that we humans have the power to change our emotional and physical states. We don’t have to settle for feeling stressed, angry, or other negative states because we can take action. The diving response also shows what a powerful tool temperature is for affecting the way we feel in our daily lives. So the next time you’re feeling stressed or frustrated at work, try a diving response and share with us how it works for you.


References:

Foster, G. E. & Sheel, A. W. “The human diving response, its function, and its control” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science In Sports. 2005: 15: 3–12 DOI: 10.1111/j.1600–0838.2005.00440.x

Sara M. Hiebert, Elliot Burch “Simulated Human Diving and Heart Rate: Making the Most of the Diving Response as a Laboratory Exercise” Advances in Physiology Education. 2003: 27: 3: 130–145 DOI: 10.1152/advan.00045.2002