Wellness·5 min read

Does Vagus Nerve Icing Really Help With Anxiety? We Asked An Expert

A reminder that says "time for a quick dunk" in front of an image of ice cubes
Credit: iStock, Drbimages
Mar 3, 2022

It’s wise to be wary of the “health tips” that influencers share on social media. Because many of them aren’t science-backed (see: taking certain supplements). But there’s one piece of advice that’s been making the rounds lately that actually does come from a psychologist’s handbook. It’s the trend where people dunk their faces in ice water, or place ice on their chest or face, as a way to ease anxiety. Aka vagus nerve icing. And everyone from TikTok influencers to AOC have documented their experience with using something cold to stimulate the vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve in the body). 

Like you, we wanted to make sure vagus nerve icing was actually legit. So we asked clinical psychologist Dr. Jenny Taitz. She's the author of “How to Be Single and Happy,” and she specializes in depression, anxiety, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Her take: vagus nerve icing is similar to a technique that she and other psychologists have been recommending for years to patients with certain mental health conditions. At a time when we’re feeling especially overwhelmed, we’re here for it. 

What’s the point of vagus nerve icing?

Think of the way your body reacts when you jump into a cold pool or an ice bath. Refreshing, hopefully. Startling, definitely. That reaction is called a “dive response,” as Dr. Taitz explains it. And it can work as a hard reset — “like control-alt-delete,” she says — for the mind and body. Think: Distracting the mind from whatever you’re stressing over. While Blood goes from nonessential to essential organs, like the brain and heart. And your heart rate slows down. Dr. Taitz says these physiological changes, when combined, can help you feel calmer.

If you aren’t able to dive into the cold ocean in the middle of the day, you can trigger the same effect on your body by focusing on making your vagus nerve cold. It’s an effective method because the vagus nerve connects your brain to several parts of the body and is involved in functions like breathing, cardiovascular activity, and digestion.

How do you stimulate your vagus nerve?

Dr. Taitz recommends dunking your face. Just like you've seen people do on your FYP.

All you need is ice (or packs of frozen vegetables if you don’t have ice handy) and water. Put both into a large bowl — the ratio is up to you — and set a timer for 15 to 30 seconds. Then hold your breath and dunk your head in the bowl until the alarm goes off. Embrace the cold. You’re in it now. When time’s up, pay attention to how you feel. If you’re wearing a heart rate monitor, it should show a significant drop, according to Dr. Taitz. And a drop in heart rate is often associated with a drop in stress levels.

That’s it. You just did a hard thing. And now you might be able to tackle the rest of your day with less anxiety. Which could mean you’re ready to take on a challenge that was causing you stress, Dr. Taitz says.

”The big takeaway with this exercise is there are things we could do within reach that can help us reset,” she says. “The way to feel better is through welcoming in uncomfortable sensations rather than running the other way.”

Is there anything else to know about vagus nerve icing?

Dr. Taitz says some people with certain health conditions might want to avoid vagus nerve icing, like those who are sensitive to migraines or have heart conditions — vagus nerve stimulation can affect both. If you’re unsure about whether you should try it, talk to your doctor. 

If you want to take the next step: You could also consider completing a full round of TIPP. That’s a specific anti-anxiety technique within dialectical behavior therapy that Dr. Taitz recommends to her clients. And putting your head in ice water is one way to do the first step. 

TIPP stands for: 

  • Temperature: cold water or ice on your face. You know that part.

  • Intense exercise: at least 60 seconds of something like burpees or jumping jacks.

  • Paced breathing: breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds and then out through your mouth for about 6 seconds. Practice this for a minute or two.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: tense and release parts of your body for about 5 seconds — starting from the top — like your forehead, mouth and neck.

And a final word of advice from Dr. Taitz: “People need to go in with the right expectations: This is not a cure-all. This is just a way to recalibrate productively.”

theSkimm

Although it’s wise to be suspicious of social media health trends, vagus nerve icing is actually part of a real anti-anxiety technique that psychologists and therapists have used for some time now. Dunking your head in ice water could be an effective way to lower your heart rate and redirect blood flow. The goal: to help you feel less stressed by using things that you can find at home. 

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 


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