Cold Showers – Can They Help Anxiety & Depression?

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I first heard about “cold water hydrotherapy” after watching a BBC documentary on mental health where a woman who had suffered years of crippling depression and anxiety was asked to take part in an experiment where she charted her mood after swimming in cold water.

Amazingly enough, after overcoming her reservations about getting her kit off in the freezing British weather and submerging her body in the murky depths of a local swimming pond, she found that the impact of the cold water on her body lessened her mental symptoms considerably.

The reason for this is that cold water exposure activates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing blood flow to the brain, and increasing blood levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline. It also helps calm systemic inflammation, which is strongly linked to depression.

Also, because your skin has far more cold receptors than warm receptors, sudden exposure to cold water sends a huge amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, stimulating it in such a manner that it produces an antidepressant effect. (A bit like electroshock therapy but without the side effects or controversy. Conversely there is also evidence to prove a warm bath in the afternoon helps reset the circadian rhythm in depressed patients so take a look at our article Can a hot bath in the afternoon reduce depression? )

Now I’m not advocating jumping in the nearest river or sizeable puddle, but you can replicate these effects simply by taking a daily cold shower for two minutes. Researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine found that depressed patients who took a two to three-minute shower twice a day at 68 degrees Fahrenheit for two months noticed a significant mood improvement. Another study found the practice was more effective at steadying mood and getting rid of anxiety than a leading pharmaceutical and another found that cold water exposure worked amazingly for both depression and chronic fatigue.

I was prompted to look again at this cold shower practice after a holistic therapist friend recently said that she’d come across a Dutchman called Wim Hoff – also known as ‘The Iceman’ – who can meditate for hours whilst packed in ice and who regularly hikes up snowy mountains in little more than his underpants. She’d learned that he is able to withstand the freezing temperatures simply by doing breathing exercises and calming his mind.

Related article: How The Anchoring Technique Can Help Panic Attacks

So she started taking a three minute cold shower every morning after doing about 10 minutes of breathing exercises and found that not only did her chronic fatigue lift, but she had huge amounts of energy and felt generally more positive about life. And apparently if you take a cold shower after doing some form of exercise – which is in itself an anti-stressor – it can double the advantages of the cold water hydrotherapy.

One of our LightHearts UK blog readers, Mike Carson, also tried the technique. Here’s his response: “My son (who is currently doing an Masters Research Degree at UCL in Neuropsychology) bought me a book by Wim Hof which I read with interest and followed up by taking cold showers every morning for a month (and Monday - Friday since ). I have found the effects on my mental state and general energy level quite incredible. The main effects for me is a massively improved increase in my speed of decision making and opinion forming which I have found useful at work. My stress levels feel lower and my energy levels are much higher than previously."

So if you’ve tried all the methods out there and you’re still feeling like you’re stuck in that vicious circle of depression and anxiety, then you might find some relief at trying the cold water hydrotherapy technique. It goes without saying that you need to make sure you're not suffering from any cold, flu or bronchial condition before trying this otherwise you might end up giving yourself pneumonia which won't help you either physically or mentally. But if you're fit enough to give it a go, to get you keyed up for braving the icy water blast, we’ve attached a video below demonstrating the super effective yogic breathing exercise called Ujjayi Breathing so even if you don’t manage to make it under the shower, at least you’d have calmed your mind with a bit of relaxing deep breathing.

But if you are bold enough to try it, then send us a message on twitter @LightHeartsUK or ping us an email on and let us know how you get on. And remember that you can find lots of free audios, meditations, sourced videos, helpful advice and tip sheets as part of our FREE 10-week mental wellbeing course, right here:

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