Coping Strategies: Cold to the Face
An ancient survival reflex wired into us is the “mammalian diving reflex.” It exists to help humans that might be in cold water and thus at risk of drowning.
When cold hits the face and nose, it sends signals to the parasympathetic nervous system (aka “rest and relaxation”) to slow your breathing and heart rate to preserve oxygen.
When used as a coping strategy, it reminds your body that this is not a life-threatening emergency, and when it slows down your breathing and your heart rate, it also helps you feel calmer and more relaxed.
This strategy is a classic strategy recommended in many types of therapies, including dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).
There are different ways to activate this reflex.
1) With water
2) With something cold but not wet.
Repeat as necessary -- simply doing this once is generally not enough.
Are you finding that it doesn’t help you feel calmer?
Most likely its that you haven’t yet been able to activate your “diving reflex” and thus the calming parasympathetic system.
Try again, perhaps with:
- Something colder and/or
- Covering a larger area of your face with cold, and/or
- For a larger time.
Do you have medical issues such as a low heart rate or trouble with fainting?
- If so, speak first to your doctor before trying this strategy.
When getting stressed or anxious, one simple yet powerful strategy is to put something cold on your face, which activates your parasympathetic nervous system to help you return to a calmer state.
Wikipedia contributors. Diving reflex. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. June 13, 2022, 08:36 UTC. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diving_reflex. Accessed October 24, 2022.
Written by members of the eMentalHealth.ca Team and the professionals at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ontario, Canada. French translation by Mary Velez (uOttawa RN candidate, class of 2024).
Image Credit: Freepik.
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Information in this fact sheet may or may not apply to your situation. Your health care provider is the best source of information about your situation.
Date of Last Revision: Oct 6, 2023