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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Pollard, MSW RSW

The Benefits of Cold Showers & Sensation-based Coping

Do you ever feel flooded by emotions or caught up in an endless loop of overthinking? Although there are many coping skills that can help regulate and calm your mind and body, I find that sensation-based coping strategies are particularly helpful for more intense feelings and thoughts.

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, one sensation-based coping skill is called ‘TIPP’ (temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing, progressive muscle relaxation). Our minds and bodies are connected and we can use sensations to communicate to our nervous systems that we’re physically safe even if we’re struggling internally. I’ve found all four strategies within TIPP- collectively and individually- helpful in difficult moments and have recommended it to clients as well.

Temperature: Use warm sensations to comfort yourself, such as a having warm drink, using a heated blanket or hot water bottle, going outside on sunny day, or having a bath or shower. If this doesn’t help, try cold sensations as the discomfort tends to be distracting for unhelpful thoughts that might be contributing to being stuck in your emotions. Try holding an ice cube in your hand, splash your face with cold water, go outside on a snowy or rainy day, eat a Popsicle, or have a cool shower.

Intense Exercise. Move your body in a way that is safe for you and that will elevate your heart rate for a short period of time (e.g., 10 minutes). This could include running, jumping jacks, speed walking, cycling, dancing, lifting weights, going up and down stairs or doing body-weight exercises (e.g., push-ups and burpees).

Paced Breathing. Use a breathing pattern that works for you. I like box breathing: breathe into the count of four, hold for four seconds, breath out to the count of four, hold for four seconds, and repeat. Again, this breathing exercise can be beneficial even when practiced for a few minutes.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This is a skill that I’ve taught my children to quiet their minds and bodies before bed, but it can be used anytime. To practice, sit (with feet on the floor) or lay down in a comfortable position and take a couple of deep breaths. Progressively tighten, hold for a few seconds, then release each muscle group starting with your feet then moving up your legs, your abdomen, your arms, and shoulders, and then your face. My kids often giggle when we tighten our facial muscles as it looks like we ate a sour lemon!

Consider these sensation-based strategies as something that helps you mindfully ride the wave of intense emotions while quieting your mind.

They do not address the underlying triggers; however, it can help regulate and ground you so that you can later address and problem-solve (if possible). Other sensation-based strategies to consider include:

  • Holding a rock in your hand, playing with a fidget item, or squeezing a stress ball

  • Listening to loud (ish) music. Try using headphones to reduce/cancel outside noises and select music that is the opposite of what you’re feeling (e.g., if sad try upbeat or intense music, if anxious try calm music, if angry try soothing music, and when in doubt, I like to listen to some retro 80’s or 90’s music!)

  • Offer yourself compassionate touch on the place(s) where you’re experiencing pain. You can hold your hand on the spot or gently massage, rub, or scratch.

After listening to Huberman Lab’s podcast on water, I learned how cool sensations are not only good for coping, but regular cold water exposure can enhance mood and immunity, and build overall resilience. This is when I challenged myself to change my (very) warm showers to cool for the last 30 seconds to 1 minute. I’ll admit, I used some curse words the first few times… it was friggin’ cold! However, I now find it more tolerable and even energizing. I still value the way a warm shower soothes my muscles and calms my body and I see how a cool shower can be rejuvenating and has the power to quiet my busy mind.

Please note that sensation-based coping may not be safe for all people to use. Consult with your doctor or healthcare provider before trying these skills. If you’d like to learn more about Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills and how it can help you practice mindfulness, build distress tolerance, regulate your emotions, and improve interpersonal skills, contact me (or the DBT informed therapist of your choice!) for an appointment.

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