Use your “dive reflex” to calm down instantly
Use your “dive reflex” to calm down instantly

Use your “dive reflex” to calm down instantly

With a bag of frozen peas or a bowl of cold water, you can curb strong emotions and trick your body into relaxation mode.

Do you ever get so worked up that you feel out of control? Maybe your heart is pounding, your mind is spinning, and it feels so bad you want to jump out of your own skin? Fortunately, there’s a simple and effective tool you can use to calm down in a matter of seconds: icy-cold water.

Illustration of dive reflex to calm down fast
Illustration by Joseph Moore

How can cold water be so effective? It sounds too simple, right?

The answer most likely lies within biological adaptations that allowed seagoing mammals to hunt underwater for long periods of time. Even though we aren’t dolphins or seals (too bad), vestiges of these adaptations remain in us [1]. Scientists named the mechanism resulting from these adaptations the mammalian dive reflex, or the dive reflex, for short.

Specifically, the dive reflex is a series of physiological responses that happen when air-breathing vertebrates (that includes you) hold their breath under cold water. It’s a survival instinct that slows your heart rate and causes your body to conserve oxygen [2].

Fortunately, you don’t have to dive into a pool of frigid water to trigger your dive reflex. Applying cold water to your face (especially the area beneath your eyes) while holding your breath is enough to do the trick. Here are a couple of different ways to achieve this calming reflex.

Techniques that trigger your dive reflex

Warning: If you have a history of heart problems or an eating disorder (particularly anorexia nervosa), please consult your doctor before activating the dive reflex. This reflex lowers your heart rate and could be dangerous for you.

Facial Submersion
  • Fill a bowl with water. Add ice to make it very cold.
  • Bend over the bowl and hold your breath.
  • Put your face in the water for 30 seconds.
  • Make sure the area beneath your eyes is submerged (don’t just dunk your chin).
Icy Compress

If you can’t or don’t want to submerge your face in cold water, you can grab a bag of ice or frozen vegetables and do the following:

  • Hold the bag to the area around your eyes and cheekbones.
  • Bend over. Yes, this might feel strange, but it enhances the effect.
  • Hold your breath for 30 seconds.
Next Steps

We hope these techniques help you regain your cool when hot emotions feel unbearable. If you often experience intense emotions that create challenges for you, you might benefit from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It’s a form of talk therapy that teaches skills to manage and diffuse strong emotions.

If you or someone you love would benefit from talking to a mental health provider in Tennessee, contact Athena Care.

One of our Care Coordinators will help you get the care you need.

Photo of Rachel Swan
Rachel Swan, MS

Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.