Exposure Therapy

Deliberately exposing yourself to stimuli outside of your normally experienced ranges can lead to positive adaptations from your body. In this post, I’ll be talking about cold exposure. In our daily lives, we have climate control which generally keeps the temperature at a range between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The comforts of modern life are really a miracle. Humans no longer need to keep a fire lit 24 hours a day to survive. While this frees up massive amounts of time to allow us to use our brains in a more sophisticated way, there is still a mismatch with the mechanisms our bodies evolved over thousands of years to keep us alive in harsh environments and how little time we spend exposed to the elements. Exposing yourself to temperatures outside of your normal range will increase the efficiency of these mechanisms and grow your comfort zones.


              “Should I ice it?” This is a question I often get. When clients ask this question, they’re generally referring to placing ice on a specific part of the body that is bothering them. Icing an area of the body is beneficial for acute injuries that are red, hot and swollen. It can also help after surgery. For chronic issues, cold is not going to fix the problem, but it can help with pain management. Physiological changes to local ice application include decreased local metabolic function and reduced swelling, as well as a decrease in nerve conduction velocity and muscle spasm. Furthermore, icing can increase in natural analgesia. In short, if you’re looking to reduce pain and swelling, ice is a good option. However, be sure to avoid ice before a workout or if you have an open, uncovered wound. Otherwise, icing is a safe, inexpensive modality for mild pain control.


              This form of cold exposure has recently captivated my attention, as this approach to icing involves dipping your whole body into frigid ice-water. With this kind of exposure, you can start to tap into mental and systemic physiological effects of cold. State regulation plays a large role in the experience of dunking yourself into a tub of ice; state regulation refers to the mental and emotional feelings occurring before, during and after the cold water immersion. Anticipation of cold can cause anxiety and fear to take hold of you. This is when you can build mental fortitude and overcome these emotions. The whole point of getting into an ice bath isn’t to feel the cold, then run away. The experience is a chance to be in control of your body’s response to an uncomfortable stimulus. In the video below, you can observe my friend and colleague, Becky, gradually calm herself as she submerges into the cold water. She could have easily stepped in the water, felt how cold it was (and we put some fresh Wasatch powder in the tub, so it was cold), and jumped out saying “No way! I’m not doing it!” Instead, she utilized diaphragmatic breathing and a realization of being in control of her body to find a sense of calm.


seal ice.jpg

              I first learned about this reflex when I took The Art of Breath course. This reflex is present in all mammals and is a survival mechanism. When your head is submerged in water, the trigeminal nerve senses it and relays messages directly to the brain. Oxygenated blood is then preserved and shunted to the heart and brain via the vagus nerve. Obviously, submerging yourself underwater without oxygen for prolonged periods of time can be detrimental but short, controlled immersions can reward you with the benefit of tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system. For more about the parasympathetic nervous system functions, click on the button below.

This reflex is fascinating to me and shows we all have the innate ability to tap into our nervous systems to promote greater well-being.


              If you’re interested in how cold exposure can benefit you, there are a variety of ways to start increasing your comfort zone. If you’re in a cold weather climate, try going outside without a jacket on. Even if it’s just for a few minutes. Cold showers are another way of reaping the benefits of the cold. You can read about the benefits of cold showers at this link:

Some of my clients have tried cryotherapy chambers which entails stepping into a chamber of -250-degree air for 2-3 minutes. The only limitation of this method is cost. It’s virtually free to fill your bathtub up with cold water and snow or ice.

In terms of safety, people with cardiovascular issues and pregnant women should consult with a physician before engaging in a cold exposure program.

Dunking only your face into cold water can also bring about benefits of cold water immersion. Localized cold application to the head and neck is utilized on patients with cardiovascular disease to increase heart rate variability and to lower heart rate. Utilizing deep breathing and face submersion can be a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve.

Starting slow and allowing your body to create adaptations is key with cold exposure. The goal is to maintain body heat intrinsically, not to become hypothermic and shiver. Integrating specific breathing patterns and exercises before, during and after cold water immersion will make the experience much more tolerable.

              If you have further interest in cold exposure, please feel free to email me at sandyvojik@gmail.com.


Diving Reflex: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diving_reflex

Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6334714/

Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4049052/

Stimulating the Vagus Nerve: https://www.ultrawellnesscenter.com/2017/06/30/stimulating-the-vagus-nerve/

The Great Ice vs. Heat Confusion Debacle: https://www.painscience.com/articles/ice-heat-confusion.php