Everyone gets anxious from time to time, and in moments when you feel overwhelmed, it can be good to know a few anxiety hacks that work for you.
Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress. When you get anxious your heart beats faster, your breathing rate speeds up, and you may feel dizzy or disconnected from your body.
Occasional anxiety is healthy— it’s a sign that you’re engaged with and care about your life— but chronic or intense anxiety can make it hard for you to function at your best.
If you have anxiety attacks that get in the way of your day-to-day life, you may want to try these icy anxiety hacks. Sudden cold exposure stimulates your vagus nerve and can reverse the physiological symptoms of anxiety and help you get back in control.
How Your Vagus Nerve Controls Anxiety
Your vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It runs from the base of your brain all the way down to your stomach.
Because it’s so long and runs through so many essential parts of your body, the vagus nerve plays a part in a wide variety of functions. It influences your heart rate, breathing rate, digestion, mood, fight-or-flight response, and sense of relaxation, among other things.
Stimulating your vagus nerve is a good way to calm your body down and produce a sense of positive relaxation. Because the vagus nerve influences your body’s stress and fight-or-flight responses, stimulating it can help you relax at a physiological level. When your body is relaxed, your brain follows suit, helping you find a sense of calm.
Vagus nerve stimulation is FDA-approved for treating depression,https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990624/ and recent research suggests that it may help ease stress and feelings of anxiousness as well.
- A study of 11 participants with treatment-resistant anxiety found that vagus nerve stimulation improved anxious symptoms by more than 50%.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20633378/
- A 2019 study found that stimulating the vagus nerve made anxious people less likely to have sudden, intrusive worrying thoughts.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30710565/
- A review from 2014 concluded that vagus nerve stimulation helps relieve phobias and feelings of chronic fear, as well as general anxiety.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4176918/
Stimulating your vagus nerve is a simple, yet powerful way to relax your body and gain a sense of calm, and one of the best ways to do it is with cold exposure.
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7 Icy Anxiety Hacks to Calm Your Body and Mind
Your vagus nerve activates in response to cold. A sudden drop in temperature causes the vagus nerve to slow down your heart rate and increase heart rate variability (HRV), which increases your ability to recover quickly from stressful situations.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6334714/
If you feel anxious, whether it’s chronic or it comes on suddenly, having a few hacks on hand can be a good way to ground yourself and get back to a place of relaxation. Here are seven ways to activate your vagus nerve and relieve anxiety.
Ice Your Sternum
Your vagus nerve runs from the base of your brain to your stomach, and it goes straight by your heart and lungs. Putting an ice pack on your sternum, right over your chest, is a simple way to stimulate your vagus nerve. You can also use a bag of frozen peas, ice cubes wrapped in a paper towel, or whatever else you have handy.
@heyfrankiesimmonshappy icing! #internetbigsister #polyvagaltheory #vagusnerve #anxietyrelief #healingjourney #nervoussystemhealth #selfcareroutine♬ original sound – Frankie Simmons (she/her)
Put a Cold Towel on Your Neck
Since your vagus nerve is the communication line from your brain to the rest of your body, your neck is another good place to apply cold. If you’re feeling anxious, try soaking a hand towel in cold water and placing it around the back of your neck.
Try Bowl Diving
If you want to step things up a bit, you can try bowl diving— sticking your entire face in a large bowl of ice water— to bring yourself down from a panicked state.
Bowl diving is a little more intense than icing your sternum or putting a cold towel around your neck, and the resulting shock to your vagus nerve will be greater.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19882167/ If you’re feeling especially anxious and want to regain control, bowl diving may be a good choice.
Use Vicks VapoRub
Vicks VapoRub contains camphor and menthol, which work together to create a cooling sensation that can help you relax. Try rubbing Vicks on your neck, chest, or stomach. Your vagus nerve runs along all three.
Rubbing Vicks on your stomach may be especially helpful if you get stomach aches or digestive distress when you’re anxious.
It works for some people and doesn’t do much for others. But, it’s inexpensive and worth a try.
Chew Minty Gum
Mint is the main source of menthol, and chewing mint gum will give you the same cooling sensation that Vicks does. Studies have also found that the physical act of chewing gum also reduces stress and anxiety.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6410656/
This hack may work especially well if you have more chronic anxiety. If you feel like you’re always on edge, chewing minty gum throughout the day could take the edge off.
Book a Cryotherapy Session
Cryotherapy is an especially powerful way to stimulate your vagus nerve and relieve stress. During a cryotherapy session, you stand in a chamber that blows supercooled liquid nitrogen on your skin for a couple minutes.
The liquid nitrogen reaches about -300 degrees Fahrenheit, which immediately cools your body temperature down.
The downside is that you have to book a cryo session ahead of time and go to a spa to do it, so it may not be as useful for controlling sudden panic or relieving anxiety that comes up out of nowhere. You may find that booking a series of sessions over time reduces the intensity or frequency of anxious episodes.
Take an Ice Bath
Of all the hacks on this list, taking an ice bath is the most intense. Because water conducts temperature so well, submerging yourself in an ice bath is the most potent way to lower your core temperature and stimulate your vagus nerve. A minute or two in an ice bath is enough, although if you take them regularly, your body will adapt over time, allowing you to stay in longer if you’d like.
Ice baths are difficult to withstand and may not be for everyone, but if you can put up with the cold for a couple minutes, they’re a very powerful tool for calming down your nervous system.
Never take an ice bath while you’re home alone. Make sure you have someone nearby to check on you. The risk of losing consciousness is small, but it’s still a risk.
How to Relieve Anxiety Long-Term
Using cold to stimulate your vagus nerve is a great way to snap yourself out of acute anxiety. It’s good for moments when you feel overwhelmed and want to get back to a state of calm.
However, if you feel generally anxious on a daily basis, you may also want to try a more long-term solution.
High-success ways of relieving general anxiety include:
- Eye movement rapid desensitization (EMDR) (this one is especially good for treatment-resistant anxiety and PTSD)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5623122/
- Daily meditationhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2848393/
- Regular exercise, particularly cardio (running, biking, swimming, etc.). A recent review found that consistent cardio exercise improved long-term symptoms of anxiety in 91% of participantshttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26556089/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/
- Cognitive behavioral therapyhttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11414549/
You may also want to try a supplement stack that balances your brain function and promotes a sense of calm focus. A nootropics quiz can help you figure out a personalized supplement plan based on your unique goals and needs.
Whatever tools you choose to use, you have the power to manage your anxiety. Experiment with a few different methods and find something that works for you.