People Are Using Ice To Stop Panic Attacks, But Does It Really Work?

TikTok users have been posting videos of themselves placing ice packs on their chests in order to calm their anxiety and get to sleep faster. For the last couple of years, the trend has circulated the app in different variations, with some people dunking their faces in bowls of ice water via TikTok or taking cold baths, claiming it can stop a panic attack and alleviate anxiety. But is it effective?

First, it's important to understand the theory behind these techniques. The idea is that it stimulates the vagus nerve, the nerve that runs from your gut to your brain and sends messages to organs along the way (via PsychCentral). It's a crucial nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure to tell the body it is safe. The parasympathetic nervous system is also important for managing mood, breathing, digestion, and immune response. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is what tells our body to go into fight-or-flight mode when it senses danger (per Psychology Today). In order to balance out this response, our parasympathetic nervous system needs to be turned on, which can be done by stimulating the vagus nerve. When this happens, it tells the brain to calm the body, which can ease the physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety.

How cold temperatures can decrease stress

By putting ice on your chest, it increases heart rate variability, which decreases stress (via Everyday Health). In fact, a 2018 study published in JMIR Formative Research found that applying cold temperatures to the neck region and stimulating the vagus nerve not only produced higher heart rate variability but decreased heart rate. A second study published in 2008 via Archivum Immunologiae et Therapiae Experimentalis showed this could also be achieved with whole-body cryotherapy.

This is also a well-known suggestion in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a treatment focused on treating those who have difficulty with emotional regulation. The TIPP skills can be used when you're in distress and want to change your body chemistry quickly, according to the DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets via Northern Arizona University. The T stands for "Tip the temperature of your face with cold water (to calm down fast)" by keeping your face in a bowl of cold water or a cold pack on your eyes for 30 seconds. The idea is to decrease the intensity of the emotion we're feeling and while it might not take it away altogether, it can bring the intensity down enough that we may be able to use other coping skills that might help. You could also achieve this by taking a cold shower, letting air conditioning blow on your face, or holding an ice cube (via Yale University).