Stress: Rumination, Worry … and Ice Diving

By Ali Gold

Finals week is approaching, which means stress levels are rising. Maybe this increase in anxiety manifests itself in bouncing feet, or transforming pens and pencils into drumsticks. Coping skills vary from person to person; though they are habitually employed to alleviate stress, not all coping skills are helpful in the long term. Maladaptive coping skills reduce stress in ways that can ultimately impair, as opposed to aid, daily functioning. However, one must acknowledge that these (detrimental) means of adapting, such as drug or alcohol use, avoidance, social withdrawal, overexercising, or compulsive sex, are typically very effective short-term stress-relievers, which is why they tend to be so addictive- and while these activities regularly carry a negative stigma, their utilization in moderation can sometimes be beneficial and unproblematic. Despite the dichotomy between adaptive and maladaptive coping skills, they both share an identical origin: an effort to reduce the physiological and emotional intolerable feelings of stress (anxiety, anger, fear and the remaining list of “negative/intolerable” emotions).

Commonly, these uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety, emanate from an unrealistic companionship with control. We want to erase the past or speed up the future. Cognitions are distorted by appraisals (how we interpret experiences) and fear of the unknown: what will happen? What do others think of me? Unfortunately, most of us are pretty talented at catastrophizing and thinking negatively. From an evolutionary standpoint, the anxiety-driven ability to replay events over and over in our head may have allowed us to learn from our mistakes, map the routes to obtain food or avoid predators, and, in general, may have facilitated consolidation of memories. The anxiety-driven mental faculty to envisage and anticipate the infinite possibilities of fate, on the other hand, may have advantageously led to the thorough preparation that increased our likelihood of survival. Yet, the hyperactivity of these facilities can cause us unwarranted concern and distress. In modern day terms, these inordinate dwellings on the past and future are called “rumination” and “worry.”

Though we cannot always control what happens to us, such as the external stressors our environment imposes on our lives, we can control how we respond.  Yet, acceding to this balance is not always easy. Some people, like myself, find it very difficult accept that ruminating about the past and worrying about the future may only cause additional tension, and most definitely will not change or fix the stressors that I’m currently facing. Alcoholics Anonymous, a popular self-help program and community that encourages recovering alcoholics to obtain and maintain sobriety, has adopted an insightful mantra, called the “Serenity Prayer”, which addresses this struggle to both take and relinquish control over the incessant myriad of life’s stressors. It reads: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. If we can let go of uncontrollable worries, such as dreading finals that are three weeks away, or move on from that one time during a high school basketball game that we missed a free throw, we increase our chances of finding inner peace. If we can acquire the bravery to face our daunting obstacles, such as forgiving friends who wronged us, or generating the willingness to use a healthy coping skill instead of surrendering to the intense temptations of addiction, we augment our opportunities to foster relationships, fortify self-efficacy, and promote inner growth. Ultimately, if we keep an open mind and a readiness to learn from our own and others’ experiences, our apprehension can gradually evolve into astuteness.

So, how does one combat stress, or anxiety? How does one overcome the human instinct to suppress, avoid or eliminate these unsettling emotions? My best answer: there isn’t just one solution. Everyone is different, every situation is different; we are changing and the word is changing. Some factors can help reduce the risk of stress and illness (getting an adequate amount of sleep, maintaining proper hygiene, eating nutritious meals, exercising… you’ve heard it all before). As humans, our lives will always involve stressors. But when a stressful situation arises, and our anxiety or anger is approaching or at a ten out of ten, is there anything that will work for 100% of the time? My answer: yes. Fight evolution with evolution.

Cool tip: Try ice diving. Get a big bowl full of ice water and dip your face in, holding it under for 3-5 second intervals (For as many times until you feel better, or until you develop hypothermia. Just kidding.)

Ice diving works because mammals (like us) have what’s called the Diving Reflex. An advantageous evolutionary trait, the reflex allows humans to better endure life-threatening cold, such as falling through ice into freezing waters, by shutting down a number of physiological processes in order to conserve oxygen and energy (it decelerates the body by about 10-25%). In turn, the reaction slows the person’s heart rate and reduces blood pressure, meaning that a secondary effect of the body’s reflex response is a scientifically proven, physiological decrease in anxiety (and anger and other intense emotions!). Ice diving, cold showers, and ice packs allow us to manipulate our body, and, help us regulate those seemingly out-of-control, and unwanted, emotions.