Black folks are talking about mental health more often, but the price and access to talk therapy and medication are common barriers for our community. Cryotherapy — or any kind of cold exposure — is becoming a low-cost option for stress relief, anxiety, and depression.
Submerging yourself in an ice bath, taking a cold shower, or going out to the snow with summer clothes on doesn’t sound like an enjoyable experience — and it’s probably not, at least at first. But, Breia White, a picture editor in Los Angeles, started doing cold therapy in 2015.
“Working in television, you’re dealing with crazy executives, crazy timelines, and people having attitudes all the time … and I think that’s just with any high-stress job,” she says. “I was finding that I could not handle the pressure, I was cracking. And a lot of my colleagues were having to use substances to help deal with the stress.”
Turning to drugs and substances was not something White wanted to do. Instead, she learned about the Wim Hof Method, a breathing technique used to reduce stress, increase energy, and aid autoimmune diseases. Later she went through the year-long Wim Hof Method Academy and became an instructor where she teaches workshops on breathing and getting into ice baths.
With mental health issues in the Black community plagued with stigma, one study showed that 63% of Black people believe having a mental illness is a sign of personal weakness. Mistrust of the healthcare system can also make it difficult to seek mental health services.
A report by Mental Health America says Black folks living in poverty are twice as likely to report serious psychological distress, and Black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than white teenagers.
Practicing any form of cryotherapy can be a low-cost temporary alternative to talk therapy, with the average cost of seeing a psychologist ranging from $70-$150 per session. The average price of a cryotherapy session can cost between $60 to $100, cold showers are typically free, doing your own ice baths can cost about $40, and if you live where it snows, it doesn’t cost anything to go outside.
How does it work?
For newbies interested in any form of cryotherapy, White says you can start by exposing your body to a cold shower. Your body reacts to cold exposure in different ways, she says. You may start to panic from getting hit with the cold stimulus but that’s where the breathing technique comes in.
White says she was doing ice baths nearly daily during her initial training. Now she gets in ice baths about two to three times a week but will always take cold showers.
There are two systems in your nervous system that dictate your stress response; the sympathetic nervous system, which is fight, flight or freeze; and your parasympathetic nervous system, which is rest and relaxation. White says when driving in traffic and someone cuts you off, it’s the same response to experiencing panic from cold exposure — but instead of losing control of your emotions, you can train your body to not overreact.
“With the cold training you are able to train your system to move back into parasympathetic, which is like your Netflix and chill zone,” she says.
While many people may be reluctant to try a form of cryotherapy, White says although you feel the cold, you are training your body and mind to understand you will be fine through the stress. She says after months of doing the Wim Hof Method, she wanted to put her training to the test and took a job that she knew was going to be high-stress.
“Everything was on fire … the schedule was crazy, but the way I reacted to it was 100% different,” she says. “I was just very chill. It almost felt like I was in a clear box and things were getting thrown at me, and it just wasn’t penetrating.”
Benefits of cold therapy, breathing
Before getting into the breathing technique and cryotherapy, White says she was “a nervous fucking wreck.” She struggled with a lot of insomnia and big bouts of depression — the cold therapy also helped her with inflammation, and she says she didn’t get sick as often because she was producing more white blood cells.
“Again, I didn’t want to be on meds,” she says. “Once you work with these things, there’s a sense of empowerment that comes from it because I’m relying on me.”
Feeling in control is exactly what Shirley Brown was looking for when she started doing cryotherapy and breathwork. Brown, a health coach and yoga instructor based in L.A., says the Wim Hof Method created sensations that she had not experienced before.
“The breathwork is … 30 to 45 seconds of forceful inhalation and exhalation. So essentially, we’re hyperventilating,” Brown says.
The point of forced hyperventilation is to manipulate your breath and do breathwork to oxygenate your body. She says her experience provided an “amazing sense of calm.”
But when Brown goes into the ice baths, her focus isn’t to hyperventilate, it’s on long, slow breaths. Manipulating her body in this way can be likened to strength training or doing cardio, she says. Prior to the pandemic, she was doing cold exposure one to two times a week, now she does it once a month — but each time it’s a new challenge to feel more control of her reactions.
Fear of cold exposure is normal, but she says Black folks who are looking to get out of their comfort zone should seek out cryotherapy workshops or groups that make them feel completely safe.
After nearly a decade of doing the Wim Hof Method and cryotherapy, White says she’ll be doing this training for life. Her ability to control her body’s stress response is something she knows other people can do, as well.
“It feels like a superpower,” she says.
Importance of talk therapy, representation in the Wim Hof space
Although White heavily supports cold therapy, she says talk therapy is still helpful and is something she does regularly alongside the regular ice baths. But she says it’s not always as accessible as it should be.
“You’ll be able to work through things (in talk therapy), but it’s like you gotta have an appointment for that,” White says.
Breathwork and cold therapy are more beneficial for White when she is experiencing an immediate stressor; it allows her to have complete control over her system without relying on any external factors. But, she says, she would never say it’s a better alternative to talk therapy.
Studies show that cold exposure improves metabolic health, activates antioxidant enzymes, decreases inflammation, and improves mood. She says after a few rounds of breathwork and getting into cold water, it has the potential to help people feel better instantly.
“The cold allows you to be very present, it’s a presence practice,” White says. “When you get in there, there is nothing else that is going on outside of that tub or shower that is of any importance except for you getting your system under control.”
As a certified Wim Hof Method instructor, she says the three to four international calls she joins throughout the year are made up of mostly white men. On one of the last calls she joined, there were more than 300 instructors from all over the world, and White says you could probably count the number of people of color on two hands.
“We are missing in this space, but it is imperative that these tools get to these spaces,” she says. “It’s not just for white boys, it’s for everybody.”
White understands why some Black folks may not want to go to talk therapy, but she questions what people are doing to help themselves in ways that are not destructive. A recent study found that opioid overdose deaths for Black Americans increased by 86% in 2020 compared to any other population.
“Taking pills is a much easier route, but it doesn’t teach you to rely on yourself.”