When we talk about the massive reaction of the body to just 3 minutes of extreme cold during a whole body cryotherapy session, we refer to “fight-or-flight” to explain it. This article discusses the processes triggered and their benefits for our health and wellness.
It is the physiological subconscious fight-or-flight reaction that distinguishes whole body cryotherapy from ANY other treatment and makes it, possibly, the world’s best kept secret against pain.
The fight-or-flight response (also called the acute stress response) is a powerful and complex physiological reaction that occurs as a reaction to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.
The term 'fight-or-flight' represents the choices that our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment. They could either fight or flee. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to such acute stress prepares the body to react to the danger and to prevent the potentially involved injury or death.
The fight-or-flight response was first described in the 1920-s by American physiologist Walter Cannon. Cannon realized that a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body helped to mobilize the body's resources to deal with threatening circumstances. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats.
In the case of whole body cryotherapy treatment, the conscious mind knows that there is no threat, thus preventing us from the emotional reactions that often occur in real stress situations. It lets us stay calm and enjoy the process, while the physiological reaction still takes place.
The fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in how we deal with stress and danger in our environment. By understanding the body's natural response, we can trigger and utilize it for our benefit. By priming the body for action, we become better prepared to perform under pressure.
“By consciously stressing the body physically, physiologically & psychologically, we exercise our adaptive mechanisms. So, when any type of stress comes to us out of our control, we’re much better equipped to handle it.” (Wim Hoff)
So, even putting all other benefits aside, purposefully initiating the fight-or-fight response is a good way to prepare the body for handling all kinds of stressful situations.
The stress response begins in the brain (see illustration). When amygdala, “the fear center of the body” perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus – the brain’s “command center”, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system, so that we have the energy to fight or flee.
The hypothalamus is the area of the brain that communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. In a cryosauna or cryochamber, there is no “fear” other than that coming from the cold receptors on the skin and signaling about the body being surrounded by non-survivable temperatures. The only exception may be the first treatment that comes with some stress of not knowing what to expect. This, in rare cases, may even lead to a panic attack (for this reason, first-time clients should receive a thorough explanation of what to expect and how to manage the anxiety of facing something unknown). Other than that, the mind stays calm, and only the physical reactions that we cannot consciously control take place.
The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the "rest and digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. It brings on several physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.
All these changes happen so quickly that people aren't aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain's visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening.
The visible symptoms of the fight-or-flight may include rapid heartbeat and breathing, dilated pupils, pail or flushed skin, or trembling, but they usually become less pronounced over a course of consecutive treatments, due to experience and anticipation.
This kind of reaction is natural and healthy. After the perceived threat of not being able to survive the cold is gone, it takes not more than 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels. At the same time, there are some conditions that may worsen due to the fight-or-flight response.
There are potential risks for people with:
These risks must be explained and identified before any person opts in for the first whole body cryotherapy treatment.
With the risks understood and prevented, whole body cryotherapy may, indeed, be the world's best kept secret in fighting pain.
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