Home » Blogs » Overcoming OCD » The Really Cool Mammalian Diving Reflex

The Really Cool Mammalian Diving Reflex

I hate intro posts, so let’s just dive right in.

Back in April, my therapist recommended I take a four-session group class on anxiety. I was skeptical, but I did it. It didn’t cover much that was specific to OCD, aside from a short overview of exposure response prevention, but it did go over a bunch of more general anxiety-fighting and coping skills.

I’ll go more into the class later, but overall it was a great experience, and one reason was that we learned about a lot of cool science, like the mammalian diving reflex.

The mammalian diving reflex is a physiological response to diving into cold water. All mammals have it to some extent, although it’s a lot stronger (understandably) in aquatic mammals like whales, dolphins, seals and otters. Basically, when you dive into cold water, your heartbeat slows down, your blood shifts from your limbs to your chest, and your breathing slows. It allows mammals (including us!) to hold their breath for a lot longer in cold water.

It also has the handy effect of counteracting some of the physical symptoms of anxiety. If you’re having an anxiety attack, your heart is beating fast, you’re breathing fast, you’re sweating. For me, at least, half the awfulness of anxiety comes from the physical symptoms — there’s always the fear that this time, it might really be a heart attack after all, at least until I start counting my pulse. Relieve some of the physical symptoms, and you’re interrupting that feedback loop.

Of course, we can’t dive into an ice-cold pool every time we’re anxious.

But one of the facilitators of the anxiety class suggested that we grab an ice pack, a bag of peas, or something else out of the freezer, hold it to our foreheads, and lean over to simulate a diving position. If you tend to get dizzy or unsteady, take precautions first so you don’t fall, like sitting down.

I haven’t tried the frozen peas yet, but I do know splashing my face with cold water in my bathroom sink has always seemed to help when I’m feeling upset and shaky.

Plus, I have to admit it seems like it would be sort of fun, in a way.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, nothing, just pretending I’m an orca until I feel better.”

Photo by Skeeze at Pixabay.

The Really Cool Mammalian Diving Reflex

Kyla Cathey

Kyla Cathey is a freelance writer from Galt, California who has been overcoming OCD for the past year, after struggling with it for much of her life.

5 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Cathey, K. (2015). The Really Cool Mammalian Diving Reflex. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 27 Aug 2015
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.