TikTokers are singing the praises of a hack that supposedly helps ease anxiety and improve your sleep quality. They’re claiming that putting an ice pack on the center of your chest stimulates your vagus nerve, leading to these stress and sleep benefits.
The related hashtag #vagusnerve has nearly 80 million views, suggesting people are indeed interested in better understanding the vagus nerve.
TikToker Frankie Simmons (330.5K followers) posted a video on August 27, 2021, claiming that the technique has helped reduce her anxiety-induced sleep disturbance. She claims that it used to take her an hour and a half to calm herself down to go back to sleep — but now, it only takes 15 minutes. The clip has garnered 14 million views.
Another video shared by Alan Mandell (2.1M followers) on March 3, 2022, has garnered over 100,000 likes. “Take an ice pack, put it on the chest, and this will destress your body and send you off to sleep,” he says in the video.
So does the technique actually deliver on any of these benefits? And should you give it a try? Ahead, we break down everything you need to know about it, with insight from the pros.
What Does the Icing Your Chest Trend Involve?
The technique involves placing a cold ice pack in the center of your chest, which activates the vagus nerve, according to the aforementioned TikTok videos.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for triggering your body’s relaxation response after a period of stress and controlling a lot of involuntary bodily functions. “It regulates the function of internal organs and systems, such as digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate,” says Carleara Weiss, PhD, RN, an adult-geriatric nurse specialist focusing on behavioral sleep medicine and Aeroflow Sleep’s Sleep Science Advisor.
TikToker Simmons says that stimulating the vagus nerve is simple. "You can do this by taking ice-cold showers. You can do this by taking dips in ice-cold lakes. But, if you want to save yourself the discomfort, just put an ice pack on the center of your chest. Wrap it in a towel, put it right there, lie down for at least 15 minutes, and it is [chef's kiss] a game changer."
What Doctors Want You to Know About Whether Icing Your Chest Really Works
“If your body is under a lot of stress — even if you don't realize it — it causes your sympathetic system to be in overdrive,” says Katja Zeisler, DPT, a physical therapist at California Rehabilitation and Sports Therapy in Fountain Valley, California. “The reasoning behind ‘icing’ your vagus nerve is that cold temperatures can promote cardiac vagal activity, which increases heart rate variability.”
Heart rate variability is a sign of decreased stress. And research, including a study published in 2018 in?JMIR Formative Research, suggests that cold stimulation, such as applying an ice pack, increases heart rate variability. But, Zeisler adds, “it's not clear how this translates to overall vagus nerve activity.”
Zeisler notes that chest icing might help get your sympathetic nervous system out of overdrive — which if in this heightened state can increase anxiety and heart rate, per Cleveland Clinic?—?based on evidence (like the aforementioned study) that suggests cold stimulation can do this. Other research suggests that whole body cryotherapy, complete body submersion into cold water, might help with mood and managing anxiety disorders.
But she adds that she’s not aware of any research that’s specifically looked at whether or not icing your chest (in the manner described on TikTok) can do this.
And it’s worth pointing out that even if it does work, it’s a temporary fix, rather than a preventive one. “Is it going to address why their body is in a state of fight or flight [increased stress] in the first place? Definitely not,” she says. Lifestyle changes to manage stress (like exercise, healthy eating, and meditation) are usually more helpful strategies for coping with (and avoiding unnecessary) stress in the long run, she adds.
Who Should Try (and Avoid) This Trend
Despite how harmless icing your chest may sound, Dr. Weiss warns that it should still be approached with caution. “I would advise anyone experiencing sleep problems, anxiety, and depression to visit their primary care provider before trying anything they see on TikTok,” says Weiss. “Overall risks include an excessive drop in heart rate and blood pressure, particularly for those with cardiovascular or vasovagal disorders.”
She recommends seeking medical advice and counseling for accurate treatment. Additionally, meditation and breathing exercises are two strategies that could help manage stress and anxiety and improve sleep with far fewer risks, she says.
Another thing to be mindful of is to not put the ice pack directly onto your skin, otherwise you run the risk of frostbite or skin irritation, per Cedars-Sinai. Be sure to wrap it with a towel before placing it on your skin.
While there aren’t clinical trials attesting to the benefits of stimulating the vagus nerve specifically with ice or cold stimulation to the chest, it may offer temporary relief in easing anxiety and promoting sleep, Weiss says.
But, it’s still important to speak with a primary care provider before implementing the technique into your daily regimen, in case there’s an underlying problem that could be better treated by other means — and to double check that you don’t have an underlying health issue that could make chest icing unsafe.