No matter where you live, whether you love or loathe the heat, it’s helpful to have a few strategies for cooling down that are not dependent on air conditioning—they can be literal life-savers. And they can be especially helpful in areas that don’t normally rely on air conditioning, like the Pacific Northwest, which is currently experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. Extreme heat can be physically dangerous, and it affects our minds and moods, too. I’m one of the heat loathers, but I’ve lived most of my life without central air. I now live in Southern California, where summer blackouts due to an overburdened electrical grid are a constant worry. Because of all this, I’ve developed a nightly ritual of dousing myself in cold water, with the aid of a bath pail that I keep by my shower solely for this purpose.
There is no more effective way to bring down your body temperature than with cold water. Submerging your body in ice water works the fastest, but cold showers also help. I’ve tried becoming a cold-shower person, but I always come back to my bucket. It may not be as effective as full immersion, but it takes less time and defies my sluggishness. I can get my limbs cool first before shocking my torso, which always makes me flinch. It’s all over more quickly than I can talk myself out of it, and it’s instant relief. Sometimes, since I work from home, I douse myself throughout the day to chill myself out. It especially helped last summer in the midst of a heat wave that registered 120 degrees Fahrenheit on my thermostat, despite my window AC blasting valiantly. And I could almost see the radiant heat shimmering off of my skin.
Besides physical relief from heat, I noticed that my cold-water dousing has another, almost instantaneous effect: It lifts the bad moods I sometimes experience when I’ve been hot for hours. “There are some people for whom the summer, with everything that it brings, is going to cause trouble,” said psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal, who is widely described as being the lead scientist behind the paper that first named seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It turns out that summertime SAD might totally be a thing, making people moody, weary, and cranky, as opposed to the more downbeat feelings that come with winter SAD. Rosenthal described the winter version to me as being more lethargic. “They identify with hibernating bears. It’s a lethargic depression. The summer depression is an irritable, agitated depression,” he said.
Though I’m not officially diagnosed with summertime SAD, I’m not alone in seeking the cold-water cure for its mood benefits. “We have anecdotal reports of people who have gone and swum in cold lakes or taken cold baths or showers that actually feel better,” said Rosenthal (though he cautions that there’s no control study). “If you’re feeling this [way] at this time of year, try these things and see if they help.”
In addition to potentially boosting your mood, these activities can also help prevent serious injury—and even death. In the US, the number of annual grid failures doubled between 2015 and 2020, and because of climate change, the co-occurrence of extreme heat and blackouts is growing more common. This combination can be deadly due to heatstroke, which occurs when a person’s internal body temperature reaches 103 degrees or higher. Heatstroke happens either because the person has spent extended time in a hot environment like a locked car or apartment and can’t cool down (known as “classic” heatstroke) or because of intense exercise that overheats the body, overriding its ability to self-cool (known as “exertional” heatstroke). Above that internal temperature, our central nervous system becomes impaired; after 30 minutes, cell membranes begin to fail, causing tissue damage. Some people—including those with underlying health conditions, folks over 65, very young children, and people in spaces without AC—are at an even higher risk. Douglas Casa, who heads the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, told me that getting a person’s body temperature down fast, within 30 minutes of the onset of heatstroke, is crucial: “When that’s been done, survivability has been 100 percent.”
Casa calls “cold-water immersion” (better known as submerging someone in frigid water, the colder the better) the “gold standard” for treating exertional heatstroke. Full immersion is the go-to method, but any repeated skin contact with cold water—such as a cold shower—will cool you down fast, said June Spector, a physician-scientist and expert on heat exposure. Or you can try “rotating freezing-cold wet towels over the entire body,” Casa said, adding this is about two-thirds as effective for exertional heatstroke as immersion in a tub. Granted, you may not have access to ice during a blackout, but regular cold tap water should still help significantly. Splashing yourself may be a good idea, even if you’re simply feeling too sticky, especially if you’re at a higher risk for classic heatstroke. And Casa said he urges parents to request cooling tubs (PDF) at sports practice for their children because they can save lives.
For comfort, dousing yourself at home is easy and requires minimal travel. And if you keep a bucket by your tap, it has a low barrier to entry. You’re in complete control of where and how you splash. Douse your legs in the front and then the back. Then douse your arms, getting the crooks of your elbows, and pour water on the back of your neck so it crashes down your back. I’ve gotten good at contorting in the shower around the trajectory of the water, keeping whatever part of my body—and even my clothes—dry until I’m ready for the shock of relief. It’s best to follow Casa’s advice for effective cooling: “The more surface area being cooled the better, [and] the colder the water the better.” Any water that is cooler than your body temperature will help lower your temperature, but if your tap water doesn’t feel cool enough, you could try adding some ice to the pail, if you have some.
Through repeated use of my pail, I’ve developed a sentimental attachment to it. I bought it a few years ago at Muji. It’s a lightweight plastic pail—a bit bigger than a 32-ounce yogurt container and shaped like one—with a long, straight handle to grip it with one hand. My pail is in the style of bathing scoops used for rinsing off before soaking in bathrooms and public onsen in Japan. This particular Muji pail is currently sold out online at the time of writing. But you can find inexpensive three-packs for less than $20, a single bucket for less than $10, or one with a wooden handle for around $25. What you want is any small or medium scoop-shaped vessel that you can get a comfortable grip on; this is why I like Japanese bathing pails. But you could, of course, use a mixing bowl, a garden pail, a child’s beach bucket—even an actual old yogurt container! If you want to spring for one, there are beautiful bath buckets made with hinoki cypress wood, like this one (sold through Tortoise General Store) or this one (sold through Jinen). They contain zero plastic and, most appealingly, emit a gorgeous scent.
But for me it’s more about the electricity-free ritual—and the miracle of cold water—than it is about the pail. It’s become a source of delight, even bemusement. Each summer night, I laugh at myself marveling at the absurd, imperfect link between my mind, my body, and the weather. I’m not a hothead. I was just too hot.
1. Douglas Casa, PhD, professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Connecticut and CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, phone interview, June 3, 2021
2. Normal Rosenthal, MD, psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, phone interview, June 1, 2021
3. June Spector, MD, MPH, physician-scientist and associate professor and assistant chair at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at University of Washington School of Public Health, email, June 2, 2021