As a child I experienced anxiety and apprehension about two things, violence and drowning. I was never content to have my life run by fear so as an adult I began a life course to train in and understand violence. This led me to competitive fighting and to work in some of the most dangerous environments on earth. When I lived in Australia, I decided that it was time to tackle my other fear, the fear of drowning. I enrolled in a free diving course run by a no-limits free diving world champion. I had no idea how these disciplines would soon overlap and inform one another.

Free diving is one of the world’s most dangerous sports, it boasts a mortality rate similar to base jumping. I knew that this would be an enormous mental and physical challenge, I also knew that I needed to meet this challenge. Free diving is an apnea sport, an apnea sport is a sport done where you are unable to actively breathe. There are two categories, static apnea where you sit motionless with your face submerged in a pool, and dynamic apnea. Dynamic apnea includes swimming laps underwater in a pool and the more exciting variety, free diving.

In the last two decades free diving had undergone a revolution which saw world records in constant weight go from 60 meters to 244 meters (constant weight: without fins) and dynamic free diving go from 100 meters to 300 meters (dynamic: with fins on the feet). This revolution was driven by a fundamental shift in our understanding of human physiology.

Evolution and Adaptation

In the last few decades scientists discovered a phenomenon known as the mammalian diving reflex. When the human face is submerged in water (cool water) the heart rate drops immediately. When unable to breathe normally a reduced heart rate is an exceedingly advantageous adaptation. Lower heart rate means that your body is using less oxygen, and thus can remain submerged longer! Additionally, free divers learned that at ten meters deep the human body attains negative buoyance. Previously divers had kicked their legs constantly propelling them into the depths, now they knew that at ten meters they could completely relax (conserving oxygen) and they would plummet downward without effort… imagine being on an aquatic elevator.

One of the key elements one must master to excel in apnea sports is to control some of the processes typically managed in our usual homeostasis (breathing, oxygen consumption, brain function). The diver who can best reduce excess use of oxygen will succeed. Two tools free divers use are yoga inspired breathing, and mindfulness exercises.

Managing Panic is Key to Success

The primary reason humans surface when diving is not a lack of oxygen but the body’s reaction to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. As CO2 increases the body undergoes a process known as ‘diaphragmatic contraction’. This is an unpleasant phenomenon where the diaphragm spasms, the larynx and throat soon do the same. This benign reaction causes panic in many new divers, and it certainly did for me.

As these contractions progress the mind begins to drift towards a sense of panic (these contractions are not to be ignored they do signal impending depletion of our oxygen supply). They MUST be managed. If you have reached a depth of say 30 meters and intend return to the surface you must relax through your contractions and not panic which would accelerate your oxygen consumption potentially resulting in a shallow water black out (the phenomenon where a diver blacks out in the last few meters before resurfacing, the leading cause of death in free diving). This is the reason one should NEVER do any apnea sport without a partner trained in the diagnosis of shallow water blackout and CPR.

Take Control of your Mind

The human brain is a greedy consumer of oxygenated blood. The very process of thinking can use up oxygenated blood and increase the heart rate. Even more so once a sense of panic sets in. A key element of any apnea sport and free diving in particular is to manage the direction and function of your own mind. You must be able to feel and accept an involuntary reaction that typically causes panic and relax further. How does one manage such a fundamentally counterintuitive feat?

The answer is practice and a tireless dedication to mastering one’s own mind. An important technique for this is visualization, keeping your mind focused on a simple visual (such as a feather falling and hovering just above the ground). This allows your mind to drift and feel a sense of calm while danger swirls around you. Here is where the world’s overlapped!

Stress Management is a Transferable Skill

Free divers have something in common with people who deal with critical incidents professionally. They manage to control their own mind. As our knowledge of deadly violence has progressed more and more successful instructors have incorporated extensive visualization and breathing training. Imagine that, the free diver calmly resurfacing as the last oxygen in his lungs is expended and the police officer just involved in a deadly shooting have something in common. Threat stimuli abound, the potential for death is just there, in front them, waiting for them to slip, panic and fall into its cold grasp.

Spending time training in apnea sports helped me master my mind and my body. It allowed me to view stress, even stress created by potential death, as simply another process of my body. Learning to control my mind and breath allowed me to perform better in combat sports, and most importantly in work environments that placed me in very hostile environments. What would my response be to facing a deadly threat at work be, would it be to give in to panic, or to visualize, control my breathing, lower my heart rate and regain the executive functions in my brain?

Being Tough isn’t Always What we Imagine

I have experienced both sides of that coin, I have failed in high stress situations, been broken, quit, and lost. However, the skills I learned in my free diving training have allowed me to push beyond my existing limitations and the boundaries of stress and panic. You will never be able to not panic, surprise and imminent danger are too powerful of stimuli, however you will be able to recover faster and perform better if you can master some basic visualization and breathing techniques.

Sometimes the tough warrior must also be very well in tune with his own mind and body. In control of his mind, self-aware, mindful, and calm. This visual may not comport with your image of a tough warrior, but I guarantee it is the very thing true about the effective warrior. Stress is natural, you can manage it, but sometimes you must look within and be open to atypical techniques to achieve this.

*Image: Bloomberg.com

Into the Deep: Apnea Training and Stress Management

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