This post was written by Timm, creator of Llama Socks
When i first started scuba diving back in 2013, my initial reaction, like most first timers, was fear. Diving has this innate anxiety tied to it because on top of all of our catalogued, predisposed fears about the ocean (sharks, tsunamis, giant squid, those aliens from "Abyss"...), diving ALSO requires us to re-learn how to breathe.
The act of breathing mixed oxygen out of a tank, through a hose, regulated by a pressurized mouth piece, will immediately trigger alarm bells in the brain of any first time diver. This is because it does not feel like breathing Earth air. It feels alien, and even scarier...it feels finite.
The loss of peripheral vision that occurs when you strap on a diving mask can as well, be alarming. Toss in some mild to medium claustrophobia, constricted ear canals, and the loss of gravity, and you've got yourself a one way ticket to panic attack city (...my least favorite city).
When we dive, we are the proverbial fish. You know...the ones who have found themselves, so unfortunately, out of the water? Except that in this instance, it is us who are out of our element... surrounded by all of those smug fish, breathing and swimming effortlessly and laughing at us as they jet by.
Down there, under the sea, we become limited in our mobility. We have no control over our environment, and to make things worse, we have no voice. Underwater, we lose our ability to communicate our distress. The comfort of control is sacrificed the very moment we go under, and immediately our little lizard brain -- the reactive and impetuous one -- gets triggered.
When "Izzy" (that's the lizard), reacts to anxiety, things tend to snowball quickly. Apprehension turns to panic, and panic turns to hyperventilation. When we hyperventilate, our body weakens, our brain loses oxygen, and our awareness gets crippled (we also make scary noises and lose ALL sex appeal, but that's a secondary issue....)
It's now seven years after I took my first Open Water diving course, and I am still an avid diver. I am actually a certified dive master with well over 200 logged dives and I dive everywhere I go in the world, as long as there is equipment and a boat to take me out. I have dived with bull sharks in Mozambique, and Hammerheads and Black Tips in the Galapagos. I've penetrated shipwrecks 50 meters deep, and navigated currents that felt like underwater washing machines. All this to say that I have experienced the terror of a runaway underwater panic, not once, not twice, but multiple times in my diving career. No matter how experienced, confident, or educated we may consider ourselves, when panic gets ahold of us, our reactive brain starts fighting for control, and all reason goes right out the window.
I have had moments of uncertainty as deep as 40 meters below the surface of the sea, where accidents can mean death. I have felt the choking sensation of hyperventilation in my throat, and struggled to maintain control of my senses. I have wrestled with my lizard brain, the one that only speaks of fear and failure, and i have struggled to keep it together, both underwater as well as on dry land.
When our body responds to uncertainty with fear and adrenaline, our breathing automatically increases, and we start gasping for air. We breath it in gulps and heave it through our circulatory systems. We suck it down like a starving animal, and still we feel breathless, and exhausted, and terrified.
But we human beings are more than just our programming. We have the ability to change our reactions, despite our hard-wiring. In moments of panic, underwater or otherwise, we must tame that little lizard and go against the body's urge to freak the f*ck out.
If we focus on each inhalation, to make them long, deep, and purposeful, a truly amazing thing can happen. With each measured intake, the tensions begin to ease. The first few breaths feel shaky and uncertain, but within five to ten seconds of consistent, deliberate breathing, our sense of control begins to return, and along with it, a comforting voice from within. This voice is the real you, the inner you, the you that's rational, and kind, and so much more than a programmed reaction. You know the voice when you hear it because it is confident, it is unfaltering, and it is never, not-kind. This you is here to assure you that you can handle it.
I never know when I start a dive if I'll have to face the panic demon. I know only that I am going underwater. That accidents are unlikely, but that they do occur. I know currents can be rough, visibility can be slight, and that absolutely anything can happen. For me, most dives begin like this... my brain feverishly leafing through my catalogued collection of catastrophic outcomes. My palms begin to sweat, my stomach churns, and I find myself wondering if I was even built for this.
But I love diving. I love rolling backward off the edge of the boat into the cool, inviting water. I love feeling my descent as i drop steadily through the blue. I love seeing the bottom come into view, slowly, as I get deeper and deeper below the surface. I love the surging dopamine levels and the feeling of weightlessness. I love the coral, and the turtles, and the hammerhead sharks (shoutout to the hammerheads y'all!). I love the privilege of getting a glimpse of a world that up until recently, we never had the ability to see. And lastly, I love that quiet opportunity that scuba provides me, the opportunity to really listen to myself, to feel myself breathe.
Panic is a reality of life, and all the best bits are worth pushing through. To imagine my life without scuba diving, to miss out on an entire underwater world, because of a lost war against anxiety? For me, that would truly be a tragedy.
Scuba Diving is where I really began to understand and depend on breathing to battle my anxiety, but it isn't the only scenario in which it's helped me. We are all triggered by the modern world everyday. When I think about my anxiety NOW, and my relationship to it, scuba diving is barely a blip. Neither is sky-diving, or bungee-jumping, or navigating the traffic in Nairobi. When I think about my anxiety, I think about loss, about getting older, and about disappointing the people I love. I think about missed opportunity, and estranged family, and ancient viruses, waking up in the thawing tundra. I think about the hungry, the poor, and the ballooning world population., and these days, in the age of COVID, i think about healthcare, a dwindling bank account, and a world that may never really be the same.
I think that it's true that there is no life without anxiety, and I think that everyone's path to self-love and actualization is a unique and deeply personal one. We can not pass on the bounty of life simply because there are experiences that challenge us, and trigger us. These challenges are essential to our happiness, essential to our spirit. We have to build a relationship with the sweetness that's inside us, so we can rise to the occasion and give ourselves the life that we deserve.
When we feel anxiety rising, or when anxiety keeps us from diving, or traveling, or trying something new, or even giving ourselves credit for taking a chance, remember to hold on tight and inhale deep. Remind yourself that when we seek experience, and trust ourselves to face the challenges, we are taking in the world around us, and enriching our lives with purpose and perspective. We all carry with us our anxieties throughout this life, but this is the only one we've got, so we must allow ourselves the opportunity to enjoy it. There is so much to experience on this freaky little blue planet. So much we can and should take in, one, long, deep breath at a time.
Timm is a PADI certified dive master, travel addict, history nerd, and the writer/creator/founder of Llama Socks : a travel guide for itchy feet. When not on the road (which is rare), he's most likely at home in NYC, dreaming about what life would be like if cats could talk and patiently awaiting the ascendence of a global matriarchal society. Llama Socks is a free online travel guide for budget-minded travelers eager to get off the beaten path and make the most out of this sweet little adventure we call life.