Diving into and out of Panic
at the Great Blue Hole
We’ve all panicked from time to time, to some degree or another. When it’s over something harmless, like waking up late, it’s the stuff of comedy. Think Hugh Grant’s character, Charles, in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Funny because we can all relate. You realize you missed the alarm and you have alarming thoughts doused with expletives, rushing around as if you could make up for lost time. Only to realize you are running around in circles. Hijinks for observers. Being late, after all, is not the end of the world.
Not so funny is an actual panic attack. Until you’ve experienced it, it’s really hard to grock. This does feel like the end of the world. Like a heart attack. As in, I can’t breathe, I think I’m dying attack. Typically, they come seemingly “out of the blue.”
Diving the Great Blue Hole in Belize doesn’t really fall into the out-of-the-blue category. It’s a 130-foot dive with a brisk, 3-minute descent time that allows you 8 minutes of meandering underneath a wall of 40-foot stalactites next to a 400-foot, deep-blue, eerie abyss. Made famous by Jaques Cousteau’s naming it one of the top 10 dives in the world, it’s a bucket-list badge of honor for divers. It is not for the faint of heart or beginner diver. Or logically, for a moderately experienced but out-of-practice diver like me.
Yet there I was in Belize with my bucket list. I had to do it. Despite nobody I knew going with me. Despite my long respite from deep dives. And let’s just say, despite my better judgment.
I’m excited and nervous as I wait on the pier for the water taxi to take me to the dive shop. It’s uncommonly still. No breeze – which is bizarre because it’s always breezy in Belize. This means the 3-hour boat ride to the Blue Hole will be smooth. This means getting into the water at the Blue Hole will be easy. This means I can relax.
At the dive shop, the staff seems calculatedly nonchalant. Someone tosses me a mask and declares from 6 feet away that it is a perfect fit. My previous snorkeling excursions earlier in the week were not so lucky. They don’t bother to offer me a wetsuit, though everyone else has one. They seem a little too relaxed. “You don’t really need one. The water’s warm. This one should fit if you really want one.” I try on the wetsuit with purple and pink stripes, another good sign. It fits. The staff keeps repeating how easy the Blue Hole dive is. All seven of the divers are excited and nervous. No one thinks it’s an easy dive. None of us have done it before. I feel comforted that we are all metaphorically in the same boat.
As we near our destination, the dive master gathers us around and goes over the basic safety routine – how to clear your mask and your ears, universal hand signals, air supply. He reminds us that we have a second, emergency regulator to breathe through. Between reminders of how safe the dive is, he warns that we have to go single file and stay at his depth. He warns us that there will be no stopping and that if you have a problem and have to go back, you are on your own. “We can’t sacrifice the group for one.” Ummmm…. What?! “The dive is really safe… there is only one thing that can be a problem - nerves.” Only. One. Problem.
I fidget with my equipment. I make sure the BC (buoyancy compensator) will inflate. This is what keeps you from sinking to the bottom. If you sink to the bottom at 400 feet, you are not coming back up. Period. Once you dive below 50 feet, you start to sink rapidly without the BC. I check the regulator, literally the pipeline to your air supply. I check the air gauge. I remind myself that I am brave. I’m the second one to jump into the water. I do the 2-foot dive below the surface test as instructed. There’s only one problem.
“I can’t get enough air from the regulator,” I say, taking the regulator out of my mouth. And so it begins. The rapid-fire, rabbit-hole rationale that begins and ends with: This is a big mistake! Before I got into the water, I checked to make sure the regulator was working. But I didn’t actually breathe out of it to make sure it was working correctly. I don’t know this equipment. I don’t know these people. The resort didn’t recommend this outfit. Nobody in this group gives a flying f*ck about me. What if my mask doesn’t really fit? My mask didn’t fit when I was snorkeling the other day and I spent the whole time clearing it with my eyes burning. I can’t do that at 130 feet. What if I can’t clear my ears? I couldn’t free dive to 15 feet without my ears hurting the other day. And I could not clear them. This is crazy. What if I can’t clear my mask or my ears at 100 feet? I can’t go straight back up because then I’d have to go to a decompression tank. You can’t go straight back up anyway because you are diving on a diagonal underneath limestone after 50 feet. How would I find my way back? What EXACTLY does sacrifice one diver mean? What do you mean, “You are on your own”? Where IS a decompression tank? I can’t fly to it because you can’t fly after a deep dive. What exactly are those rules again? What if I can’t breathe at 100 feet? What if there are hammerheads? Why had I been hoping to see a hammerhead (shark, that is)? I am crazy?! I can’t breathe NOW! I don’t think I can do this. What the actual f*ck was I thinking?! This is a big mistake!
Every thought, a dead end.
Someone checks and assures me that the regulator valve is all the way open. This does NOT make me feel better. This only confirms that there is a problem with the equipment. I breathe through my nose. I can breathe fine through my nose. I put the regulator back on and still can’t breathe freely. Proof that it’s the regulator. I take the regulator back out and announce in a tone of voice that says it all, “I’m feeling a little panicked.” Then something really interesting happens. I notice that I also cannot breathe freely on my own without the regulator. I’m confused because I thought that I could, but now the regulator isn’t part of the I-can’t-breathe equation. I am gulping air in through my mouth, not yet realizing this, only aware that I cannot get enough breath and that I don’t think I can do this. I’m on the surface. I can’t breathe. This is what asthma or COPD must feel like. This is interesting. I make a mental note that this is going to be interesting later, followed by a note that I ASSume there will be a later.
The dive master is standing on the boat and pronounces, “You are panicking.” (I think but now realize I am not 100% sure that I said that out loud already.) “Stop treading water. You are going to wear yourself out. Inflate your BC (aka your don’t-drop-to-400-feet rescue device). And relax. Just breathe.”
OK. Even then, I appreciated the humor. You wouldn’t think that someone telling you to breathe and that you are panicking would be helpful. And we all know how maddening “just relax” is. But for me, it was a moment of insight. I had been absolutely unaware that I was treading water. I was some combination of confused, embarrassed and amused that someone was telling me how to breathe… even as I couldn’t. I recognized that I have been working like mad to stay afloat. Maybe that’s why I was out of breath. Maybe it was nothing. Just relax. I inflated the BC. It pressed into my ribs and exaggerated rather than ameliorated my I-can’t-breathe status.
Then something magical happened. I recognized that this can’t be true. BC’s do not inhibit breath. Scuba equipment does not make people sink. I don’t have asthma. I know how to breathe. And I witnessed myself as being in a self-induced, self-deluded panic attack. Nothing is wrong and I can’t breathe. Now, this IS interesting.
I decided to question my thoughts against what I know to be true.
1. Mouth breathing can be panic inducing. Sort of a conundrum when you are breathing through a regulator, necessarily through your mouth. The problem is you can gulp in more oxygen than you need without getting the CO2 that is required to get the oxygen to your tissues, and in particular to your brain. This is a classic case of less is more. I choose to breathe through my nose while I sort it all out as I’m floating on the surface.
2. I have a rational mind and a fact checker in my brain. It’s always running in the background. Sort of a PITA at times, but my best and only friend right now. If I can talk myself into panic, I can think my way out.
3. If you can speak, you are breathing. Period. Good to know, right? If you can’t breathe, you will pass out so your autonomic nervous system will reset your breathing. If you are on land, this is also good to know. In the water, not so much.
4. I understand the nervous system. Panic is just my nervous system in fight/flight/freeze. It’s beneath the surface of consciousness. Three elements are at work subconsciously deciding if the situation is A) malevolent or benevolent; B) “permanent” or transitory; and C) out of or within my control. If I can wrap my brain around the idea that the situation is benevolent, transitory and within my control, I will relax. Awesome. I’m already starting to feel in control.
5. Nothing in nature is malevolent. (We can argue this point ad nauseum but for now, it’s my story so play along.) Everything is transitory. (ditto) Besides, I know exactly how long the dive is, to the minute.
6. If I start clearing my ears and my mask from the get go, I can’t possibly get out of my depth with this. If I’m good at 30 feet, one depth down, I will know from past experience that I am good at 130 feet. If I’m not, it’s a straight shot up with no repercussions for resurfacing from 30 feet down. I can choose to bail if I need to.
7. I will know as soon as I get under water that if I can breathe at 2 feet that the regulator IS working. Then I can also breathe at 130 feet. I know I can change my mind. I am in control.
8. I remind myself that I am absolutely mesmerized and at ease under water. I do not suck air. I do not panic. I can trust myself.
9. I am brave. THAT is real.
Meanwhile, the dive master is in the water. He looks at me and says, “You are first after me.” It’s go time. I remind myself that I can change my mind. Then I deflate my BC so I can get below the surface. And my regulator and my breath are absolutely fine. And I AM mesmerized and at ease. I kept repeating - like a mantra - clear your mask, clear your eyes, take slow breaths, stay with the dive master. And before I knew it, the 3-minute descent to the gigantic, limestone stalactites is over. We have arrived at the 130-foot depth. I can breathe. I am fine.
The Blue Hole is a collapsed cave, so that the normal sway you experience underwater is absent. It is virtually still. Except there is a curious, constant stream of tiny slivers of limestone silt shimmering all around. There is almost no sea life in the crystal-clear water. The stalactites are nothing like the sparkly, pointy, icicle-shaped ones I have seen on land. Instead, they look like something out of Dr. Seuss. They are enormous, round, ropy-shaped and neutral-colored sculptures that go on forever. As we glide alongside them, it is an uncanny juxtaposition – the massive, solid-stone tapering structures piercing the spacious chasm of the translucent blue sinkhole. It is an unbelievably ethereal experience.
Back on the boat, we are all elated that “We did it!” I feel incredibly grateful that I changed my mind. I freed myself from fear and opened up to experience what was actually happening. And what actually happened was a magical adventure I will never forget.
It was an incredible re-mind-er of the real goal of yoga as an awareness practice. It allowed me to go off the mat and into a whole other magical world. It gives me the tools to be brave. Granted, I didn’t have a full-blown take-me-to-the-ER I-think-I’m-dying panic attack. It only lasted a couple of minutes, thanks to the firm observation of the dive master. His reality check cued me into my body and out of my insanity - as in I was out of my mind and in a fantasy of frightening thoughts. This is the essence of mindfulness: recognizing thoughts, questioning their veracity, feeling the impact of thoughts on the body, and shifting attention to feeling the experience of the moment.
I know that full-blown panic attacks may not be helped with suggestions to relax, breathe and stop panicking. I know that I only got a glimpse of how crazy-making, isolating and scary panic attacks can be. I have a lot of students who get panic attacks. And one of the things that makes them difficult – the panic attacks, not the students?! -- is their mysterious arrival. Out-of-the-blue, out-of-control anxiety and the inability to track its triggers or its source.
There are short-term strategies, while you are riding out a panic attack. Here is a great article with a simple acronym, AWARE, and simple – not easy! – steps on what to do and how to BE in the midst of an attack: http://www.anxietycoach.com/overcoming-panic-attacks.html
There is a saying, “Panic is not a long-term strategy.” Super not helpful, right? Yoga IS a long-term strategy for panic attacks. Panic is an out-of-body experience; yoga is a get-in-your-body practice. Panic is an isolating experience; yoga is a community activity. Panic takes your breath away; yoga connects you to your breath. Panic makes you feel out of control; yoga teaches you self control. Panic can be caused by stress; yoga reduces stress. Panic is steeped in fear; true yoga is imbued with love.
THIS IS WHY WE PRACTICE!
Yoga. Breathe. Love. Live. Your bucket list is waiting! and so is your yoga community!