Anxiety is believing the absolute worst-case scenario is going to happen.
Why? No good reason, but your mind comes up with thousands of painfully convincing reasons as simple as “you deserve it,” “you have it too good and it’s bound to happen” and “it’s just a matter of time before tragedy strikes your life.”
When I am dealing with anxiety and imagining the worst, I try to visualize myself in the worst-case scenario and actually think through what would happen and how I would react. So the worst possible thing happens, then what?
Facing Fears Through Freediving in Mexico
What if you were to plunge headfirst into fear, uncertainty and discomfort? Would your anxiety peak so high that you’d explode? Or would something else happen? What happens when we ‘face’ our fears anyway?
It doesn’t make sense, but that’s literally what I did. I went to Mexico to freedive in the midst of the most painful time in my life.
Freediving to Overcome Anxiety
Freediving teaches you how to overcome any fear or anxiety by using your breath and body.
I had just suffered a perspective-altering heartbreak and was ridden with anxiety, rejection, confusion and fear of the future, when I took a previously-planned solo trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. That’s where I plunged headfirst into a deep, dark cenote in hopes of finding peace and calm.
What Did I Get Myself Into?
It wasn’t all a cake walk. Not even 24 hours into my Mexico vacation and I was on the phone with my parents crying and telling them how I was looking at flights home. Feeling utterly heartbroken away from home is enough—add three days ahead of waking up early and diving into cold, dark water that you’re terrified of and it’s a recipe for buckets of tears.
However, I hate quitting and wasting time so freediving was happening one way or another. I had heard of freediving’s therapeutic benefits and even that it’s considered “yoga underwater,” so I was hopeful that getting my Level 1 certification would help me find peace and strength in myself. What I walked away with was so much more transformative than a new hobby or even a personal accomplishment. Freediving helped me process and overcome anxiety and fear, and reveal strength I didn’t know I had.
A Deeper Look at Freediving in the Cenotes
The best and worst part of freediving is that it’s all you. There’s no breathing apparatus like in scuba diving, just your body and thoughts. It’s amazing because everything you accomplish—the depth, breathing and diving techniques, equalization—is 100% you. It’s terrifying because it puts you face to face with anything holding you back, like fear and doubt or, in my case, all of the above plus rejection and heartache.
Freediving’s Effect on the Body
After a few minutes of relaxation breathing, it’s time. You take your final breath and dive headfirst into the water.
When using the free immersion freediving technique, you reach under the buoy, grab the rope and flip so you are descending headfirst along a line. Pull by pull, you are going deeper and feeling the water envelop you. You feel weightless, yet like something is holding you. You equalize every few pulls and try to streamline your movements to save energy until you become negatively buoyant and freefall. As the pressure intensifies, bringing air into your mouth to equalize becomes more challenging and feels like something is constricting your throat.
Mammalian Dive Reflex
The moment your face entered the water, the Mammalian Dive Reflex (MDR) kicked in. During the MDR, your heartbeat slows (bradycardia) and blood shift happens, meaning blood is redirected from your extremities to the head and torso (brain and heart) to conserve oxygen and protect your organs from an increase in pressure.
Freediving’s Effect on the Mind
Underwater, you are immersed in the present moment. Your heart’s beating slowly, seconds feel like hours and all your senses are enhanced as you descend further and further from the light and everything familiar. It’s silent but not like on the surface. Silence underwater isn’t piercing—it’s bubbly and subtle. You notice crystal beams of light dancing through the water as you become one with the liquid absorbing you.
Alone With Your Thoughts Underwater
Your thoughts are the loudest they’ve ever been, clearer than ever before. It’s just you and the seemingly endless depth below, but you feel immense clarity and peace. “Here” is all you know. Thoughts of what you ate for breakfast or the guy that broke your heart are as good as gone. All that matters is the perfect present.
As you sink deeper and deeper, fearful thoughts of how far you are from the surface creep into your mind. You suddenly remember how uncomfortable you are. You wonder, “how am I the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been and the most at peace at the same time?” World champion freediver, Guillaume Nery, calls it the “Exhilarating Peace of Freediving.”
Freediving & Self-Control
Freediving teaches you complete self-control—of body and mind. You only get better at freediving by understanding your body and learning to control your thoughts. Often, this means completely letting go of control and succumbing to the deep. Other times, you must push past the fearful thoughts and discomfort and relax if you want to dive deeper and conserve oxygen. Once you decide to turn, it’s a battle to stay relaxed and not rush to the surface.
Staying Calm Is the Key to Safe Freediving
Injuries happen when you rush or panic in freediving. Whether diving down or ascending, you should always keep your head straight and look directly in front of you. Looking up increases the likelihood of trachea and lung squeezes and makes equalizing harder. As a new freediver, this is especially challenging because when descending, any normal person is anxious to get to the bottom of the line, and when ascending, anxious to know how far until the surface.
A Graceful Ascent in Freediving
Even though the most exciting part of freediving is often the depths, ascending gracefully is its own accomplishment. You’re not at the surface, but you’ve done it. You did the dive and now you’re on your way back to fresh oxygen and warm sunshine. Controlling the pace of your ascent has to be one of the best exercises in self-control available to humans. It goes against everything we know. Your body and mind scream, “I need to breathe” and you have to tell yourself, “I am okay. I have much more oxygen than I realize and my trained buddy is right beside me should I need assistance.” You have to trust yourself, your buddy and the nature of adventure, and step into the unknown.
Freediving’s Effect on the Spirit
Just before you break the surface, you exhale all the carbon dioxide building during the dive so you can immediately inhale and complete recovery breathing. Once you surface, you feel like you’re on cloud nine (and it’s not because of low oxygen levels).
You start processing everything that just happened. “How did so much happen in less than two minutes underwater?” you speculate. In the time between your breathe-up and recovery breathing, you experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Processing all the thoughts, feelings and senses can take days to unpack—just ask any freediver!
Freediving Teaches You to Believe in Yourself
Similar to solo travel, freediving sh0ws you that you can come face to face to scary situations and come out okay on the other side. After conquering both the mental and physical challenges of a dive, you have newfound strength and courage. You realize that you can overcome fears, push limits and accomplish amazing things just by believing in yourself. You reach depths you never knew possible and walk away feeling alive and refreshed.
Freediving Gives You a Community
Freediving isn’t a hobby just for marine biologists and beach bums; freedivers come from all walks of life! You always need a dive buddy so it’s an amazing activity for making friends and building a community. There’s no quicker way to build a connection with someone than by trusting one another for safety, talking through anxiety and sharing moments of breakthrough.
Adventure Travel for Freediving
If you loved traveling before freediving, your adventures are about to reach a whole new level depth. Now when you plan trips, you’ll consider which destinations have water or unique experiences, like swimming with whale sharks in Mexico, orcas in Norway or spearfishing in Florida. Freediving opens up a whole new world of adventure and sights you’d never consider.
Freediving Gives You Personal Pride Like Never Before
The pride I’ve felt from freediving is like nothing I’ve experienced before. As a new freediver, every dive teaches me something about myself and puts me face to face with different internal struggles. After a day of diving, I can’t help but just sit down alone and try to process everything that happened inside me.
I think thoughts like, “If I can dive to 23 meters on a single breath, I can do anything!” and run through all the special moments I experienced underwater that belong to me alone. Often, thoughts of what I wanted to accomplish when was a child cross my mind and I think, “Wow, as a child, I never conceived of going the places I went today in my wildest dreams. Child me would be really proud of me today.”
It’s a deeply personal sense of accomplishment that no one can take away.
Freediving Isn’t Just Another Hobby
Freediving became my love, sport, antidote, passion and escape. Holding my breath underwater is the one place I can trust my true self to be revealed. No more facades, personas or dreams of who I want to be cover me. As soon as I descend, the true me comes to the surface.
When you take a breath and dive down, I hope you like who you find in the deep.
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