A Feeling of Wellbeing After Freediving; Is It All in My Mind?
In late 2019 – and on the wrong side of 50 – I found myself taking stock of where I was in my life, and contemplating change. I had faced many of the usual challenges encountered in modern life, including intrusion from technology, seeking work-life balance, relationship issues, raising a family, and financial pressures. Having also been a police officer for over 30 years, I had seen and done many things that the human body and mind are arguably not designed to endure. In addition to the general challenges of a job renowned for its high demand-low control, and human resource challenges, I’d been shot at, attacked by an offender armed with a knife, otherwise had my life severely threatened on several occasions, been revisited in my sleep by the death, injury, and trauma I had witnessed, and even taken a human life. Unsurprisingly, I had been diagnosed with mental ill-health and was seeking ways to improve my life.
Through scuba diving, I had always found pleasure in being immersed in the ocean, so was contemplating an overseas sabbatical to become a scuba dive professional. In planning travel to Mozambique for Divemaster Training, I learned the programme also involved taking customers on ocean safaris to swim with manta rays and whale sharks. I had never really been ‘into’ snorkelling and had certainly never tried freediving, beyond the usual Australian childhood experiences of competing with friends and siblings to see who could collect the most coins thrown into the local or backyard pool. COVID-19 put the brakes on my plans for Mozambique, but the idea of freediving had stuck in my mind and in early 2020 I did a course at Mount Gambier in South Australia, hitting 21.1 metres soon after completing the course. Without recounting my subsequent journey, I now find myself on the cusp of becoming a ‘Master Freediver’ and experience an overwhelming feeling of increased wellbeing and calm both during and after freediving sessions.
How Did This Happen To Me?
Being a ‘facts based’ person and having been labelled a ‘Type A’ personality, I wanted to identify whether the improved sense of wellbeing was real or imagined, and if so why. The first question was how my life became a place I was so unhappy in? Believing that my mental ill-health was attributable largely to the ‘stress’ I had experienced, understanding how stress affects the body seemed an appropriate next step, and I hoped it would make the ways to manage it clearer. What I found was that several complex functions make up the human body’s response to stress, and whilst occasional acute stress can actually enhance body system function , excessive or chronic stress can have long-term adverse impacts on health and wellbeing. An online article published by the Harvard Medical School provides an easily understood overview of this .
Commonly known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, the human body’s response to stress evolved as a survival mechanism to enable us to survive life-threatening situations – to fight off the threat or flee to safety. When a dangerous situation is perceived by the senses, signals are sent to the amygdala (the part of the brain for emotional processing) which instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (the part of the brain which functions as a command centre), which in turn communicates the danger (stress) to the rest of the body through the nervous system (NS). This activates the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and heartbeat etcetera.
The branches of the ANS are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS can be likened to the accelerator in a car, activating the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response, while the PNS system acts like a brake, promoting the ‘rest-and-digest’ or ‘feed-and-breed’ relaxation response that calms the body down. Activation of the ANS releases chemicals such as adrenaline and glucose, and fats from temporary storage, all of which heighten the response and provide necessary fuel to the body. As the initial surge of chemicals subsides, the second component of the stress response system – the ‘HPA axis’, consisting of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands – is activated. The HPA axis responds to hormonal signals and keeps the SNS – ‘the accelerator’ — pressed down. If the perceived danger continues, cortisol and other chemicals are released, and the body remains in a state of vigil. Once the perceived threat passes, levels of cortisol and other chemicals fall and the PNS — ‘the brake’ — dampens the stress response.
This process is ideal if stress is not repeated too regularly. However, if stress becomes chronic or excessive, the HPA axis remains activated – akin to a car idling at high revs for too long. This can lead to a state of hypervigilance lasting several hours , with the PNS unable to adequately dampen the effects. Persistent or elevated levels of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol can contribute to a variety of negative health impacts including cardiovascular disease, the accumulation of fat tissue and weight gain, impaired immune and metabolic system function , hypertension, depression, and anxiety .
Chillaxing: Activating The Relaxation Response.
The Harvard Medical School recommends combining three techniques to counter chronic stress and the first of these is to activate the relaxation response . Being the opposite the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response, the relaxation response involves practices to slow breathing, relax muscles and reduce blood pressure . Activities include meditative therapies – such as yoga, tai chi and qigong – abdominal breathing, and meditation or mindfulness . Most trained freedivers would immediately recognise that freediving can contribute to these desired outcomes, specifically considering the mammalian dive response (MDR), proper breathing techniques for freediving, and relaxation techniques attendant to freediving.
The existence of the MDR is well researched and established . Triggered through cold water facial immersion and breath hold, it produces several physiological effects, including cessation of breathing (apnea), slowing of the heart rate (bradycardia), and constriction of blood flow to the body peripheries. When practised regularly, this induces physiological adaptations – such as increased CO2 tolerance, increased lung capacity, and increased spleen size and function – all of which combine to preserve life during asphyxia, through increased oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, decreased oxygen consumption, and prioritising blood flow to the brain, heart and lungs . More recently, research has found the physiological adaptations arising from MDR to be opposite to those which trigger panic attacks in individuals suffering panic disorder, and to have a positive impact on self-reported anxiety making it promising in clinical treatment for the condition . Likewise, 2020 research determined that the physiological responses seen in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are maladapted evolutionary mechanisms of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, controlled by the SNS . This research also established that the MDR is an evolutionary mechanism controlled by the PNS, mediating the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, having potential application in the treatment of PTSD .
Since the introduction of pranayama techniques to freediving by Jaques Mayol in the 1960’s, diaphragmatic breathing has been an elemental part of the activity . The benefits of such abdominal breathing for humans have been known for millennia but it is experiencing a significant resurgence – in both research and practice – within modern society as the search for relaxation and health increases. Whilst some critics categorise books like James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art and Patrick McEwan’s The Oxygen Advantage as bordering on pseudoscience, there is growing research supporting the health benefits of pranayama . In a 2018 study conducted of 108 Indian university students, the group who undertook regular pranayama practice over 12 weeks experienced improved muscular endurance, flexibility, and mental health factors, whilst the control group did not . The notion that breathing deeply is good for humans is hardly surprising given that two-thirds of the blood oxygenating the body is in the lower one-third of the lungs .
Several studies have shown that mindful meditation may strengthen the immune system and improve feelings of wellbeing. In a study comparing participants in a three-month mediation retreat with a control group, it was established that participants experienced increases in perceived control, and decreases in neuroticism, as well as an increased level of telomerase (an enzyme indicative of immune cell longevity and known to be depleted through chronic psychological distress) . The study also reported mindfulness and purpose in life were greater in the retreat group. A 2016 study of a stress reduction programme reported participants with the greatest improvement in mindfulness skills also demonstrated faster wound healing; a process regulated by the immune system . These results are consistent with a review of 20 studies undertaken between 1996 and 2015 into the effects of mindfulness meditation on immune system function, which found a positive association between meditation and immune system function , and mindfulness has also been found to have a positive effect on managing daily stress . With freediving often likened to mindful meditation, it follows that it may produce similar positive effects.
In recent years, the concept that time spent in outdoor environments – so called ‘green spaces’ and more recently ‘blue spaces’ – may promote human health and wellbeing, has increased in popularity amongst researchers. However, the concept of ‘being well’ is not easily measured, rarely being the same for all people and varying over time for the same individual . Wallace J. Nichols’ 2016 publication Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do draws on countless studies in neuroscience to explain the cognitive processes in response to water, altering neural pathways by increasing exposure to happy experiences in, near or on water. The sight, sound, feel, smell, and taste of water can affect humans deeply, making us happier, calmer and emotionally healthier, translating into being more successful in life, relationships and work . Whilst this is supported by others who found identified a variety of ways in which people gain a sense of wellbeing from being in or near the ocean , and a comprehensive review of 33 studies into ‘blue space’ interventions conducted between 2004 and 2017 found that whilst there is evidence to support improved mental health and psycho-social wellbeing, further research is required to determine its effects on physical health and in the long term .
Freediving is Exercise and Exercise is Good.
The second of the three techniques recommended by the Harvard Medical School is physical activity. Exercise is defined as a “planned, structured and repetitive bodily movement, the objective of which is to improve or maintain physical fitness”, with sport being “a subset of exercise that can be undertaken individually or as a part of a team” . Therefore, whilst many freedivers are not involved in formal competition and regard their freediving as recreation, freediving is both exercise and sport. With physical effort in swimming at the surface, and in descending and ascending in breath-hold, freediving works in both aerobic and anaerobic phases. Combine this with a greater variance in working heart rates – thanks to aerobic effort and the effects of bradycardia – and freediving delivers significant training advantages overall . Comparing the physicality of scuba diving to freediving, the analogy has been made between “a good walk…[versus]…a hard hike with your backpack on” . A return to freediving after an extended break, or consecutive days spent freediving, quickly reminds you that freediving is indeed exercise.
Physical fitness “…is an integrated measure of cardiorespiratory and neuromusculo-skeletal function, oxygen transport and delivery, and psychological drive” and requires proper function of the bodily systems. These are influenced by genetics, environmental factors, age, and behaviours – such as nutrition, rest, and physical activity . There is significant research indicating many benefits of increased physical fitness to individuals, with physical exercise having been shown to improve sleep , and increased physical fitness mitigating the risk of various physical conditions . Thus, physical fitness is strongly linked to enhanced quality of life through a reduction in physical ailments, particularly in later years .
Whilst somewhat less clear, there is initial support for a positive association between fitness and psychological outcomes, although the exercise type and intensity – along with the baseline fitness and psychological health of the participants – may affect outcomes . Studies continue to proffer results indicating that physical fitness has positive influence on mental health, such as by building resilience to stress, mental ill-health and burnout , combatting existing mental ill-health , and improving mood . Whilst studies exploring the effect of physical fitness/exercise on cognitive functions – such as memory, decision making, reaction time and concentration – are mixed, there is support for the existence of a positive relationship .
Studies have shown that participation in sport can decrease stress, increase social support and have an overall positive effect on human psychology . People who participate in sport have been found to be higher in self-efficacy and self-confidence, better able to use these abilities in stressful situations, and generally cope better with stress , displaying “…more positive affectivity, competency, autonomy, and self-determination” . Further studies have shown that an internal locus of control – that is, self-belief in the ability to influence behaviour and outcome – delivers positive affectivity, less psychological problems, and effective coping with stress , with persons undertaking individual sports having a stronger internal locus of control . With freediving being predominantly an individual sport – albeit best practised in the company of others – it is unsurprising that a study published in 2013 reported that freediving athletes had “…more stable positive psychological characters…higher inner locus of control and self-confident coping strategies” . Freediving teaches acceptance of the need to “control the controllables” .
Find Your Tribe.
The third of the recommendations by the Harvard Medical School is social support. Social support refers to “the resources provided to an individual by his or her social network” , and comes in different forms from various sources. Through cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, social support is positively associated with improved mental health and significantly, it is the perceived – rather than the actual – level of support from others which most affects outcomes .
Freediving provides opportunity for people to connect through shared interests and achievements, enhancing positive therapeutic experiences through sharing of similar values and preferences . My own experience of the freediving community has shown it to be supportive and encouraging on several levels, “…facilitating mutually comfortable and enjoyable experiences, and developing positive inter-subjective place meanings.” Thoughts of Mount Gambier, Lady Elliot Island, the Sunshine Coast and now Amed, are associated with immediate positive memories. In addition to introducing me to a wide network of likeminded acquaintances, freediving has offered me opportunities to develop deeper relationships with individuals and reminded me that there are many genuinely nice people in the world; a fact that may seem obvious, but which is sometimes forgotten by people in my line of work. Freediving has also offered me opportunities to introduce family, friends and other companions to the pastime, providing quality time together and enhancing pre-existing connectedness.
Reflecting on the Journey.
As I write this conclusion, I have just completed 2 weeks training in Amed, Bali where I successfully completed my Master Freediver requirements, and am also well on the way to completing the Freedive Instructor program. Throughout my time in Amed, I successfully managed stress and was able to dive to a personal best depth of 34.5 metres. Despite an intense schedule that included both physical and mental challenges, rather than getting caught in a cycle of ‘fight-or-flight’, I was able to switch on the relaxation response, engage in and enjoy the exercise, and embrace the social support that freediving offers, applying these to my overall benefit. By understanding, taking control of, and managing my body’s physiological responses, freediving has allowed me to enjoy challenges and achieve goals which would otherwise have been beyond my reach. I have attained a sense of wellbeing and achievement previously only dreamed of and whilst that sense of wellbeing may well exist only in my head, science does support my belief that freediving can and does deliver benefits that improve both physical and mental health.
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