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  • Breathe Your Way Out of Trouble
    by Jeanne Bear Sleeper

    The current boom in baby births has provided divers with a lesson on the power of controlled breathing. Birth preparation classes teach moms and dads breathing techniques as a method for regaining focus, directed thinking, enhancing calmness and pain control. Divers can use the same concepts and experience the same benefits to relieve underwater stress and avert panic.

    Underwater stress comes from many sources, which can be broadly grouped as 'the unknown.' Divers experience stress when they do not know (or trust) themselves, other divers or the environment. Stress can develop from:
    • Unexpected happenings
    • Feeling physically challenged
    • Realizing a lack of knowledge
    • Self-doubt or actual lack of ability
    • Peer pressure
    Stress can creep like a fog across your mind or can strike like a lightning bolt. Mindful breathing can be an effective first step in preventing an uneasiness from escalating into out of control panic. When your subconscious finally translates a worry into 'Why am I feeling this way?' or 'What's wrong with this picture?' change your breathing and break the chain. Stopping that 'world closing in,' stressed-out feeling begins with awareness and is resolved with a change.

    An effective way to regain control underwater is to:
    • Slow down
    • Take slow, deliberate inhalations
    • Make slow, long exhalations
    • Stop non-life essential actions
    • Take a big breath, hold it (assuming you are not rising in the water) for a count of four, exhale slowly and continuously as if trying to empty your lungs completely
    • Repeat at least four times
    • Consciously assess your stress level after four cycles
    • Repeat the breathing pattern as needed
    With deeper breathing your brain gets more essential oxygen and your body gets rid of mind-fogging nitrogen. It may take as few as four deep, controlled breaths and exhalations for you to begin to feel the positive effects of relaxation and control. Four cycles of stress-releasing breathing bring calm and control to many people in less than one minute.

    Breathing also helps divers regain mental control. Once you have relaxed, your common sense, training and life experiences step forward to help you recognize what was wrong and make good choices to rectify the situation.

    TAKE TIME TO BREATHE

    Take a minute now and enjoy the benefits of controlled breathing. Read these instructions and then breathe for relaxation.
    • Take a deep breath
    • Hold it for the count of four
    • Exhale slowly and completely
    • Repeat the sequence four times
    • Enjoy!
    Once you are mentally in control, you can physically fix equipment problems, communicate with your buddy, make decisions about how to do a task or deal with environmental challenges. With a lower anxiety level, you may be better able to recognize warning signs of stressful situations. Pre-dive stress signals could include:
    • Being 'short' or critical prior to the dive
    • Feeling agitated at the beach
    • Making excuses for things that have usually been OK
    • Frequent trips to the bathroom
    • Looking for reasons to cancel the dive: i.e. the waves are too big today
    If everything proceeded as usual on the surface, stress can find you in the water. Here are some early warning signs:
    • Your wetsuit suddenly feels too tight
    • Your stomach seems tied in a knot
    • Your heart rate accelerates
    • Your eyes dart around but do not stop and focus on one thing
    • Your regulator seems to breathe hard
    • Suddenly, nothing seems to work right
    • Equipment you tested on the surface does not work
    • You are kicking but going nowhere, so you begin using your arms, too
    • Your air consumption increases rapidly
    • You forget what you were going to do next or how to do something you know how to do
    Summary

    Anyone can experience diving stress. It is very important to learn to recognize the early warning signs and then take effective steps to resolve the situation.

    Controlled breathing is an effective tool to help patients help themselves through challenging physical and mental times. And, the process seems so simple.

    Diving should be an enjoyable activity. Make sensible choices that contribute to your enjoyment, such as being in good physical condition, completing the training needed for the underwater activities you choose and diving with a buddy you know, enjoy, respect and trust. When you have made good choices and continue to feel the uneasiness of stress, regain mental control through focused breathing. With mental clarity, your dive training and experience will contribute to solving the equipment, environmental or other problems you face.