The aeroplane accelerated along the runway and as it lifted off I heard “we are going to die, we are all going to die!”. Nobody had said anything, everything was fine. The sudden appearance of this phrase in my head is what is known as an “intrusive thought”. The mind wants to protect us from danger and every so occasionally provides these unwanted and (largely unhelpful) commentaries. Language is powerful and that one line caused an increase in heart rate and a spike in anxiety. I did not adopt the brace position, I did not alert my fellow passengers and I certainly did not press the button to request help from cabin crew. What did I do? Without being aware I was doing it, I quickly reached for a few psychological skills and techniques I know are effective.
Defusion (aka “step away from the thought!”)
I noticed the thought and looked at it with some curiosity. “hey, you came out of nowhere, what shall we do with you?” Let’s put this in perspective: I am having the thought that “we are going to die, we are all going to die!” , what other thoughts are here?
Diaphragmatic breathing and muscle relaxation
My mind was relatively convinced that the plane was not going to crash, at least not imminently, but the body was lagging behind and needed some convincing. A few simple, deep breaths and shrugging off the tension in my shoulders calmed it down a bit.
Although convinced we were not “all going to die” in the next few moments, the intrusive thought had fired off some graphic images, dragged up from old news reports and (most likely) Die Hard 2. This is how the brain works “oh, you think we are in danger, let me find all the information I have on horrible things that could be happening”. I don’t think that is helpful, but try telling the mind that! What I can do is look for a few facts of my own, such as thinking about the massive number of planes that fly every day compared to the tiny percentage of accidents. Everybody knows you are more likely to have a car accident on the way to the airport.
In-flight entertainment. Let the negative thoughts run in the background while I focus on a good film.
Choice and acceptance
The wheels are a long way off the ground now. I recognised that there is a choice, and there is a reason I got on the plane. I have no control over what happens, so worrying about it is fruitless. Maybe my mind is right but, unless I am going to request we land again so I can disembark, then probably better to calmly accept that there is a very small chance that the plane may develop a problem.
How do the psychological skills apply in diving?
Looks like I was busy! But if you had been sat next to me, you would not have noticed my reaction to the thought or how I responded to it. That’s because it involved “private behaviour” all the things we do internally that no one can see. Psychological skills like these are essential in regulating emotion and managing our physiological states. We can wind ourselves up into “fight or flight” body states and feel anxiety or anger, or we can wind ourselves down and feel calm, depending on what the circumstances require. We all do this all the time in our own different ways.
Intrusive or unwanted thoughts can be a problem in diving if they are able to pull our attention away from what we need to do. They also impact on emotions and can lead to anxiety or fear, which can create further issues if not dealt with. Yet, dive training focuses on learning skills that you can see, like mask clear and hover. Most divers can perform the skills required to clear a flooded mask, or drop weights in an emergency, but how much training is given on what to do when you mind throws up a problem? For example:
When you are at 20 metres and everything is going fine, the thought “what if my regulator fails and I can’t breathe” pops up. Or on a night dive, “what if there is a huge shark stalking me and I can’t even see it”. How about “can my buddy be trusted” or “what if I just keep descending?”. There are also the more socially orientated unwanted thoughts “i’m useless and getting in everyone’s way” , “the instructor doesn’t think I’m capable of passing this”. Also the thoughts that stop us raising safety concerns “everyone will think I’m just being over-anxious”. Regardless of whether they are true or not, allowing them to run our behaviour by hijacking our emotions is not especially helpful. We can’t stop the mind doing this, but we need to stay in control of the actions we take.
Psychological skills can be learned and practiced
Psychological skills can be learned and practiced, just like clearing a mask or hovering, and they can become automatic. In fact, many people apply these skills and do not realise they are doing anything. However, the most important part of learning any skill is knowing when to apply it; selecting the right tool for the job. Distraction, for example, is useful in some circumstances but used in the wrong place people can get hurt. It can work well as a passenger, but I’d really prefer the pilot wasn’t doing it!
When we are diving we need to retain situational awareness to stay in tune with what is happening and be ready to respond. Distraction is probably not a great way to deal with anxious thoughts in diving. Similarly, we need to concentrate on important things like what depth we are at and how much air we have. Like other skills, psychological skills require brain resources so, just like diving with a camera, they can contribute to the overall task load. Think about this, a sudden irrational worry about equipment appears, winds up stress levels and grabs some of our attention. We then try to deal with the thought by getting rid of it, rationalising it, challenging it … all of which takes extra attention. Check your air! Did all that mental work take you away from the important tasks? Ideally we are just going to take a step back from the thought, decide if there is a real issue to be resolved. If it is just a stupid thought, then drop it, it is not worth wasting attention on. If your mind has raised a valid point then attention is to be handed over to problem–solving, evaluation and communication processes, which are much more important that worry and rumination.
Did you know you can learn more about awareness, task loading and effective practice in Psychology for Scuba Divers.
Which psychological skills are useful in diving? There has not been much research. We do know that studies testing pre-dive programmes for anxiety reduction in divers can be helpful. Divers were trained to use diaphragmatic breathing and mental rehearsal of the specific skill that will be performed during the dive. These techniques have been shown to be effective for reducing anxiety in two separate studies. One of the programmes is available to access free online. Beyond that there has been little research on effective psychological strategies underwater.
There are of course applications above the surface where our difficulties are often with other people or safety concerns. Sometimes at a dive site there is a lot happening and it can feed into our thoughts and stress levels. We do not want to take all that underwater and that is where these skills can be useful.
P.S. October 2019 I now call these the “invisible skills” and have defined a set of skill that may be beneficial to scuba divers.