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Don't panic! Managing stress when out of air...

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

A worse case scenario can scarcely be imagined than being deep underwater and finding your air supply compromised. We can experience something similar when in high anxiety states. What can we learn from extreme situations that are the stuff of nightmares to help us manage our daily stress? The first step is to triage the situation and our response to our immediate environment...We must slow our breathing and take control, compressing the problem to the present moment before addressing the wider situation and the moments to come. An approach informed by extreme performers, psychological coaching and the latest neuroscience thinking.

In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“Triaging our stress can valuably start with time. We’ve heard that old maxim about surviving for 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water and 3 minutes without air (or thereabouts). This can be a useful start to classifying our problem and formulating the appropriate strategy to deal with it in chunks...Our world shrinks down to the moments available to us right now. And the first step is to address our breathing. "

Stress triage - dealing with the immediate threat

The water is cold, and dark, visibility very poor. The walls are closing in, narrowing. You can’t quite remember exactly which way is out. Your pulse is quickening along with your breathing. You take a breath in. Something is not right. The air is not coming through, in fact you’ve taken in some water. You have a rising sense of panic coming on...

This could well be up there as one of the worst situations to conceivably find yourself in. The stuff of nightmares. You wake up sweating, gasping, thankful such a situation would never be encountered...

Sometimes we can feel pretty much like we are in this situation even though we are on dry land. Pressure is too much, demands too high, our ability to cope stretched to breaking.

Some of us do put ourselves in positions where the above example could happen FOR REAL. Indeed, it is what I study, for there are lessons we can learn from situations such as this. What happens when a person must make those life-or-death decisions to survive a dire predicament where consequences really are black and white?

At the end of the day stress, and the way we respond to it (indeed it is arguably defined AS a response to pressure) is a very personal thing. To a person who is at their breaking point, they might as well be in the aforementioned situation. Severe anxiety, panic attacks, can encompass breathlessness, utter dread, a sense of literally fighting for one’s life. I’ve seen this on multiple occasions with people in otherwise benign settings. I’ve also, valuably, and alarmingly experienced it underwater.

The CognitvExplorer approach takes lessons from extreme situations to apply to the everyday, to help formulate strategies for SURVIVING and THRIVING. Let’s break this down into the former then the latter.

Some situations are, or are perceived to be, threatening to one’s immediate survival. To the individual waking up in the night drenched in sweat, utterly despairing, hyperventilating, at wits end in some ways the situation is black and white and akin to the out-of-air scenario underwater.

If we determine to triage our situational stress in order to deal with it strategically, we can classify this as the first stage: immediate response.

Now it's reasonable to say that not every situation will demand the same approach to tackling it. And the first thing we should do is to break down our predicament and identify what are the factors that we are dealing with. What are the pressures, demands, and the resources we have at our disposal to deal with these. Within this comes the element of time, a valuable starting point in triaging stress.

We’ve heard that old maxim about surviving for 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water and 3 minutes without air (or thereabouts). This can be a useful start to classifying our problem and formulating the appropriate strategy to deal with it in chunks.

What is a more apt analogy than that of the stricken diver on the verge of expiring (literally physiologically).

The diver (us in our high anxiety state) has little or no choices available. Indeed, there is only one choice (and therefore no choice). We don’t choose to not take the only choice available to us: to sort the immediate problem of our lack of air out. We can’t worry about some other hazard or obstacle such as finding the exit. We simply have to deal with our lack of air. If we don't sort breathing out we rapidly encounter panic. And panic underwater = death. No question!

Our world shrinks down to the moments available to us right now. Rapid breathing leads to using up the vestiges of our air supply more quickly. We have seconds left. We HAVE to slow our breathing down. No choice. As I have talked about elsewhere, when our physiological homeostasis is disrupted, traumatised, we resort to instinct, which means an emotionally driven response, and thinking goes out the window. The executive regions of our brains are taken offline. And with that any semblance of control, composure, or strategy.

Slow the breathing, activate the parasympathetic system, prevent the stress response from running out of control, exhale slowly. Evaluate the situation in a composed way (again there is little choice, do it or die). Keep the executive regions online.

In (technical) diving we are taught to be familiar with the concept of breathing one’s tank dry. Indeed ‘shutdown’ drills involve experiencing a critical failure as the regulator or tank spews forth all our air rapidly into the water. We take instant control, shut down our tank (assuming a redundant supply is available, we are alone and appropriately equipped in this situation). We counterintuitively breathe the regulator till no more air is forthcoming. Voluntarily. We meanwhile switch to the one that is available. We have isolated the problem in a composed way and strategically selected a fall-back option.

In the anxiety situation we attempt to do likewise. We observe the response to our situation. We notice our breathing is out of control. We acknowledge in that moment we have NO CHOICE but to choose to address this response. We enforce a slowing of the breath. We retain a semblance of ‘executive control’ which gives us vital resources to find a solution to the problem and assert some mastery over the situation.

Let’s go one stage deeper. We do not have an alternate air source. Things have become a lot more serious. Exacerbating our lack of choice, or our single choice. We must slow the breathing, control the exhale. We must make do with that single breath. Keeping the executive regions online will determine whether our creative solving problem capacity has some resource, however slim, available to spot a solution, or extend our capacity beyond the immediate and into the next stage of our stress triage (the short to medium term)...

Beyond the current moment we will transition another zone where problems may be addressed in a slightly widened timeframe, hopefully reduced urgency, and a wider pool of resources to tackle the issues we will encounter). But for now we are in SURVIVAL mode. What we are looking to ultimately do is THRIVE. And that involves embracing challenges such that we can draw on prior experience to deal with whatever threats present themselves to us. That means adopting a mindset that seeks this out, and importantly seeks to prosper and grow from that experience.

In the diving situation, unless you are exceedingly unlucky (you have gone on a try-dive and somehow, impossibly got separated from the guide with little or no training), you will have some training and experience to draw on to help you prevail. Nothing is guaranteed, but as with in life, anticipation and preparation are the most valuable coin in the realm. And as they say prevention is better than cure.

In order to thrive we need to have that foundational level of skill, attitude, mindset, and training to fall back on, in order that we can really perform. This is where already possessing some awareness and knowledge of the capacity to deal with stress comes forearmed. That is why some level of awareness of the stress response, the mechanisms involved and the capacity to put these into practice can benefit us in everyday life, in tricky situations we find ourselves in, in desperate times, but in places where we spot opportunities to take our performance (and aspirations) to the next level. You would hopefully not attempt to run a marathon without at least doing some training first to get your legs (and breathing) used to running. And the more you do the better equipped you will be to endure or even thrive from it. Likewise with breathing. We start with awareness; we adopt some techniques to help us slow the breathing. Ultimately, we take this one step further and learn to deal with discomfort – holding the breath, becoming accustomed to being starved of air yet still functioning calmly. And then we push our limits, being able to operate when in a severely air starved state, finding that we can push beyond what we thought possible. Obviously, that is the state we might want to be accustomed to in the direst situation we have considered, when we can still push on and extract ourselves from peril drawing on this extreme of reserves that might otherwise be unavailable to us innately.

CognitvExplorer draws on elements from psychological coaching practice, particularly in stress management, along with the latest thinking in cognitive neuroscience. The latter identifies the fundamental mechanisms that allow us to perform to high levels or be impaired by situational demands. This approach also draws on lessons and insights from observing those who find themselves in situations that may appear to be the stuff of nightmares to many! At the same time, such (sometimes cautionary) tales can inspire and motivate us to the next level of our own performance! And this starts with identifying the traits that associate with such performance, defining the underlying mechanisms we all possess and can develop to likewise prevail and THIRVE in our lives. Towards developing a capacity to cope with pressure and enhancing a mental fitness that takes us to the next level!

When feeling stress, or anxiety, think about breaking this down into the triage model described, sorting out the immediate situation, breathing, retaining executive control. Even better, start thinking about this now. It can become a fundamental aspect of your core being (like doing the plank or your morning yoga or addressing your sleep patterns or nutrition!) rather than waiting for that time when you suddenly find yourselves drawing on resources you were not aware you had...

On more than one occasion I experienced taking in a breath underwater and instead getting water. On the first occasion I did exactly what I shouldn't. I panicked. It came on instantly, I gasped out of reflex. Water flooded into my mouth and I had a terrible urge to keep gasping and draw in ALL of the water. Instinct kicked in and I bolted for the surface. Luckily I was only a few metres down and when I breached the surface I suffered no ill effects, other than a deep sense of shock, a coughing fit, and realisation that I had gotten away by the skin of my teeth. A subsequent time I was ascending a line, sticking to a decompression schedule. I needed to swap air sources due to breathing out of two tanks on this deep dive. I had taken a breath before switching, and on breathing in again only got water. I hurriedly switched back to my original. Again I took in water. I had little left of the air taken from the last successful breath. The previously mentioned incident came rapidly to mind. I swiftly realised that I had no choice: to panic as before and bolt would not be an option this far down, without very serious consequence. I had to take immediate control. Accepting no choice (single choice), I switched regulators once more. I stuck it firmly in my mouth and pressed the purge button which delivered a blast of air which cleared the water from my mouth and confirmed there was indeed air available. I gasped once more, but breathed a beautiful lungful in. Balance (homeostasis) restored.

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