In Part One, we saw how extreme sports performers inject some cool-headedness into their stress response to exhibit good judgement under pressure. Here I give a first hand account of observing my own brain 'staying online' whilst plummeting towards the earth on my first Accelerated Freefall skydive. We also consider how stress can have lasting impact that needs to be carefully managed in the aftermath of traumatic events for longer-term health. Oh and there was a birth along the way...
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!
“Being tormented by memories of past encounters is a major challenge for many, highlighting the power of the mind in re-instigating physiological responses in the absence of the stressor. Yet, also, being aware of the possibility to influence physiology by using psychological strategies is a powerful reminder of how we can take control when experiencing stress. This includes the anticipation of it, the dealing with it in the moment and the longer term management of it’s after effects "
Baby steps into skydiving
Jumping out of a plane is like giving birth.
That got your attention! Ok, I should qualify that statement haha.
Before I go on, I would like to dedicate this piece to my good friends Jo and Ben. Because whilst I was nervously waiting for my window of opportunity, they were heading into the hospital for their own exciting event – the birth of their first child. I was convinced that events would co-occur – the birth with my precise moment of jumping out the door. But it didn’t quite align that precisely!!
Waiting at the dropzone for a weather window to jump, myself and Ben were texting back and forth with updates on our respective events. It occurred to me that the last time I fell out of a plane was on holiday in New Zealand in 2011 when the three of us did tandem skydives together. It all seemed to be significant in the scheme of things! (A stressed-out brain can run away with itself!)
In part one I talked about monitoring heart rate activity in the context of mental control and performing at one’s best under extreme stress. My own heart rate was significantly elevated and fluctuating for much of the day whilst waiting to jump. This increased by order of magnitude when visualising various drills that would be required in situ.
I gave Ben updates on my cardiac activity and he in kind provided details of Jo (and soon to be Alfie)’s progress!
There was ample opportunity for reflection given that it would be nearly 5pm before I got the call to be ready to board the plane for my slot (having arrived at 8am sharp)! This gave plenty of time to visualise what needed to be done and let the skills and drills sink in. In confronting stressful situations, preparatory thinking is a crucial skill. This helps automate cognitive processing, keeping those parts of the brain ‘online’ that will enable you to think and plan when in a tight spot. As opposed to them shutting down and buggering off till it all blows over.
It also allows one to practice secondary techniques such as breathing control. As I have talked about in depth previously, this can activate the parasympathetic system and be called upon to calm one down and think more clearly.
One thing I intended to do when exiting the plane, legs fluttering out the door in the wind, was to take a deep breath before pushing outwards. This gives a little mental space to think through what will need to happen next.
We climbed slowly to our drop altitude of 10000ft. At various altitude along the way I was prompted by instructor Hans to act out segments of the sequence – reading altimeter, ‘practice pulls’ of the canopy release. Making sure everything was smooth before the sh@t was due to hit the fan so to speak!
Before long, dry of mouth, heart hammering, but forcing control and relative calm, it was time. 10000ft, prepare to disembark!
I shuffled to the edge of the open door; legs immediately pulled sideways in the slipstream. Hunkering down in the requisite position, I signalled readiness to my instructors, and pushed off.
Now I have jumped off things before, bridges, the odd plane (strapped to someone else), and each occasion it is safe to say my brain ‘switched off’, if only for a few seconds till I regained my senses. The training paid off this time as I remained ‘online’ to perform the crucial tasks. To avoid spinning out of control (disastrous for pulling one’s chute), I pulled back into the arch position, finding it brought md back into alignment with the horizon.
It has to be said, when you are plummeting earthwards at 125mph time (and height) goes by in a flash and you are not processing in normal speed! (at least when this is all fairly new to you). But having a sequence of cognitive processes to go through ensures that you do remain responsive, and aware of your situation. I was mighty surprised when it was already time to pull my main chute, perhaps 30 seconds having flashed by (and 4000ft).
Now is NOT the time to relax as there are canopy control checks and drills to perform (assuming it’s actually inflated, which you ought to have noticed if you are still switched on...). It was I am happy to say. The flight back down was uneventful, until landing in, admittedly the wrong field. I did, however avoid a small building and the barbed wire fence, to land on my feet!
Since this experience I have been able to integrate much of what occurred, including inspecting some data captured then and subsequently.
Unsurprisingly, my heart rate was significantly elevated throughout, from the moment I was summoned forth, through the jump itself and landing. A few days later I also visualised the sequence and captured more data (both heart and brain activity). It is interesting to note how the stress response is somewhat re-evoked even in a sedate setting when reviewing in the mind’s eye. In fact, I hope to explore this further given relevance to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Long term effects of stress are of serious concern in the modern world, and insights that can help deal with the aftermath of (re-lived) events are invaluable for health and wellbeing.
RR intervals indicating heart rate variability whilst visualising skydive (mid range approximately corresponds with the imagined moment of jumping out the plane)
Being tormented by memories of past encounters is a major challenge for many, highlighting the power of the mind in re-instigating physiological responses in the absence of the stressor. Yet, also, being aware of the possibility to influence physiology by using psychological strategies is a powerful reminder of how we can take control when experiencing stress. This includes the anticipation of it, the dealing with it in the moment and the longer term management of it’s after effects.
By the way, little Alfie didn’t quite pop out at the precise moment I jumped out the plane door, much though I would have liked to propose some cosmic alignment! It was a couple of hours later. But I am assured he is a bouncing baby and his dad says he can’t wait to go skydiving when he’s a little bit older!!!
As for the provocative statement I began with, I can’t vouch for giving birth being similar to skydiving, I’ll leave that to the skydiving mothers out there!
Happy birthday Alfie! (And try not to stress out your parents...)
Alfie already exhibiting good technique for freefall position