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The Final Frontier - Equalising Pressure

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

It is imperative to have a plan. For this is what you will likely need to abandon when the sh@t hit's the fan. Pushing the limits, inevitably there will be failures, risks. But a plan needs to encompass possibility of failure. This can activate resolve. The more we can recognise sources of pressure from outside and within, the more we can strive to equalise the pressure and find a balance. Neutrally buoyant, we are more connected to the environment and in control of our ability to move freely within it. Using breath as the means to do so...

I've been setting out a philosophy in my blogs which promotes the concept of an Adventure Mindset as a means to thrive on life's challenges. This incorporates an understanding of how the brain functions under stress (from my research into cognitive neuroscience), with techniques and concepts from coaching practice that help people achieve goals and overcome sticking points. The ambition is to help folks unlock potential and live happier, more fulfilled lives! In short, being more adventurous in thought and action.

“Taking risks is part of life, and often the most stimulating or inspiring environments can pose the biggest challenges. But we can become better at recognising sources of pressure – from within as well as without. We can adopt a (challenge) mindset that gives us better capacity to equalise the pressure. I’ve referred before to the importance of balance: regulating autonomic nervous system activity in order to remain calm whilst in high states of arousal. "

Dive the plan...plan to fail...use resolve

On 8th January 2005, David Shaw drew his last breath.

His story is the stuff of nightmares.

Dave, a highly competent cave diver (and respected airline pilot) descended into darkness to retrieve a corpse. It didn’t go to plan.

Three months earlier, on a solo dive to 270m in Bushman’s Hole, South Africa, Shaw broke a number of world depth records. He also found a young man’s body.

Deon Dreyer had died ten years earlier on a dive to 50m. His lifeless form had since sunk to the depths of the cave, leaving a macabre discovery to be made by the lone explorer.

Phillip Finch's book, Raising the Dead, and a recent film recounts Dave’s discovery and the subsequent recovery operation intending to lay Deon’s soul to rest. No mean feat, given extreme depths in a hostile cave system, and the physiological hazards encountered in such a pressured environment.

Unfortunately, Dave didn’t come back alive, although he did retrieve the body. I'll let you read/watch the account for yourself rather than retell it all here.

I talked previously about the perils of cave diving. It takes a certain type mindset to be able to operate competently in places that give most sane people the heebie-jeebies. Yet, take it from me, the underwater realm is a haunting beautiful place. Even those places where light cannot penetrate, and the walls (or ice) close in. It is difficult to convey the attraction of this to people unaccustomed.

At one level the appeal lies in the exploration of the unfamiliar. Exploration is a mode that exercises our stress circuits, keeping us motivated, even helping offset cognitive decline with age. On another level, diving in such places can offer feelings of otherworldly peace and a unique connection with the environment. Total immersion in one’s surroundings. The cycle of breathing makes this apparent. Every single breath counts when all that can sustain relies on a small container of oxygen (and mixed gases). The rate at which you breathe determines your capacity to survive. As demands on Dave Shaw escalated due to complications in the body extraction, his breathing rate increased, his CO2 levels built up and took away his life.

Breathing is fundamental to movement underwater, untethered from the normal forces of gravity. Buoyancy is adjusted via the in-breath and out-breath, changing one's position in the water column. In - you rise, out - you fall.

Pressure increases by one atmosphere every 10m further that we descend. We compensate by inflating buoyancy device or drysuit to prevent compression and limit downward momentum. All the while striving to equalise pressure in our ears.

Nowhere is the force of pressure more evident than underwater. Even the air we breathe becomes toxic at depth, due to partial pressure. What is simple at the surface is complex down below.

We can apply diving principles in everyday life, responding to pressures by adjusting our breathing, equalising forces within and without. Striving for high performance standards, we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed. This needs balancing out.

Doubtless there was huge pressure on Dave Shaw, much of it self-generated. But there was also a large team of expectant people, including Deon Dreyer’s parents awaiting their boy's return so they could properly say goodbye and move on.

A film sponsor required him to wear a camera on his helmet with a trailing cable. This compromised his kit configuration. Kit configuration is crucial in cave diving. When one is severely restricted, burdened with vital equipment in a tight space, even the smallest detail can compromise survival. Trailing cables can snag in cave guidelines.

Entanglement. Panic. Death.

This is more or less what happened.

The urge to go forward, to push personal limits, can be a major source of pressure that will sometimes be our undoing. It’s a fine (guide) line.

How far are you willing to go?

Dave’s commitment to help the Dreyer family was commendable. Yet operations such as this or the Thai Cave Rescue are team efforts. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the story was the resolve shown by Dave’s dive buddy, Don Shirley.

As time progressed and the rigorous dive plan began to unravel, Shirley could see that Dave was not coming back (diving is ALL ABOUT THE PLAN). He headed down below his alotted depth to try and save his friend, then had severe problems on his ascent. Equipment malfunctioned, and a bubble of helium formed then expanded in his ear. He succumbed to severe vertigo, spinning out of control. This led to frequent vomiting (not good when breathing through a regulator). He had to manually purge his regulator every time he needed to take a breath. The physical effort of doing this simple, vital action contributed to the nausea in a vicious cycle.

He had this to contend with for TWELVE HOURS of decompression on his gradual way back up.

He survived. And recovered thankfully, eventually.

Even the best laid plans of mice and men go wrong . But you need a plan. For when it fails you have something to abandon, to springboard and innovate from.

Being able to demonstrate resolve under pressure is an incredible virtue to possess.

Sometimes it is the bigger goal that motivates such resolve. It is that shared, and selfless connection with teammates, compadres, and a common purpose. The individual becomes lost in the collective effort to do something grand, and noble.

A few years ago, I was involved in a diving fatality incident. A communal effort ensued to save the person’s life. This took place at a notorious diving site in North Wales where many lives had been lost over the years (though by no means comparable to the scale of the operation at Bushman’s Hole).

I happened to be first on scene, already kitted up and in the water, waiting for my dive buddy to finish his equipment checks. We heard a cry from a chap surfacing from his dive. He was shouting, pointing to a form in the distance lying motionless. Everyone sprang into action getting ready to assist.

I swam out as quickly as I could, encumbered by multiple tanks, breathing heavily. I am not the strongest swimmer at the best of times. It took several minutes to get to the prostrate form. I was exhausted.

Some of my training kicked in. In a first aid situation, it’s all well and good to rush straight in, but you need to pause, take stock of the situation, evaluate any hazards to self and others. One thing you learn in diving is that any emergency situation in the water can quickly turn to chaotic panic that can cost lives. Rationality goes out the window when the lungs are in danger of filling with water not air. And to approach a diver in panic one must do this cautiously lest you both get dragged down.

Breathing rapidly from the exertion, I forced myself to stop a couple of metres back, to approach from the side. The chap was face down, regulator out. He needed turning over. Luckily my dive partner, Ben was hot on my heels, and able to help me turn him. By this point a further 3 or 4 divers also arrived, and we began collectively dragging/swimming the body back to shore.

Sadly, despite everyone’s resuscitation efforts, the outcome was not a happy one.

The point is, we collectively did what we could to try and save the fellow, to no avail. A sombre but thoughtful mood persisted for the rest of the day.

I’ve been talking about pressure, and the impact this can have on us in life. Some pressure is necessary, facilitatory, as it gives us something to press back against, to become stronger from the resistance generated. Taking risks is part of life, and often the most stimulating or inspiring environments can pose the biggest challenges. But we can become better at recognising sources of pressure – from within as well as without. We can adopt a (challenge) mindset that gives us better capacity to equalise the pressure. I’ve referred before to the importance of balance: regulating autonomic nervous system activity in order to remain calm whilst in high states of arousal. Diving provides an analogous situation that highlights this need to regulate those competing forces, through breathing as one means to do so.

Forming a plan, recognising the steps we need to take to achieve bigger goals is key. But so also is being prepared for that plan to fail, and to find innovative solutions in the moment (“no plan survives a punch to the face” to paraphrase Mike Tyson – though sometimes being punched clears the head enough to come up with a novel, opportune solution).

I’ve said it before and will say it again: breathing, pausing for breath (and thought), is a valuable strategy. Noting how our breath determines our capacity to respond proactively, positively to circumstance.

We'll leave the claustrophobic underwater realm for now and focus in future on the insights to be gleaned in the thin air of higher altitude surroundings!

These are just some of things we can learn from an adventure psychology perspective about managing stress, dealing with pressure, striving to perform at our best.

To gain more of a view on this I am available to deliver talks and workshops, setting out principles that can help develop mindset and set performance goals. This also includes running coaching sessions in the outdoors in slightly less perilous settings!

Please drop me a line to engage in further conversation!


Finch, P. (2008). Raising the Dead: A True Story of Death and Survival. HarperSport

Lundell, R. V., Räisänen-Sokolowski, A. K., Wuorimaa, T. K., Ojanen, T., & Parkkola, K. I. (2020). Diving in the Arctic: Cold Water Immersion's Effects on Heart Rate Variability in Navy Divers. Frontiers in physiology, 10, 1600.

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