The picture above was taken at Vero Beach, Florida when Rob and I were down in early February. I promised more details about our trip and the extensive dive training we underwent, but first I will digress. I came across this powerful quote this morning and had to dust off my Jungian psych knowledge to unpack it a bit.
Jung spoke of integration and welding all of the different elements of one's psyche into a cohesive whole individual who would be unswayed by emotional shocks and life's common upheavals. This quote speaks to the need for introspection in order to achieve that self knowledge and integration. Isn't that what we all long for, the equanimity to roll with it, to have such a sense of peace that the waves just smooth us out like the sandy beach? I had some introspective work to do when we were in Vero Beach.
I'll admit that I came a bit undone during our dive training. I went in with a particular hang-up. Mask removal. Non-divers, hang with me here for a minute. Divers, cut me some slack. I KNOW it's a basic skill. It's an Open Water level skill. It's a skill I had never yet mastered. Here's some physiology behind why some people struggle with it.
There are two cardiovascular reactions that occur with submersion in water. The first is vasoconstriction, or narrowing of blood vessels which effectively reduces the flow of blood to "non-essential" organs, such as the limbs and reserving it for essential organs such as the brain. The second is bradycardia or a slowing of the heart rate. For this effect to occur, the face simply needs to be wet, one does not have to fully submerged. In the average diver, the heart rate may be reduced by 30%. This reaction is worsened by cold water. The Nasobronchial reflex is another component of the Dive Reflex, the one that really tripped me up. This reflex is activated, again, by immersion of the head into cold water and results in immediate apnea (suppression of breathing), laryngospasm and brochoconstriction (closing of the airways).
While the cardiovascular effects of the Dive Reflex are interesting and allow free divers to do their amazing deep dives, the nasobronchial aspect can make it challenging for scuba divers to learn to breathe underwater, especially when your mask is off, exposing your nose to the cold water. This was definitely true for me.
So, I managed to get through Open Water certification with my mask removal phobia fully intact, courtesy of training in 50 degree midwestern quarries. On our 40+ dives since, my focus has been, not on overcoming that phobia, but on KEEPING MY MASK ON! DUH! I knew, as we began looking at advancing our certs and moving forward with our dive training that this would be an issue that would come back to haunt me. I toyed around with the idea that my great fear of water in my face was from a past life experience or a near drowning experience as a child. Now, these were both my halfhearted attempts to make it an issue that was beyond my control, something about my psyche that was unalterable. I don't actually believe I had any near drowning childhood experiences, nor, as a side-note, do I believe I've lived any life but this one.
I toyed as well with the idea of seeking some counseling. I took my mask and snorkel into the bathtub to practice. I joked that when I became an instructor I wouldn't teach mask removal skills but rather Mask Retention Skills. But I never did overcome that phobia, not by the time we left for Vero Beach. In fact, my anxiety levels were so high, that I had begun have heart palpitations. I was a mess. So, Rob and I got into the pool, with our full gear, and we practiced. We practiced all of our basic Open Water Skills and each time I had to take off my mask, or even let any of the COLD pool water into my mask, my airway would immediately close off and I was unable to breath from my regulator.
I knew what was going on. I knew that I had so much anxiety tied up in this one skill that I was allowing it to have a much more powerful effect that the simple physiological reflex could explain. So, I broke it down.
First, I just took off my mask and took my regulator out and I put my face in the water. I swam around under water and got used to that sensation. Then, I put my regulator in, left my mask off and tried to lower my face into the water. That took some time but I was able to do it. Then, finally I took my mask in hand, submerged with regulator in, and put my mask on and cleared it. Having accomplished that, over a period of about 45 minutes, I felt like I had gained a lot of ground. But, the anxiety remained.
Over the course of two weeks, we did a lot of diving and I did a little bit of mask work. I was gaining some comfort and had learned that by forcefully exhaling through my nose when my mask was off, I could circumvent the laryngospasm. But, it was still a high anxiety task for me.
The end of the course began to loom ahead of me, for in order to pass our Divemaster course, Rob and I would have to perform the infamous "complete underwater gear exchange". This involves just what it says, Rob was to don my gear, me his, and underwater, while sharing one source of air, we would exchange everything, snorkel, BC, and...mask. Two days before our testing date, we were back in the pool and decided to practice the gear exchange. By the end of that session, which I cut short, I was in tears, truly believing that this was something that was beyond my skill level. My anxiety was compounded by knowing how my performance would affect Rob. We were dive buddies. We Both had to get this right and be able to do it well. The next day was a full day of classroom and it was dark and cold by the time class let out. Rob and I had been planning to get into the pool but I just could not make myself do it. I know that I was in avoidance mode. Of course I was! But I didn't have the self discipline to go out there in the cold, dark water and practice my dreaded mask skills.
As I lay in bed that night. I began practicing a psychological tool that I'd learned years ago for coping with pain, fear or anxiety. Tapping. I knew that most of the remaining issue was anxiety. It was a mind game. So, I tapped on the EFT points and, feeling as foolish as I always do when I'm using tapping, I repeated the EFT phrase: Even though I am anxious about removing my mask, I completely accept myself. I did several rounds. And then I fell asleep.
The next day, we rocked it out. You can watch video of our gear exchange here, on our Facebook page. We are back home, our new cert cards in hand, tans fading. My heart palpitations are gone, not a hint of one since the skill demonstration. I feel like I learned so much more than the syllabus had outlined.
Mask removal was my own personal demon. I let it have that power. It took every tool that I had at my disposal to overcome it: a cognitive approach to understanding the physiology, personal introspection, understanding of a supportive partner, tips from skilled instructors, exposure therapy, tears, avoidance and tapping. And this, such a small thing!
We all have them: those things that plague us, that haunt our dreams, the anxieties that we have allowed to grow rather than face head on. I knew that I would have to overcome this "hang up" in order to embrace the many adventures that lie ahead for us in the arena of diving.
P.S. If you are interested in EFT, you can find plenty of free demonstration videos online.