Rethinking Relaxation

Rethinking Relaxation

Instructor course handout

Sheena Mcnally

Simple techniques with proven physiological effects


The key to success in freediving is often stated to be relaxation; indeed, the AIDA manuals go so far as to say that, “Relaxation is probably the most important word in freediving.” (p. 2, AIDA 2 manual) Defined loosely as “a state of being at rest and at ease,” relaxation can be a difficult thing to achieve. For new divers, the sport can be incredibly intimidating, and for more experienced divers who are progressing through a series of increasingly difficult depths, it can be difficult to find that elusive state of calmness prior to the dive. The freediving world is full of suggestions on how to find relaxation, often including techniques borrowed from meditation and yoga, but sometimes, for some divers, these techniques fall short. In other cases, the diver is so obsessed with the task of “achieving relaxation” that it becomes simply impossible to do so. In these situations, rather than “think” one’s way out of it (which can be difficult or impossible during a stressful situation), it can instead be more effective to use a simple, physical action to evoke physiological changes in the diver’s body—changes that are associated with relaxation. Three of such simple physical actions including smiling, posing, and yawning.


A smile is more than just a reaction to something that you see or feel—a smile can actually change one’s emotional and physical state. Several studies have discovered the positive effects of smiling, the most famous being Grin and bear it: the influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response. In this study, the participants were asked to complete stressful tasks. One group used a standard smile during the tasks, another group performed the tasks with neutral expressions, and the final group used a Duchenne smile—that is, a type of smile often regarded as a more genuine smile that involves the muscles around the cheeks and corners of the eyes as well as the mouth (think “smiling with your eyes”). To ensure that the participant groups were using the proper type of smile, the researchers actually manipulated the participants’ mouths using chopsticks.

What they discovered was stunning: regardless of the type of smile used, participants who smiled under stress had lower heart rates. Those who used the Duchenne smile had the lowest. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that even though these smiles were faked using the chopsticks, the physical act of smiling had noticeable, measurable results. The researchers concluded that smiling creates both psychological and physiological benefits during stressful situations and stress recovery.

What does this mean for freedivers seeking relaxation? A lowered heart rate at any point before or during a dive is a good thing, and a diver can help induce it with something as simple as a smile—even if that diver is not feeling genuinely happy. Times when a diver could try a smile include: during the breathe-up, the freefall, or possibly even immediately following recovery breathing. In each of these situations, the smile has real physiological potential to reduce stress.


Our posture and the way in which we carry ourselves helps to express the way that we’re feeling to those around us—but can our posture also influence how we’re feeling?

Researchers think that it can, and that it is possible through certain postures to increase our tolerance to risk and to lower our levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

In 2010, a group of researchers from Columbia and Harvard Universities published a paper called Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance. The paper went on to become the basis for Amy Cuddy’s (one of the researchers) famous TED Talk (see reference list). Cuddy and the other researchers had the study participants hold “high power” poses (open, arms out, chest out, sitting/standing tall) and “low power” poses (closed, arms crossed, shoulders slumped) for one minute. The researchers manipulated the participants into the poses, so the poses were essentially faked—that is, the participants were not holding the poses as a true expression of how they were feeling; rather, they were forced into them. After holding the poses for one minute, the participants were given a small gambling task and asked to report on how they felt. Finally, researchers took saliva samples to test for cortisol and testosterone levels.

The results were fascinating. Participants who held the high power poses were more likely to focus on reward in the gambling task, and exhibited greater willingness to take risks.

Their hormone levels showed elevated levels of testosterone and lowered levels of cortisol. Low power posers were the exact opposite.

Why is this relevant? Testosterone levels are, “…closely linked to adaptive responses to challenges,” (Cuddy, p. 1364, “Power Posing”), meaning that a higher level of testosterone can possibly make an individual physiologically better at performing a challenging task.

Perhaps more importantly, lowered levels of cortisol coincide with higher levels of relaxation; cortisol is a stress hormone linked to the infamous “fight-or-flight” or “stress” response.

There is great potential for freedivers to adopt power poses as part of their breathe-up or pre-dive routine. By simply choosing an open, expansive posture while riding in a boat to the dive site, sitting on a platform, or otherwise preparing for a dive, the diver may well be able to affect their hormone levels and mental/physical preparedness (and by extension, their relaxation) without having to use or in addition to a more traditional relaxation technique.


There’s more to a yawn than sleepiness or boredom! These involuntary, jaw-widening breaths may actually help us to deal with our own stress response (among other possible functions), and thus, promote relaxation.

Stress and anxiety cause our bodies and brains to get hotter. Several studies have shown that yawning helps to regulate elevated brain temperature. Neuroscientist Simon Thompson found that yawns can be triggered by a rise in cortisol levels—that is, a rise in stress levels—something many freedivers may experience before a dive.

Psychologist Andrew Gallup speculated that when we yawn:

..our gaping jaws increase circulation to our skulls, effectively forcing warm blood out of the brain. The deep inhalation of our yawns also brings a flood of air into our nasal and oral cavities, which cools the cranial arteries through heat dissipation.”

In Gallup’s own studies, he found measurable drops in the brain temperatures of rats after inducing them to yawn. Another study on parakeets suggests that yawning does indeed serve a role in neural thermoregulation.

Based on this research, perhaps a yawn or two during a breathe-up (or even on the boat ride out to a dive site) can help an anxious freediver cope with the stress they’re experiencing. Watch a competitive freediver prepare for a deep dive, and you may notice that it’s an action that many divers are already using without being aware of exactly how it is helping them.


Attaining relaxation in freediving does not necessarily have to involve the commonly suggested techniques borrowed from yoga, meditation, or visualization. Though these techniques are certainly valuable, perhaps there are times where they do not work, or freedivers that struggle with them. New, nervous students and experienced divers alike can become more relaxed by triggering a positive feedback loop in the body rather than in the mind: they can use one or more physical actions to create physiological change. This will, in turn, affect the mind, and with any luck, the positive feedback loop will continue: relaxing the body will relax the mind, and relaxing the mind will then help to further relax the body.

Reference list

Carney, Dana R., Cuddy, Amy J.C. and Andy J. Yap. “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance.” Psychological Science. 2010 Oct;21(10):1363-8.,%20carney,%20cuddy,%20&%20yap,%20psych% 20science.pdf

Cuddy, Amy. “Your body language may shape who you are.” TED. TED Conferences LLC. 2012. Web. pt?language=en

Gallup, Andrew C. and Omar T. Eldakar. “The thermoregulatory theory of yawning: what we know from over 5 years of research.” Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2013 Jan.

Gardiner, Brian. “Big question: Why do I yawn when I’m nervous or stressed?” Wired. Condé Nast. 23 June 2015. Web.

Gupta, Sharat and Shallu Mittal. “Yawning and its physiological significance.” International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research. 2013 Jan-Jun; 3(1): 11–15.

Kraft, T.L. and S.D. Pressman. “Grin and bear it: the influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response.” Psychological Science. 2012;23(11):1372-8.

Vinkers, Christian H. et al. “Stress-Induced Hyperthermia in Translational Stress Research.” The Open Pharmacology Journal. 2010, 4, 30-35. emperature_in_humans

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