Mindfulness Within Freediving: A tool for self-regulating our mental, emotional and physical health.
Instructor course handout
The goal of this paper is to analyse the practice of mindfulness, its benefits, and how we may apply this not only to freediving but to our relationship with ourselves and others in daily life.
What is it?
In his book “Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness”, Fabrizio Didonna describes it as such; “[a practice that develops an individuals ability to] influence [their] interpretation of events and [subsequently their] emotional attitudes and behaviour [towards these events through] the acceptance of experience, a compassionate attitude toward one’s own and other people’s suffering, the capacity to observe oneself without judging, and the idea that the mind can observe itself and understand its own nature.” Simply put, it is the act of bringing awareness to the here and now experience without any judgement.
How to practice mindfulness?
There are numerous types of meditation practices available to us but for the purpose of freediving, attention meditation and mindfulness meditation are the most applicable in terms of skill transference.
In her article in “Neurology Now” (2012), Amy Paturel describes the methods of these practices as such.
Attention meditation; concentrating on a focal point- for instance, your breath- and if your mind starts to wander, gently bring your focus back to the breath. Watch for distractions, and when they arise, acknowledge them, and return the focus to the breath.
Mindfulness meditation; much like attention meditation, our focus is placed on the breath, but with an added layer of monitoring our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations. Much like the distractions, we allow them to come and go as they please, neither interacting with them nor trying to change them, all the while maintaining a detached awareness.
In The Water
How is mindfulness applied in freediving?
Firstly, let’s break the dive up into its four main phases.
The Relaxation Phase; which can be described as the period spent on the surface of the water preparing mentally and physically for the dive to come,
The Descent; where the individual begins their dive down.
The Freefall; the portion of the dive where the diver becomes negatively buoyant and starts to sink.
The Ascent; where the diver begins to come up to the surface using their discipline of choice.
What are the benefits of mindfulness when applied to freediving?
The practice of meditation and mindfulness allows the individual to develop a better awareness of their internal physical and psychological cues. Through meditation, a free-diver can “begin to be aware of the correlations between physiological functions and psychological activity. For example, when certain muscles tense before a specific task [or in response to a stressful situation], and is detrimental to [performance], [the skills learned through the practice of] meditation can be a way to identify what is happening within one’s self and intervene before undertaking the activity, [or at least limit the amount of time spent in that physical state], thereby, averting a possible poor performance.” (Behncke 2004)
Mindfulness also allows the diver to achieve and remain in a state of flow which is described as “is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterised by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.” (Wikipedia)
What does this look like during the different phases of the dive?
Relaxation Phase; much like meditation, the diver is focusing on their breathing and allows whatever thoughts, feelings and sensations to arise in the moment. For instance if the diver experiences anxiety about the upcoming dive, instead of suppressing it or ignoring it (more on why this behaviour is detrimental to our well being in a later section), they will acknowledge it but allow it to pass, bringing their focus back into the present moment either through the breath or through physical sensation. A diver may also find it useful to scan through the body using visualisation (imagination) and notice any areas of the body that might be holding tension and subsequently release that tension.
The Descent; the diver begins to descend, and focuses on their technique and equalisation, or if they are more advanced and have automated their technique, may simply focus on the sensations felt during the dive (ie the feeling of the rope in their hand, the wetsuit on the skin, the water on the face/hands/feet, the fins on the feet and/or their equalisation etc). Once again, much like in the relaxation phase, any uncomfortable or challenging thoughts and emotions are allowed space to exist and are neither obsessed over nor ignored. For the sake of remaining concise, it is safe to assume that this practice of accepting invading thoughts and emotions should be applied to all parts of the dive.
The Freefall; much like the descent, the diver focuses on the sensations felt and/or technique. In most cases it is the adjusting of position along and distance from the line, body position to allow for a streamlined descent, and most importantly maintaining a state of relaxation.
On the ascent; the diver proceeds to focus on the task at hand which is either pulling, finning or swimming up, instead of the amount of distance left to be covered before surfacing again.
Throughout the entire dive, thoughts and sensations are allowed to come and go, the diver focuses on the part of the dive they are currently in and neither dwells on the past nor projects into the future. The ability to remain present and focused is integral to their ability to remain relaxed, and both focus and relaxation are imperative to a successful dive (de Sousa Lourenço 2018). Any overt reaction to perceived negative stimuli more often than not results in stress, which in turn elevates the heart rate, consequently increasing oxygen consumption and adversely affecting the divers ability to remain relaxed underwater, thus creating more stress, and the cycle repeats itself.
Mindfulness is the first line of defence against this cycle, and is a useful tool for the diver to regulate their performance within the water, but more interestingly however, is the fact that it can also serve as a tool to regulate their “performance” in life. Training sessions can be seen as, not only a chance to improve ones freediving but also as a way to improve oneself.
In 2012, a group of researchers at Maastricht University released a study on the benefits of mindfulness in the workspace, more specifically its role in emotional regulation, emotional exhaustion and job satisfaction. They outlined two different types of responses to external events/stimuli- surface acting and deep acting.
Surface acting, was described as the “modification of the emotional expression after emotional cues have already been evaluated and after experiential, physiological, and behavioural response tendencies have been initiated” (Hülsheger et al 2012) which might play out as follows:
- A negative evaluation of a work event occurs
- Response tendency triggered
- Reaction needs to be overridden by response modulation in terms of faking and/or suppressing emotions.
This method of interacting with the world around us is ineffective and potentially hazardous “because it is effortful and depletes mental resources, undermines [one’s] sense of authenticity, and hampers positive social interactions with [others].” (Hülsheger et al 2012) Deep acting, on the other hand, involves a more mindful approach to these perceived negative evaluations by interrupting the first two processes of surface acting.
It involves firstly a “reperceiving of and decoupling of self from” the stimuli, and secondly a “decreasing of the automaticity of mental processes” involved, which might play out as follows:
- A negative evaluation of a work event occurs (a customer reports a difficulty with a product)
- The individual acknowledges the response tendency (anger or fear, physiological arousal or an impetus to respond harshly)
- The individual is able to watch the response tendency arise but instead of allowing it to dictate their next course of action, they simply decouple from the evaluation and reperceive it (acknowledging its existence, and that it is only a thought in the mind, and is in no way obligated to engage with it)
- The individual accepts it and through this acceptance is able to “dissolve [the response tendency] and reduce the urge to react upon it.”
Results showed that participants who engaged in deep acting over surface acting reported significantly less emotional exhaustion and a greater sense of job satisfaction than those who adopted the surface acting method. Practising mindfulness allows the individual to reframe the event/stimuli and to choose their response, and as described by Hülsheger et al, “mindfulness promotes self-regulation by interrupting automatic thought and behaviour patterns and thereby allowing individuals to react in a self-determined and flexible way”. This interruption of automatic thoughts/patterns is successfully demonstrated in the following anecdote.
Social anxiety disorder
In a study done by Goldin and Gross (2010), sixteen adult patients diagnosed with SAD underwent functional MRI while reacting to negative self beliefs (ie people always judge me/I am ashamed of my shyness) and while regulating negative emotions used two types of attention deployment emotional regulation- breath focused attention (mindfulness) and distraction focused attention (counting backwards from 168). Post-study, patients were asked to provide a negative emotion rating as well as undergo neuro-imaging assessments. According to the ratings, results showed that when they were engaged in breath focused attention (but not during distraction focused attention), patients experienced reduced emotional reactivity to negative self beliefs. Brain scans also showed a reduction in activity in the region of the brain responsible for emotional processes (confirming the user rating of reduction in emotional reactivity) and an increase in the region of the brain linked with visual attention (suggesting that instead of the usual emotional attention bias- ie focusing on the negative self belief- patients’ attentions were now shifted to being visually engaged in the act of breathing- ie visualisation of the breath at the nostrils), displaying the effectiveness of mindfulness in reducing emotional reactivity while enhancing emotional regulation.
The benefits of mindfulness don’t stop there however. Along with mental and emotional self regulation also comes the capacity to gain control over our physical well being.
As described in an earlier section of this paper, the two key components to mindfulness include directed attention to experiences in the present moment and a non-judgmental attitude. In 2012, there was a study conducted where 34 participants (consisting of mindfulness practitioners and a control group of non-practitioners) received unpleasant electric shocks during two settings (a mindfulness and a control condition). Results showed that practitioners, but not controls, were able to reduce pain unpleasantness by 22% and anticipatory anxiety by 29% when applying mindfulness practices. Brain imaging showed a reduction in activity in the part of the brain involved with cognitive control and an increase in activity in the region associated with sensory processing. (Gard et al 2012) The act of directing attention toward “painful stimuli, specifically to objective/sensory aspects can result in decreased pain perception, especially in subjects with high health anxiety and high fear of pain.” (Gard et al 2012) I believe this concept can be applied not just to sensations of physical pain but emotional discomfort as well, as the alternative (suppression/distraction) may prove detrimental to not only our mental but physical health.
A study carried out by Booth, Petrie and Pennebaker (1998) took 65 participants and divided them into different groups, one that was instructed to write about an emotionally challenging time in their lives and a control group that wrote about their last 24 hours without any emotional connection to the content. The emotional group was told in two separate instances to either suppress all thoughts regarding their writing or to allow themselves to actively engage with any and all thoughts and emotions that came up, as were the control. Blood samples were taken before and after writing sessions to analyse their immunological responses and results showed a change in white blood cell counts only in the emotional group but none for the control. Researchers found a decrease in white blood cells (specifically circulating T lymphocytes, T suppressor cells and total lymphocyte numbers) in samples taken from participants when they were instructed to suppress any thoughts and emotions regarding their subject matter, but found an increase in T helper cells and total lymphocytes in samples from the second session that allowed them free reign of their thoughts and feelings. Not only did thought suppression effect participants’ immune system in a detrimental way, the contrary response of acceptance and acknowledgement seemed to improve the body’s immune system.
In a separate experiment performed in 1987, participants were instructed to engage in a 5 minute stream of consciousness exercise, where they would verbalise any thought that entered their minds. During this period, they were also instructed not to think of a white bear, and when they did they were to ring a bell. As demonstrated by their verbal confirmations during the stream of consciousness exercise and bell rings, they were unable to suppress the thoughts as instructed. After this suppression period, upon being asked to think about anything they wanted for 5 minutes, subjects in the suppression group “displayed significantly more tokens of thought about the bear than did subjects who [weren’t told to suppress anything].. These observations suggest that attempted thought suppression has paradoxical effects as a self-control strategy, perhaps even producing the very obsession or preoccupation that it is directed against.” (Wegner et al 1987)
Not only does thought suppression adversely effect our physical well being, it also seems to have no sway over the very thought or emotion we are trying to avoid in the first place. It seems, as counterintuitive as it sounds, that it is in our best interest to direct our attention to whatever source of discomfort may be present, emotional or otherwise, and to acknowledge its existence without judgment, rather than to ignore or suppress it. Instead of rejecting our fear and anxiety surrounding a deep dive, or our anger and frustration surrounding a need that isn’t met by a work colleague, family member or partner, perhaps now that we are more aware of the detrimental psychological and physiological effects a “head in the sand” approach has on us, we may feel more compelled to engage in a conscious relationship with these uncomfortable occurrences, in order to live and dive more harmoniously.
Mindfulness, much like the state of mind required of us whilst engaging in it, does not judge between aquatic and terrestrial activity. Experiences in one environment informs and builds upon the other, and the frequent practice of mindfulness techniques in both settings will begin to cultivate a durable change in our propensity to be unattached and non-judgmental in any and all situations. It is my hope that once we develop a greater awareness of the capability of mindfulness to affect our lives (and our dives) for the better, we may begin to take an initiative in reclaiming control over our mental and emotional states, and take the road less travelled- not by shying away from but by confronting and embracing our emotional or physical discomfort, thereby developing a resilience we never knew we had, and consequently improving our quality of life and perhaps by association the lives of those around us.
Behncke, L. (2004), Mental Skills Training For Sport: A Brief Review, The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, Volume 6, Issue 1, https://athleticinsight.com/Vol6Iss1/SkillsPDF.pdf
DiDonna, F. (2009), Clinical Handbook for Mindfulness, Springer. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Michael_Treadway/publication/226618414_The_Neurobiology_of_Mindfulness/links/00b4951d193734e0ed000000/The-Neurobiology-of-Mindfulness.pdf#page=47
De Sousa Lourenço, S. M., (2018), The Psychology of Freediving: Psychological Strategies Used By Elite Freedivers, https://repositorio.ul.pt/bitstream/10451/38422/1/ulfpie053330_tm.pdf
Goldin, P. R.., Gross, J. J., (2010), Effects of Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction on Emotion Regulation in Social Anxiety Disorder, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4203918/#!po=77.3973
Gard, T., Hölzel, B., Sack, A. T., Hempel, H., Lazar, S. W., Vaitl, D., Ott, U. (2012), Pain Attenuation through Mindfulness is Associated with Decreased Cognitive Control and Increased Sensory Processing in the Brain, Cerebral Cortex, Volume 22, Issue 11, https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/22/11/2692/372821
Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J. E. M., Feinholdt, A., & Lang, J. W. B. (2012, December 31). Benefits of Mindfulness at Work: The Role of Mindfulness in Emotion Regulation, Emotional Exhaustion, and Job Satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/05c1/4273f0d3d4acdac20ee49c76ba3aa3afe7a5.pdf
Paturel, A. (2012), Meditation, http://www.amypaturel.com/articles/article_pdf_154.pdf
Pennebaker, J. W., Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J. (1998), The Immunological Effects of Thought Suppression, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 75, Issue 5, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/eaff/8c6e9cc43dfd31369a4b83c5836115a63711.pdf
Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., White, T. L. (1987), Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression, Journal of personality and social psychology, Volume 53, Issue 5, https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=thought+suppression&btnG=#d=gs_qabs&u=%23p%3DETDSucpDpBYJ