Feel · Freedive · Think

Containing Panic – Letting it Remain in the Minute it Arises

Three days ago, I was in my car and late for an appointment, rushing and following the GPS instructions. It told me to make a U turn which I blindly did and it took me in the wrong direction. At this point, I felt a great sense of frustration and anxiety, upset with myself that I could have made that mistake and anxious that I was going to take even longer to reach my destination.

To calm myself down, I started to breathe deeply. I took deep breaths in and long slow controlled breaths out to “contain the panic”. I needed to stop it at that moment, rather than to allow the panic to fester and escalate, and for one small mistake to lead to more mistakes. Taking those deep breaths bought me time to calm down and decide how I wanted the next moment to be. So I recovered and reasoned, if I had to be late, I would be late. And it’s better late than risky and reckless driving.

Freediving taught me that panic can be contained wherever and whenever is arises. You need not follow panic down the fight or flight spiral. But you can stop, recognize and accept it, see it reduce in its strength, and then decide how to proceed from that moment on. I learned this during my first deep descent into Singapore waters beyond 20 meters. As I went deeper and deeper with my eyes closed, there came a point where it was suddenly pitch black and I panicked and returned to the surface.

At the surface, my coaches, Sam and Chris, told me that on my next dive, when I experience that panic with the darkness, not to react and return, but to stop at that point and allow myself to accept the darkness and to relax into that space and time. And then watch my emotions change, as they often do. This way, I remain in control. I can better assess my situation and to decide my move, whether to calmly proceed or return, without panic.

Grab the line and stop when you need to and don’t follow panic’s lead.

This object lesson learned in one freediving session can be applied to other strong forms of emotional surges that we experience in life. Intense emotions have a tendency to overwhelm, to spill over, into every thought that you have, every fibre of your body, and into subsequent moments long after the initial trigger has past. It causes us to react out of fear rather than reason.

If we recognize that we have the ability to stop, recognize, calm and soothes ourselves and then decide to think and behave differently from what those initial emotions ask of us, we can retain a lot more control over our lives. In short, to accept and contain them, rather than follow their lead.

Panic may indeed be what we need in certain situations that are life threatening and we need that reaction to protect and preserve ourselves. However, for most people and for most of the time, panic is a hindrance rather than a help, causing us to lose ourselves in situations where we most need to be calm, collected, and in control.

Time can sometimes seem to be continuous with no beginning and no end, but it is also made up of unique moments that are distinct and separate from one another. And we can contain unpleasant moments and emotions to one moment and have a completely different moment the next!

Credits: Freediver photograph by Kohei Ueno and featured image by Stefano Pollio.

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