Scuba-psyche: Fear, pain and the sea

Date posted: 8 June 2018

Blue Melody -Red Sea, Egypt

That we owe our life to the ocean is a well known fact. But that the ocean can return us to life when we’re down or broken, is something we’ve been learning recently.

I’ve never been afraid of heights, small spaces, large spaces, swimming in deep water or climbing up tall trees. I have never been afraid of anything really, with the notable exception of snakes (they actually do freak me out). Then it happened, about ten years ago, I started feeling uncomfortable in small, crowded, windowless spaces: the tube in rush hour, a very crowded elevator. Not afraid, no panic, simply very uncomfortable, counting the seconds to a breath of fresh air. Many would consider it normal, but I could feel that the discomfort was somewhat ‘exaggerated’. I knew there was something ‘wrong’ but it took me years to realise it coincided with a very stressful time of my life. A few years after the ‘discomfort’ started I was on holiday in the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan, a Mecca for tourists who love Mayan archaeology and tropical sandy beaches.

Diver in cenote, Yucatan, Mexico

Gravity is merciless. There is only one place where it loses: The ocean

Luca Bonaccorsi

I reached the local dive shop to organise a few days out at sea. That’s when local instructor Pablo Mendez offered to dive a ‘cenote’. A what? Cenotes are Karst sinkholes and caves linked by tunnels in an endless dark, submerged labyrinth under the jungle. He describes it well: “You will go down one of the cenotes in the jungle and then explore the tunnels, dive in the dark, sometimes elbowing through tight passages where your gear clangs against the tunnel’s ceiling. Sometimes the passage will be so tight you’ll have to take off the gear and squeeze through the hole: gear first, then you. Are you afraid of confined spaces?” he asks. “I don’t love them.” “Then it’s your Himalaya, you should try. Don’t worry, 90% of our clients panic in the first ten minutes and surface. It’s ok to fail.” My Himalaya… and for $70? Irresistible.

After two hours of off-roading through the thick jungle, I am having fun. Preparing the gear by the ‘hole’ shaded by lush tropical trees, I am thrilled. Ten minutes into the dive, the cave and the last ray of natural light behind me, finning through my first dark tunnel… I panic. For real: I am in complete terror, struggling to breathe and coordinate. I want to surface, “Just get me out of here.” My buddy-instructor was expecting it, looks at me and draws an ‘o’ with his fingers, the ‘ok’ in scuba-tongue. I am not ok, far from it. Why? Yes, this space is tight and it’s dark everywhere around the beam of my torch, but why? There are no sharks or speeding moronic boats in these secret fresh, lifeless waters. There are no dangers. But my mind. It is all in my mind. Yes, I am diving and I depend from my gear but I’ve done it for 30 years, and I have a buddy with an extra mouthpiece. And, yes, it’s dark but I’ve learned to love night dives, the mystery, and the wonder. So what is it? The only danger to myself is… myself.

Someone said something smart, that I cannot quote adequately, about the fact that when you dive it’s not about the depth below the surface, it’s about how deep you go inside yourself… or something corny and New Age like that. Corny, New Age and incredibly true.

Pedro repeats with his o-shaped fingers, ‘ok’? And I am diving, inside, down to a place where fear is no longer related to actual threats. I’m not going to drag this out for long. Because the truth is that it didn’t last long. I started talking to myself: “Calm down”, and… it happened. That was one of the best dives of my life. I went back to the pitch black cenotes in the days that followed, again and again.

What I experienced in my home-made (rather dangerous) psycho-experiment, is actually ‘a thing’ in contemporary medicine and psychology. A vast array of doctors, physiotherapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists are working on the ‘power of the sea’ over our minds and wellbeing. Buzz-words abound: ‘blue-health’, ‘blue-medicine’, ‘blue-thinking’… So how can the ocean, and diving in particular, change your life?

A good place to start is websites such as www. scubapsyche.com, run by clinical psychologist Dr Laura Walton (a proud MCS member and supporter). It didn’t take long before Dr Walton, trained to deal with extreme dysregulation of emotions (panic, anxiety) and psychosis, realised that divers had to go through emotionally challenging moments. She decided to study, in her own words, “how we use one of the most important pieces of kit the diver has… the mind.”

Deptherapy - Red Sea, Egypt. Diver prep Dr Walton recently wrote: “Divers encounter fear in different forms. For some it is the natural apprehension of the unknown, the uncertainty of what will happen and whether we are capable enough. There is a long list of phobias associated with the underwater environment: bathophobia (fear of depth), claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces), submechanophobia (fear of submerged, man-made objects such as shipwrecks). A fear of sharks is called Galeophobia, from the Greek word for small sharks or dogfish, and people with ichthyophobia are frightened of fish. Even the fear of the sea itself has a name – thalassophobia, which includes apprehension about the vastness and emptiness of large bodies of water and preoccupation with distance from land. For others it can go deeper into the psyche because diving into this unfamiliar realm means needing to trust other people to guide us, making mistakes while we learn new skills and feeling oddly uncomfortable in the strange equipment. This taps into some of our more deeply seated beliefs and behaviours.”

Some have taken this to the extreme and have decided to use dive-therapy on individuals who have gone through the most destructive of physical and psychological trauma – war veterans. Diveheart is one such organisation in the U.S. Its founder, Jim Elliot, offers a unique testimony: ”I remember one of our first guys. John was a C5 quadriplegic. There’s not a lot he can do with his hands but he could feel from his elbows up. Imagine that you’re in a chair every day… we wanted to make John escape gravity. We took him down to Mexico for a dive. After 15 minutes John was experiencing zero gravity, using his breathing to balance himself.

Deptherapy - Red Sea, Egypt. Diver prep After two days on the trip with other veterans John introduced me to two of his friends with spinal injuries, and they told me they had been in chronic pain for years, and this was the first time they had been free of pain since their injury. One of the guys was pain free for three weeks!”. Elliot explains that pressure creates the miracle and scientists estimate that at 60 feet under water there is an extra output of serotonin, such that regular dives could make pain therapy (morphine, anti-inflammatory, etc.) unnecessary. But it’s not just the body that the ocean heals. Elliot remembers a veteran telling him: “I served my country, and now that I am in a wheelchair, men look down at me, some take a knee and talk to me as if I’m a child. But when I’m under water, I look at those guys right in the eyes.” The ocean is a great equaliser. In Elliot’s experience, the dive-therapy can represent a paradigm shift: from disabled to… diver.

Deptherapy - silhouette, Red Sea, Egypt In the UK, Deptherapy does similar work with veterans of the British Armed Forces. Their experience confirms that for the wounded, weightlessness provides relief and pain free moments, whilst for veterans affected by PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) the underwater world provides a calming experience. One veteran described it better than anyone ever will, probably: “When I put my head under the water the demons disappear.”

Gravity is merciless, it will drag you down whether you’re feeling strong or weak. Whether you can wrestle with it or not. Gravity doesn’t condone your weakness or adjust for your diversity. There’s only one place on Earth where gravity loses – the ocean. The great equaliser, the place where we come from, the source of life and serenity and now… the great healer.


This article was written by Luca Bonaccorsi, Director of Communications (MCS), for our Spring 2018 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

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