To help me deal with panic attacks and flashbacks that I now experience more often because of the pandemic, someone gave me an info sheet called the “Distress Tolerance Handout.” In it, I found a page called Cold Water Can Work Wonders:
When you put your full face into cold water . . . or you put a zip-lock bag with cold water on your eyes and upper cheeks, and hold your breath, it tells your brain you are diving underwater. This causes the “dive response” to occur. (It may take 15–30 seconds to start.)
Your heart slows down, blood flow to nonessential organs is reduced, and blood flow is redirected to the brain and heart. This response can actually help regulate your emotions. This will be useful as a distress tolerance strategy when you are having a very strong, distressing emotion.
I tucked this information away somewhere in my memory – maybe I’ll give it a try some time, I thought
I am glad I read about this technique because it helps me to appreciate the movie, My Octopus Teacher. In it, Craig Foster, who is both protagonist and filmmaker, talks about returning to False Bay in South Africa, where he grew up free-diving in the kelp forests of the Atlantic.
After many years away he returns, suffering from burnout and great emotional distress. He can no longer do the things he loves, like communicating with his son and making documentaries. There in False Bay, he begins free diving again — with only a snorkel and flippers – no oxygen tanks. He says:
In the beginning, it’s a hard thing to get in the water. It’s one of the wildest, most scary places to swim on the planet. The water drops to as low as eight, nine degrees Celsius. The cold takes your breath away. And you just have to relax. And then you’ll get this beautiful window of time for 10, 15 minutes.
Suddenly…everything feels okay. The cold upgrades the brain because you’re getting this flood of chemicals every time you immerse in that cold water. Your whole body comes alive. And then, as your body adapts, it just becomes easier and easier. And eventually…after about a year…you start to crave the cold.
Foster finds a way to slip inside of nature through his dives in the kelp forest and the friend he made there: a common octopus (octopus vulgaris). As much as I love the story of Foster’s octopus friend, I need to keep this story moving, so now I’ll talk about Claire Paris, another freediver.
Paris, a master at holding her breath, can do six-minute plus breath holds in a pool and dives more than 200 feet down in the ocean on a single gulp of air. Once she gets down there, she feels an immense sense of calm.
She prefers to dive without goggles to enhance the diving reflex, the body’s response to submersion in cold water. This mechanism kicks in when you immerse the nostrils and face in the water. Paris and other freedivers say that so far beneath the ocean’s surface, everything slows down.
I have a friend who lives by the Irish Sea and swims in the ocean every day—he loves both swimming and surfing. But it’s also a way to dealing with the stress of the pandemic. I’ve seen photos of him with his friends, pushing their way into the sea through the big frothy Atlantic waves. Soon enough, I’ll be up near Killaloe, Ontario, where I can swim in a cold lake and catch the last of the summer’s rays. Maybe I’ll try a few dives and see if cold water really can work wonders.