Scuba Diving Can Help People Deal with Physical, Mental Challenges

I must be the only 20-year-old who, when presented with the opportunity to travel to Goa, the party state of India, decided to spend it all several meters under water.

Under the tutelage of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, I underwent rigorous training and testing over the span of a week to become a certified Open Water Diver. I am now qualified to dive up to a depth of 18 meters (60 feet) when accompanied by a dive buddy or dive professional anywhere in the world.

While scuba diving had already been on my bucket list — courtesy of elitist Bollywood films and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — I also seem to be a part of the generation of “conscious travelers.” Traveling with purpose seems to have become the trend of 2019, and millenials are apparently less interested in uninhibited trysts with hedonism and more interested in being eco-conscious, service-oriented, or focusing on self-care while on vacation.

Going into scuba training, one of my main goals was to appreciate marine life in its natural habitat. As an Environmental Studies major, I no longer feel comfortable visiting zoos or wildlife and marine parks, where species are confined for our perusal and often mistreated. In the ocean, we were in their territory and under strict instructions to respect their space, with no barriers to prevent the sealife from retaliating in case we misbehaved or irked them in any way.

It was therefore surprising when my vacation with a purpose took a sharp turn from appreciating the environment to grappling with physical and mental hurdles. A turn which suddenly felt like an enormous, insurmountable obstruction to learning this adventure sport.

After taking theory lessons and setting up equipment, the course’s difficulty increased significantly — first during the five pool sessions known as confined water dives, and later during the four open water dives in the ocean. Though I am a fairly athletic person, my weight training is usually limited to light-weights. It was thus extremely challenging for my body to adjust to the 20-25kg diving equipment.

My greatest hurdle, however, turned out to be mental. Having grown up with anxiety, not being able to speak or breathe normally underwater was extremely panic-inducing. The weight, coupled with the need to breathe solely through the mouth, pushed my anxiety to an all-time high, and I really struggled during pool sessions as well as my first day of open water diving. While the marine life I saw was truly awe-inspiring — multi-colored corals, schools of fish, and even a rare seahorse — I spent my first two dives completely preoccupied with orienting myself and managing my panic.

These experiences were even more overwhelming because the course included a long list of skills we had to master. Such skills included retrieving a lost regulator, emptying a mask full of water while submerged, swimming nine meters on a single breath of air, navigating with a compass underwater, and removing and putting on equipment underwater, among many others. I was already panic-stricken when everything was going right; to then simulate scenarios when things go wrong was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. It did not help that the scenario about lung overexpansion injury — portrayed through a bursting balloon — played repetitively in my brain the whole time.

Overcoming the physical challenges of diving was relatively simple. Keeping my mind from dwelling on the worst case scenario was not. The more I obsessed about my fears, the more immobile I became, which is an incredibly dangerous state to be in underwater as you consume air. Diving taught me to “stop, think, and act” in the face of adversity, and to master my fear. Gaining control over my panic and anxiety was by far my greatest takeaway from this endeavor, and I’m so grateful to have had an opportunity to do so.

I would encourage folks to pursue deep sea diving, or your equivalent of deep sea diving — an adventure that scares you but is rewarding for your personal growth and well-being. You might be surprised at what you can accomplish because, as I learned, it’s not about eradicating your fear. It’s about learning to manage fear and not allowing it to get in the way of achieving your goals.