Ok, so its time to be honest with ourselves. Put the big diver machismo aside for just a few minutes, and take some time to recognize a very scary reality that we have all faced underwater…that is, ‘shudders of uncertainty’.
I am currently amidst a block of time where I am spending more than 30 hours per week underwater. These periods tend to come in waves, with less busy blocks of time in the mix as well. In addition to the physical demands of working like this day in and day out, are the psychological and physiological demands. During any ‘typical day’, despite best efforts to remain as fixed focused on the working tasks and survival as possible, human nature requires that my brain run the full spectrum of daily emotions just like everyone else, but while under ‘pressure’.
In very recent times, I’ve found an innate ability to separate the psychology of self with the working side of me while underwater, and come to recognize little triggers that may cause problems long before they occur.
One trigger that often goes unspoken is a ‘shudder of uncertainty’, unquestionably caused by anxiety and the triggers and pathway that takes us there, and beyond in some cases. Let’s briefly explore this…
Early in my career as a dive instructor, I was taught about a very simple pathway, where stress leads to anxiety which leads to panic which leads to an accident. In many cases, this very scary path can be avoided by eliminating stress to begin with. A nice leisurely dive in warm, clear water will likely do anything but cause any initial stress. On the other extreme is say a cold, hard working dive lasting more than four hours where the entire situation is stressed so to speak, and it is the working divers job to handle this appropriately and still accomplish a task.
With stress already in place, it is all too easy to work hard and breathe hard. This respiratory stress, coupled with the fact that breathing apparatus does not deliver gas as easily as here at the surface (or resistive work of breathing), can quickly lead to hyperventilation syndrome (reduced CO2 in the bloodstream), often a precursor to a panic attack. Scarily enough, on the flipside is inadequate ventilation of breathing apparatus, thus inspiring too much CO2, which can also trigger panic. With the onset of full anxiety, or even early panic, a ‘flight or fright’ scenario is in play, and psychologically removing oneself from this is a critical capability to acquire.
Bottom line is that carbon dioxide (CO2) truly is the black gas. Humans operate at very narrow margin of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and in the atmosphere. This, almost above all else, needs to be managed properly – be it on open-circuit SCUBA, surface supplied diving, or rebreathers.
I’ve been fortunate to develop a sense of recognition of CO2 issues while doing working dives. I have a literal ‘shudder of uncertainty’. In my head I just don’t want to be there or doing what I am doing. Its taken thousands and thousands of hours underwater to separate this sense from the tasks at hand and learn how to manage it effectively. Personally, its a matter of venting my gas supply adequately to provide fresh breathing gas, regulating breathing patterns, and finding a new visual focus – even as simple as a different color hue in my field of vision (for example, a blue glove against my black/mudded out work area).
As we take steps towards any longevity on, in, and under the sea, our physiology and psychology is challenged. While working, inherent levels of stress are unavoidable, and understanding coping mechanisms are critical for safe operations. As we strive for making operations more efficient, improved life support, especially in the area of carbon dioxide monitoring and removal, will prove to be a critical step in allowing humans to take that next step towards a new life in the sea.