Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Surviving Fear under the Ice

Two powerful tools against fear help us tackle the unthinkable.

You can study the psychology of fear until the cows come home; it's not going to do much to keep your heebie-jeebies under control when you're about to jump into a gap in six-feet- thick sea ice.

I shuffle closer to the edge of the five-by-five foot hole that's been chainsawed into the ice. I have no real reason to be jumping into the frozen-over Hudson Bay. I've come up here for a totally different reason—to do a story about igloo building for a men's magazine. But the trip's organizers added a couple of extra days onto my itinerary so that I could get a taste for the local Inuit culture—riding on a dogsled, eating raw caribou meat—oh, and going scuba diving under the sea ice. Care to give it a try, Mr. Wise?

I couldn't say no. Stunts like this are basically what I do for a living. I'm a magazine writer specializing in experiential adventures like skydiving, surfing, and survival training. Along the way, I developed an interest in the psychology of intense pressure and wrote a book on it. So though the idea of scuba diving under ice scares the crap out of me, that's all the more reason I should do it.

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And it does scare the crap out of me. Immersion in 32 degree water sounds bad enough, but to be trapped under six feet of ice as well? There's a section of my book about how deadly that kind of thing can be. If a diver panics, the instinctive response is to rip away anything that blocks the airway—in this case, the regulator. In an enclosed space far from the surface, there may be no chance to recover from that mistake. Ironically, just knowing that the possibility exists makes it more likely to happen. "Well, let's see how it goes," I tell the organizers.

I'm being weasel-y, but with good reason. I'm taking advantage of one of the mind's most powerful tools against fear: the ability to take action. Having options or a sense of power over our circumstances makes it a lot easier to maintain calm. Back in WWII, psychologists found that fighter pilots experienced less trauma in combat than bomber crews, because they were in control of their planes, while bomber crews had to wait passively for the action to start. The longer I can postpone making a commitment to this ice-diving adventure, the more control I'll keep.

The day of the dive arrives, and my anxiety level is climbing. Over breakfast I meet with the divemaster, and he asks if I'm excited to go. Not really, I say. Why not, he asks? Because, I say, I'm worried about my fear spiraling into a fatal panic.

He shrugs. "If there's any question about someone's willingness to dive, I don't want them under the ice," he tells me. He explains that if I freak out and block the hole, I'll endanger the two other divers who will also be under the ice with me. It sounds like we're on the same page. Obviously, I shouldn't go.

But a funny thing happens as we talk. I find myself getting less and less nervous. I'm benefiting from the second most powerful tool against fear: knowledge. The more relevant information we have about a potential threat, the less stressful it is. As the divemaster describes the setting, the gear, and what we'll be doing, I discover my fear has boundaries. It shrinks.

I get fitted with equipment, then we climb onto snowmobiles and head out out across an endless white expanse. Here and there the wind has scoured away the snow, exposing ice as black as night. The thought of being on the other side of it gives me the willies.

After a few miles, we stop, unload our gear, and suit up with alacrity in the 10 degree air.

Ready? Ready! The two other divers jump in and I follow. To my surprise the water doesn't feel cold at all, thanks to my dry suit. That's one big worry out of the way. Now it's time to descend. I let out air from my buoyancy control device and slide past icy walls. I emerge into a murky cave space about four feet high, with a sandy seabed sloping downward below a whitish-gray flat ceiling of ice.

My heart is pounding. I begin to turn. My feet are floating upwards, my back spiraling down. I flail and stir up sediment until I'm in zero visibility. Turns out I've failed to open a valve to release excess air from my suit, and now it's trying to lift me toward the surface while my heavy metal tank drags me down. Here I am, under the ice, struggling upside down, and all but blind.

The thing is, I don't mind so much. I'm not totally out of control. With some effort, I can awkwardly twist myself around, let out some air, and settle on my hands and knees on the bottom. Now I have time to really take in the strange world around me. As the sediment clears, I look at the patches of mussels on the seabed and the patterns of light and dark in the ice overhead.

There's no more fear. That awful sense of mystery is gone. And while I may barely know what I'm doing, I've got a tentative feeling of being of control. Armed with the two weapons against fear, my stress level sinks to zero. I'm in a whole new world, and it's wonderful.

(A version of this essay originally appeared in the October 2011 edition of Red Bulletin magazine).

 

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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