Panic is the First Stage of Death (1)

Panic is the First Stage of Death

“The wise tell us that a nail keeps a shoe, a shoe a horse, a horse a man, a man a castle, that can fight.” – Bescheidenheit, Freidank, 1230 AD. 


In our book, we talk about one of the fundamental characteristics of complex systems – sensitivity to initial conditions, or SIC. 

You’ve heard of SIC before, but you know it as the butterfly effect. It’s the idea that a tiny action in a system can echo forward into massive events. 

A butterfly flaps its wings and changes the weather in another part of the world. 

A lost horseshoe costs a battle that leads to the fall of a kingdom. 

A split-second reaction under intense stress could unleash a fatal chain of events. Or, it could solve a problem and lead to you coming home alive at the end of the day with an interesting story to tell. 

The fascinating thing about these events when we look backward at them is we can never control the world well enough to keep all the butterflies from flapping, to ensure that a horseshoe never loses a nail, or that those of us with dangerous occupations and hobbies never find ourselves in high-stakes situations. 

That small things in our lives will snowball into big things is a reality we must accept and plan for. 

Our only chance at coping with the storms, lost battles and life-and-death decisions is to have put in the work in advance. We can’t develop the tools necessary to solve these problems after they’ve happened. Instead, we must be prepared so that when contingencies occur we can respond quickly, calmly, and effectively. 

Freediving is a simple sport. 

In open water, you take a breath and dive down or pull yourself down a static line. Hang out for as long as you are comfortable or willing to play with your life and then head back to the surface. 

Like many sports, freediving takes a basic act and extends it to the limits of human performance. Nearly anyone can run, or jump, or hold their breath and pop underwater for a bit. Far fewer of us can tick off a marathon at a per-mile pace below six minutes, high jump over seven feet or dive below 100 feet on a single breath. 

Brad Overstreet splits his time between Texas and the Honduran island of Roatan. He is a certified freediver with a personal record dive of 51 meters (167 feet) on a single breath. 

Getting to this level takes years of training. It’s not a sport that you can tough-guy your way through. The physical aspect of the skill is almost entirely the product of mental and emotional regulation. The better at it you become, the more relaxed and calm you are while pushing your physical limits in a place where mistakes are fatal. 

The mind is the ultimate driver of physical performance and resilience in many settings.  

Freediving is a particularly good example of this because it requires something that can be deeply terrifying at a level that the most primitive parts of our brains instantly recognize and respond to. 

Much like the interpersonal violence that military personnel are trained for, drowning is a universal human fear. It’s only with extensive training that we can become comfortable, rational and reliably skilled in situations like combat or swimming on a breath of air with 100 feet of ocean above our heads. Without that training, we are prone to panic and catastrophic mistakes. We become statistics and cautionary tales. 

Panic is especially problematic in the sport of freediving, where your goal is to minimize your energy expenditure. To make it to a depth in the ocean that is normally reserved for experienced scuba divers, you must slow your heart rate and oxygen consumption as much as possible. To make it back to the surface alive, you have to keep it that way. 

The moment you lose control of your thoughts in a life-or-death situation is the first step in a cascading downward spiral. Thoughts drive feelings, and feelings drive physiology. Mental panic becomes a racing heart, gasping for air, spastic movements, decreased coordination, and a steep loss of cognitive function. 

As Army Combat Engineer Kyle Weller, put it: 

“Panic is the first stage of death.” 

Brad has spent a lot of time training his ability to recognize and regulate his stress responses in the water. The process he follows is essentially stress inoculation training. He starts with a mental model of a skill: all the elements of a successful freedive, combined with awareness of his thoughts, feelings and stress responses during a dive, and specific strategies to regulate them
while doing an uncomfortable and dangerous thing. 

Then he stages his practice so that he masters those skills in a low-stress, low-stakes environment and then gradually increases the complexity of the stressor while integrating continuous feedback on his performance. 

Controlling his thoughts and heart rate at 10 meters becomes doing the same thing when something goes wrong at 20 meters. And then 30, 40, 50. 

When you hold your breath and dive underwater, your brain starts to lie to you. 

CO2 builds up in your bloodstream and triggers alarm signals in your brain. If you ignore these signals for long enough, you’ll start to feel spasms in your diaphragm. The most primitive regions of your brain will start screaming at you that it’s time to find the surface and take another breath. Yet, the gap between what your body
can do and what your brain tells you it can do is massive. 

Through training, you can increase your tolerance for CO2, and your brain starts to calibrate its predictions and warning signals. With each practice session, you feel comfortable for a little bit longer, and can more calmly process the discomfort signals as they come. A diaphragmatic twinge or a change in your vision becomes interesting data, not a cause for alarm. Step by step, you’re narrowing the gap between what’s physically possible and what your brain is ok with letting you do. 

This comes with practicing the ability to stay relaxed. Every tiny muscle contraction and every unnecessary stress response expends precious oxygen. Think of the tranquil state of mind attained by monks in meditation. Now do that at the bottom of the ocean. 

As you dive deeper, the pressure from the water above you increases. By the time you reach 30 meters, the air spaces in your body are ¼ the size they are on the surface. 

Brad calls this feeling the lying bastard. It feels like someone is squeezing you to death. Like they are choking you and the only thing you want in the world, and at that very moment, is to take a breath. But, a breath is not possible. The feeling that rises up that urges you to follow this impulse and scramble for air is a lie that’s trying to kill you. 

This is where mental skill practice comes into play. You must have the perspective to recognize these feelings, put them into context and effectively process them while staying on course. Getting to depth is only part of the danger. You also must ascend slowly and under control, lest gases expand too quickly. Shallow water blackout is a constant threat on the ascent. 

You must use the calm, rational part of your mind to control the impulses of the more primitive, panic-prone regions. Freediving is a continuous practice of staying calm and measured under terror-inducing stress. 

One day Brad was going for a personal best of 40 meters (131 feet)

His training had been going well and everything was coming together. His breath hold was strong but the pressure at this new depth was unfamiliar and at least a little painful. The lying bastard was along for the ride with every meter past 30. 

On dives like this, Brad uses a leash. This is basically a surfboard leash worn on the wrist, clipped by a carabiner to a static line that’s anchored by weights to the seafloor. This line creates a vertical guide to help keep divers on course while they descend through the water, and is a safety and recovery feature: if you die on the dive, it makes it possible to recover your body. 

Brad hit the 40-meter mark and turned to ascend. He looked up at the 40 meters of ocean between him and his next breath. And he went nowhere. 

The leash on his wrist had gotten hung up on the weight stack at the bottom of the static line. He was stuck. 

This is the moment where we see sensitivity to initial conditions play out. It’s the butterfly’s wing flap or the nail dropping out of the horseshoe that changes everything else. 

Within the space of a few heartbeats, Brad had to respond in a way that kept him out of the first stage of death. The skills and behavioral patterns called up by his brain at this moment were established entirely by his past training. That training was being applied in a test.

Brad felt part of his mind well with panic. The reactive limbic system portion of his brain effectively jumped on the bar and started dancing for attention. He recognized this and went perfectly still, and used his self-talk to bring things back under rational control. 

“Panic is bad, Brad. Set it aside. Fix the first problem.”

He traced the leash from his wrist down to the weight stack where it had become tangled. A tiny little ‘clink’ echoed through the water between the sound of his heartbeats as the carabiner came free. 

You may recall from earlier that Brad’s depth record is now 51 meters. Quite a lot deeper than he was this day. Brad got to this level by continually practicing his skills under conditions of increasing difficulty, at the edge of his ability. This day at 40 meters, he was still not overwhelmed. He had worked his way there gradually and deliberately enough that this situation was still under control. 

Brad could have pulled a quick release on his wrist, ditched the problem, and immediately gone for the surface. But he knew how much time he had left, and needed to establish for himself that he could stay calm and solve problems at this depth. With his leash clear of the weight stack, he took his time ascending to the surface. And then repeated the same dive, three more times. All of this was skill practice. 

We will all most likely, at some point in our lives, have our Waterloo

We will find ourselves in a moment that, while unlikely to involve 131 feet of ocean, will be the reason we did the work in the past. The reason we trained,
every fucking day

Perhaps you hit bottom one day in selection. You reach a point where you’ve got nothing left, physically, mentally or emotionally. 

Maybe the shadows of hostile strangers encircle you in a parking garage late at night. 

It could be as an active-duty special operator on a mission where everything goes sideways. 

These are the situations that could go either way and in so many cases they go horribly. 

Whatever it is, the moment will come and the actions you’ll be able to take will be the actions you’ve trained for. To be ready then, the time to put in the work is now. 


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