Jill Heinerth is the author of Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver and serves as explorer-in-residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
As a cave-diving explorer, my work takes me to the most remote corners of the planet. I am frequently away from family and out of touch with world events for weeks or even months at a time. I capture images in the claustrophobic blackness of water-filled caves, where an error may determine my odds of survival in mere breaths. When a problem arises, I am left to my own devices to solve it. There is no mission control to call for assistance.
This highly technical, underwater pursuit has claimed the lives of dozens of colleagues. Why do I choose to take such risks? Beyond the important scientific discoveries, cave diving has taught me valuable lessons about how to survive and thrive when fear and isolation are overwhelming.
Envisioning my dark workplace terrifies most people, yet much of humanity is currently experiencing the intense loneliness and distress of their own dark caves. We face a common menace and need to adjust our behaviours, goals and expectations to survive this expedition called COVID-19.
Almost 20 years ago I led a National Geographic team to Antarctica to dive through winding passageways into the belly of the world’s largest iceberg. For 60 days our team was beyond contact, singularly focused on a mission that involved constant risk.
On that project, three of us became trapped inside the berg, pinned down by a ferocious current. In a moment when I thought we might die, I recognized that the only people qualified to rescue us were already by my side. We were alone against the elements. Forced to calm the chattering gremlins in my head, I struggled against my emotions, anxiety and fear to find a way out.
Hovering in the icy truth of my mortality, I saw an opportunity to take the next small step toward success. I noticed tiny, clear-bodied fish that had burrowed thumb-sized holes into the ice wall. Ejecting each fish, one by one, and using their vacated homes as hand holds, inch by inch I climbed the sheer wall of the ice cave until I saw the sliver of light that would lead me back to my crew.
When I was trapped inside a fortress of crumbling ice, it would have been easy to panic. When an emergency strikes, my primal brain tries to take over, seizing control of my heart and lungs. But I have learned to take slow, deep breaths, consciously regulating my breathing and heart rate, to allow me time to postpone otherwise instinctual reactions. Unchecked emotions won’t serve me well. I need to focus clearly on the next correct decision and patiently pace myself toward success. I remain calm, inhaling thoughtfulness and pragmatism that help me take careful steps to reach safety. Don’t get me wrong – I am not without emotion. But I have trained myself to delay my feelings until I can find a safer time and place to honour them.
In times of abject terror and intense uncertainty, survival depends on regaining control and focusing energy on the present. Fear is a healthy emotion that lets us know we care about future outcomes, but it is also capable of causing emotional paralysis. Instead of running from fear, I turn it into an exercise in risk assessment. I recognize my mortality and choose to combat anxiety using mindful practices that help me regain structure and control.
Uncertainty can bring people together. We don’t know what tomorrow, next month or next year will hold for us. Who would have imagined our current reality when we were making New Year’s resolutions a few months ago? We are diving in the uncharted waters of a pandemic. We can acknowledge the new risks we face without surrendering. We can’t wait for the world to feel normal again before we choose to act. Opportunities for growth will arise from these unexpected challenges. Although no one can accurately predict when this crisis will end, we can take small steps out of our dark caves each day and work with determination to rebuild the world we choose to create.
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