Focusing on the Present Moment to Overcome Fear

Scuba diving triggered fear for Elizanda de la Sota, but she didn’t let that stop her. As told to Carsten Knox.

Jukka/Adobe Stock

In Tahiti 10 years ago, while at an introductory scuba diving lesson, I realized how much my fear could take over my experience of things. Still, scuba interested me, so I signed up for a certification course in my home city of Austin. After taking the written test, I suited

up, jumped in the pool, and felt a wash of panic. My heart was racing, and I was breathing hard.

Because I was breathing so fast, I found myself either floating to the surface of the pool or sinking to the bottom. I was totally frustrated. At one point I popped out of the water, ripped off

my mask, and threw it across the pool, screaming, “I’m sick of this—I hate this!”

I kept at it, though. My next test was staying underwater for 30 seconds, sharing my breathing apparatus with a partner. I went down and almost immediately my mask flooded with water. In that moment I realized I had a choice: go back to the surface and start all over, or tolerate it and graduate to the next lesson. I noticed that, yeah, while my mask was full of water, nothing else was threatening. I was still breathing.

It was a big shift for me: I chose to stay with exactly what was happening, and this has really helped me in the water.

My biggest scuba diving experience so far was three years ago in Australia, at the Great Barrier Reef. I was still pretty new to the sport, and I found myself diving with a group of people I didn’t know. Even my dive partner—he was Thai—didn’t speak English. There was also a gale-force storm starting. It was so bad, actually, that authorities closed the reef for three days right after our dive.

As the boat was driving out, I thought, “This is it.” I noticed the fear beginning to climb up from my gut to my chest. When the boat stopped and we all put on our gear, I could feel the intensity building.

The waters were incredibly turbulent that day, there were very strong winds, and we had maybe six feet of visibility once we got underwater—it was very tough diving. Once we started down, I had a strong moment of panic. I wanted to push up to the surface and get out. I told myself I had to accept this feeling.

Then suddenly, things shifted: on a second, deeper dive, farther along the reef, visibility improved. The colors were absolutely amazing. I saw a three-foot-high clam with bright blue tentacles that we all took turns putting our hands into—I felt it actually clamp down on my hand and then open up again. I watched stingrays glide by and I hovered above some of the most beautiful coral I’ll probably ever see.

If I’d let my fear rule the day, I would have missed all that.

My next plan is to dive off Australia’s other coast, near Perth. There are whale sharks there. I can’t wait to see more.

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