Startle Response is No Laughing Matter

14064027_10154471375949507_5485771994445972868_nOne of the things I love most about diving is the adventure in exploring new areas. Places where few (and in many cases no one) has explored.

In the last few months I’ve been mapping out an area of one of our local lakes. This is normally something I do on my own without another diver around. It’s a time for me to relax and explore. The conditions are not optimal- nor “optical”. Most days visibility at best is less than five feet. Lately the maximum range of visibility is around two, unless I disrupt the muck and silt on the bottom and then it drops to zero. I use a finger reel to tie off one of the many provided anchors such as twisted metal, tree trunks, or fragments of excavation equipment. The reel acts as a guide to limit the area I’m mapping and a reference point to swim back too. I can lose myself in exploration without losing myself in the lake.

Since I also have a few Advanced Diver students I’m working with, I thought it would be fun to teach them how to map out and work in these environments as part of their certification. From this I have developed a small core of divers who meet up with me and we go in our various directions to map and explore. One of the maladies I’ve discovered is the sudden appearance of one of my dive buddies. The find my yellow line, follow it to the area I’m diving and suddenly appear next to me or in front of me. Even though I know there is another diver in the water or a diver that is close by- I jump out of my wet suit at their appearance. It’s something I have tried to control, but some days it can happen multiple times. After the startle I have to resist the urge to swim faster (not uncontrolled- just a faster than normal pace), slow my breathing down, and focus, getting back on task of exploring. It doesn’t take me long to get over the initial response, I just realize if I don’t make a conscious effort then I swim aimlessly for a few minutes not doing what I had set out to do while on the dive. It does take time to come all the way back to my previous state, but with relaxation and breathing exercises, I can return back to the peaceful diving I had moments before getting “jumped” by my dive buddy.

Getting startled is not the same as being afraid or having fear. It’s part of the survival reflex that has been built and reinforced I the neural pathway. When a diver (or in the land-based world a non-diver) gets startled, they feel a number of things. There is an adrenalin surge, the mouth dries because of the increase of blood sugar, and the heart rate increases. In my own case I know I breathe faster and talking to others the can produce perspiration, increase muscle tension and they feel “keyed up” or hyper vigilant. This is classic startle response. When someone jumps out from behind cover and grabs you or yells, “HEY!” that may initiate a startle response.

For most people, this response is short-lived. Not so for those who live with PTSD. Even coming around a corner while in a grocery store and running into an on-coming shopping cart can cause the effect, Hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance are symptoms of PTSD. In many cases, even if the respondent knows they are about to be startled, they can’t fight it, as in my case, knowing there was a diver close to me, and getting startled when he emerged from the fog of silt and muck suspended in the water.

beanI’m not a fan of scary movies. Maybe this is why I enjoy the serenity of diving so much. While my wife and kiddo are ok with being startled in a movie or favorite TV series and enjoy being suddenly scared is enjoyable, it’s a sure bet that a someone with PTSD will not feel that way. And while my dive buddy if startled will get over the response quickly, the research shows that it takes people with PTSD longer for their bodies to return to normal after being startled. Our nervous system gets severely strained when trying to cope with a stress that may have been beyond our capacities even though we pushed through it at the time. Our nervous systems are designed to balance the demands between self-regulation and survival and when in survival mode a ton of chemicals get dumped in to our brains to help us cope at the moment, but not necessarily in the future.

I’ve been pretty good about laughing stuff off when I get jumpy and being the butt of my own jokes about it. Whether on a dive, in the local big-box hardware store, or in my cubical it can still be embarrassing to get startled and even worse trying to calm down without feeling like a “drama-queen” afterwards. The fact is that those with PTSD, being startled is not fun and it’s not good for group morale. My daughter has learned that it is not okay to scare a person with PTSD just to watch them jump. By doing so may actually be traumatic and is absolutely nothing to laugh at. Most of us have pretty thick skin, but it’s because of that thick skin and what we’ve had to be thick skinned for has caused the hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and other issues that the startle response is part of.

Now my dive buddy is a pretty good guy and doesn’t try to cause an issue and is understanding of why I have just jumped out of my wetsuit when he suddenly appears.


Using Metal Detecting to Fight PTSD

As of September 2014, there are about 2.7 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and according to the RAND Corporation and at least 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD and/or Depression. This statistic does not take into account service personnel of the pre-9/11 era, transitioning service members or other law enforcement and other first responders. We use scuba diving to help better the lives of those who have served. We know therapeutic scuba diving helps wounded veterans improve muscle strength, mobility, confidence, and psychological well-being. This summer through a great relationship with Garrett Metal Detectors we’ve decided to take it to the next level to promote wellness.

Neptune Warrior works with veterans and local law enforcement and first responders through scuba diving. Unlike many other veteran organizations that use funding to go to exotic locations such as Hawaii, Cancun, Cozumel, or Belize, we instead use funding to stay local and impact more lives in conditions that are more accessible on a regular basis.

Our primary purpose is to provide disabled veterans an opportunity to:

•Relieve pressures veterans experience during transition or post deployment

•Instill or regain self-confidence by learning and advancing skill set (SCUBA diving)

•Build community with other veteran divers

•Begin a lifelong activity that can be done with other vets or as a connection point with family and friends.

•Assist with coping mechanisms for anxiety and stress

While the heavy work is done in a controlled environment such as a swimming pool many of our veterans go on to become certified in scuba diving. This actually presents a problem: the veteran finds an activity that provides confidence, reduces stress, promotes good psychological health, but then is stuck in Idaho for diving.

To overcome this, we have had to create a reason to go diving in our cold and murky waters, provide opportunities for comradery, give a sense of mission or adventure, and keep our divers diving.

Underwater metal detecting provides all of this and more. Dopamine, the feel good drug is released not when an addict uses a mind altering drug, but rather when it is found or purchased. The brain is actually rewired to enjoy this feeling. In our diving program, when we use metal detecting we mimic that response and help the veteran enjoy the “found it!” reaction when they pull a target from the sand.

Intense focus on a task when submerged has also shown to block chemicals in the brain that produce stress. In our pool environments we use various games and activities for this. In the lake environment where visibility is often 5 feet or less, we don’t have pretty fish to focus on, instead metal detecting provides that focus. In addition, the sense of “mission” comes into play, filling a void for many former service members.

Metal detecting also helps our vets who have suffered brain injuries, concussions, mTBI, physical wounds and injuries, etc. because it promotes motor skill movement. Waving the detector works large muscles, and retrieving small objects, adjusting and tuning knobs, and working underwater scoops and tools all improves and promotes muscle growth and coordination.

We created our own Advanced specialty though NAUI for Underwater Metal Detecting and Prospecting. To get to the level of this certification. To be eligible the diver must have completed a minimum 20 dives including certifications or log book entries in Limited Visibility, Cold Water, Search and Light Salvage, and Night Diving. This means more diving experiences, a goal to work towards, and the esteem and recognition of a certification. Once certified, they are able to attend dive events to look for items in the local ponds and lakes, eventually purchasing their own gear. We are also partnering with a local GPAA chapter to get vets out prospecting as the next level of involvement.

One of our goals is to not only create a community of veterans who dive on a regular basis, but a tribe who searches out underwater targets as a weekly or biweekly event. Right now we are the only known organization in Treasure Valley that pursues this, and all listed metal detecting clubs on the websites are defunct or have not posted in years. We want to fill that void.

We currently have three detectors and six students working towards a certification, with eight- twelve in the pipeline that have not met the minimum requirements but have expressed an interest. We have divers in the water several times a week which is creating a buzz in the local community.

This has been a great addition to our work with our vets and looking to really grow this program. Will post up other videos- but this is one you can watch now.

Dopamine- The Feel Good Drug


The simple act of balancing a golf ball on a obstacle course can provide focus for the diver as well as give the sense of accomplishment, both important for positive dopamine releases.

When an addict scores his drug, its dopamine that is released and provides a moment of gratification. Its released when a shopping addict hits the “buy” button on an internet sales site. Its the drug our ancestors felt when they found a berry patch or shot game while on the hunt.

Dopamine seems to be the one neurotransmitter that everyone has heard about. Its the feel good drug in your brain and something we strive to release in a positive way  in our BREATHE sessions. (There are negative releases as well)

In a brain that is immersed in chemicals, Dopamine is one of the chemical signals that pass information from one neuron to the next in the spaces between them. When it is released from the first neuron, it floats through the synapse,  into the space between the two neurons, and it bounces against receptors for it on the other side that then send a signal the receiving neuron. It sounds simple as a couple of neurons working together, but when you scale it up to the vast networks of pathways, super highways, and side streets in your brain, it quickly becomes complex.

In cases of PTSD, dopamine can increase hyper-vigilance or paranoia. So instead we work towards skill/reward release of dopamine. By focusing the brain on salience activities, we push for a dopamine release when the diver “gets it” or accomplishes a task. While many life require you to pay attention to get by,  salience is more than attention, it’s a signal to the brain that something that needs to be paid attention to, something that stands out. When we provide a task such as balancing a golf ball on the back side of a spoon, fanning a marble through an obstacle course, or placing building blocks in a matching order while underwater, we are giving the diver something positive to focus on, and then when the task is completed or the “get it”, we get the dopamine release we are looking for.

Edie Thys Morgan: What You Need to Know About Head Injuries

Many of us have been in situations where we had to “walk it off” or get back on duty. This is a great article on head injuries and you can see the relationship between sports head injuries and TBIs sustained in training or combat missions. (Rob)

“Recovering from even a mild concussion requires total physical and mental rest. We’re talking no TV, loud noises, bright lights, reading, texting or screen usage of any kind until all symptoms are gone. Then, return to play is a gradual, graduated and well-monitored progression, starting with light aerobic activity and then progressing to no contact sport-specific activity, drills, training and, finally, competition. Any return of symptoms takes you back to the beginning.”



Robert Scaer, M.D.: Observations on Traumatic Stress Utilizing the Model of the “Whiplash Syndrome”

“The clinical implications of the trauma syndrome with regard to both emotional and physical symptoms are substantial. There is strong evidence that traumatic experiences are cumulative, with sequential elevation of the arousal set of the autonomic nervous system with accumulated unresolved trauma.”



Brainline: Why Aquatic Therapy

“People with disabilities are often caught in a cycle of pain, depression, and stress. Disability can lead to social isolation, an external locus of control (believing that one does not have choice or possess control of one’s destiny), and the belief that exercise and fitness is impossible for them. Aquatic therapy is able to break this chronic pain cycle largely because of the unique properties of water.”