From near anxiety attack to zen, here's how I conquered my fears and became a diving regular.

By By Tiffany Leigh
Photo: Radius Images / Getty Images

If I had to geotag The Little Mermaid's majestic underwater kingdom, it would definitely be in Fiji. Located in the South Pacific, the remote country comprises 333 tropical islands and is described as the "home of happiness"-and I can tell you it certainly felt like it when I landed in Nadi, on the main island of Viti Levu.

What I didn't anticipate, however, was that-despite being surrounded by picture-perfect #travelporn-my trip would soon be filled with dread and self-doubt.

Like many people in the age of FOMO, I'm constantly being pushed and pulled by an internal dialogue where one voice says, "I want to be bold and do the thing!" and another that says, "I don't want to do the thing. I'm freaking out!"

This time, scuba diving was the "thing" causing my inner turmoil. The easy fix might be just to skip it and go snorkeling, paddle boarding, and jet skiing instead-but I've always wanted to learn how to scuba dive, and Fiji is arguably the best place to do it, appealing to both first-timers (like myself) and expert divers. (Like these badass scuba divers that'll make you want to get your cert.)

Being geographically tucked away at the end of the Earth means that the environment is in pristine condition. The country is free from coastal overpopulation, sedimentary and chemical runoffs from farming, and rising sea temperatures (which can lead to coral bleaching). And then there are the dive sites. With 70 that dot the islands, there are endless hours of enchantment available under the seas. You can swim with eight different shark species (!) on Beqa Lagoon (on Beqa Island, 38 miles south of Viti Levu) and Pacific Harbour (on the southern tip of Viti Levu); soak up views of the Rainbow Reef in Taveuni (on Vanua Levu, the second largest island in Fiji and 100 miles northeast of Viti Levu); and frolic alongside manta rays on Nanuya Balavu Island (71 miles northwest of the main island).

It's like an IRL version of Finding Nemo-so, needless to say, I was antsy to get my feet wet (no pun intended).

FYI, you'll need to get a scuba diving certification before you can dive in the deep blue. Luckily, many resorts-like Six Senses Fiji (on Malolo Island) and Jean-Michel Cousteau (JMC) Resort (on Vanua Levu)-offer a package that coordinates gear, lessons, and a certification program that takes just three days. Or, use a bespoke service like Big Blue Fiji to facilitate all the logistics if you're staying at a resort without scuba perks.

It all seemed pretty straightforward: Watch the safety video, get outfitted in your scuba gear, learn the basic survival and recovery skills (in a kiddie pool, no less), and you're golden. Then, your reward: An opportunity to head out to the open water with a scuba instructor. (Related: Meet the Scuba Divers Encouraging More Women to Start Diving)

By the third skill (the supremely uncomfortable exercise of flooding and then clearing your mask of water), my bold and adventurous attitude was wearing thin. Instead, I was feeling rushed and overwhelmed. There was already so much to process: getting used to the sensation of swimming in all that (heavy!) gear, breathing through my mouth with a regulator, readjusting my scuba mask so water wouldn't seep in, and feeling bad about stalling the class. In moments like this-when I sense an anxiety attack coming on-the best tool I have for calming myself down is yoga. Specifically, with a deep belly breath: I inhale slowly through my nose, fully inflating my stomach and chest, then slowly exhale through my mouth.

Since I was wearing the scuba mask and was underwater, this lifeline was obviously not available. Suddenly, I was overcome with fear, dreaming up a million "what if" scenarios. My brain hit the "escape" button, and I promptly scrambled out of the pool and stripped myself of my gear, feeling disappointed as I watched everyone else head out for an open-water dive.

That evening, I FaceTimed my husband, who reassured me: He told me to stop stressing, stop self-critiquing, and stop replaying the day's failure in my head. Before going to sleep, I found a moment of clarity and remembered a helpful quote by Mary Engelbreit that I tap into frequently: "If you don't like something, change it; if you can't change it, change the way you think about it." It got me through other (at first) challenging moments in my life. And (spoiler alert!) it eventually got me through this one.

I remembered the initial reason I wanted to scuba dive: It's fun! The main reason I've participated in any sport or activity in my life is because it brings me joy. Why was I letting what was supposed to be a fun vacation activity turn me into an anxious wreck? (Related: What This Scary Scuba Diving Accident Taught Me About Proper Planning)

The following day, with a strengthened resolve and a revised perspective, I practiced some deep inhalations and gave myself positive verbal affirmations: You're okay. You've got this. Take it at your own pace. Regardless of what happens, remember what's most important is to have fun with it.

I decided to give scuba diving another shot-and it was incredible. Those seemingly minor mindset tweaks made a world of difference; no longer terrified, now I was thrilled. My instructor (who was also phenomenally calm, helpful, and intuitive) reinforced the bottom line throughout my dive experience: "We're here to have fun and to soak up the beauty of Fiji." At my own pace, I blazed through the skills and, within two hours, I was in the warm blue waters of Savusavu Bay and careening through the deep. The pride I felt was eclipsed only by the underwater majesty that was scuba diving in Fiji.

The diving itself was pure magic, but also, in light of conquering my anxiety and fears, the experience took on a deeper meaning: Being in the water felt particularly therapeutic and meditative, almost like an extension of my yoga practice. It was a complete contrast from the day before. And since then, I've adapted this mindset to conquer everything from daily struggles (work deadlines) to challenging my body and mind (doing a marathon for the first time in Japan).

Best of all, the serenity of scuba diving means that each time I get out there (yes, it's official, I'm hooked) the rest of the world and my troubles melt away, even if only for a brief moment. Because I decided to stick through it that second day in Fiji, I've now been diving off Muravandhoo island on the Raa Atoll in the northern Maldives (to explore cool art sculptures laced deep in the ocean waters) and in the luxurious, tropical waters of Carlisle Bay in Barbados (to scuba dive into the belly of a shipwreck). If I never pushed past that initial panicky episode, I'd never know what the world looks like deep below the water's surface-and, now, I live for those moments.


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