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Sky Diving Cured My Depression (nytimes.com)
106 points by montrose 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

The history of alpinism can, to at least a first approximation, be summarized as "veterans with PTSD fixing their heads the best way they knew how". This goes for freeclimbing too, to a somewhat lesser extent.

I heard a interview with a vet and climber once who described the appeal of alpinism as "all of the good parts of combat, without the shooting or any conscious thing trying to cause me harm".

Skydiving sounds similar, if shorter in duration than 3 weeks on K2 or something.

As a vet myself, though without PTSD, I can attest to this. I have been a semi-serious alpine climber and the reason (for me) that this works is because you have to be focused on the exact moment and precisely what you are doing at every instant. Crossing the Grand Couloir on Mont Blanc a few years ago, there was a serious rockfall problem (think Volkswagen-sizes boulders flying down the mountain,) the process of preparing for such a dangerous (and foolhardy) maneuver, puts your mind in a good place ironically. You don’t give a shit about drama when you are purely focused on your next step. Crossing a cravasse-filled glacier roped to your partner has a similar effect. Combining that with the slight hypoxia at altitude and it’s an amazing curative. Not even to mention the physical suffering of moving for 10+ hours, loaded with gear.

I get a similar benefit from flying small airplanes — the intense focus on every detail is like a forced meditation: you CAN’T be depressed because there’s no room in your thought for it.

The feeling for me continues several hours after flying or climbing — you feel almost weightless and you are very deliberate in your actions (driving after flying finds me less impatient, much more spacially aware and just calmer.)

I am only speaking for me, but I feel there is something too this — not just for depression, but cyclothymia and mania as well.

High altitude meditation!

This notion of fixing depression by jumping is common in skydiving. I've been jumping about twenty years and I've encountered people who claim to had been very depressed in their previous life and that jumping fixed them.

Never heard that from a tandem first time jumper, only those that made it their lifestyle.

Likewise - in the decade I was active in the sport of skydiving, I heard plenty of stories around using the sport to help with stress, depression, and other issues back in the “real world”.

Never heard of a tandem jumper saying that, but then, how big is my sample size?

My guess is that it's cause they gained a community - that seems to be the #1 thing that keeps people in the sport.

I did MFF and got my A License and stopped jumping because I honestly didn't enjoy the community.

I've found learning to fly is really good too. There's an element of danger, physical skills, a lot of focus, a lot of learning (the experiential kind too), putting yourself in a completely different place than you've ever been, and an instructor to walk you through it. Highly recommended.

The only problem is learning to fly is prohibitively expensive for most people. Skydiving is a much cheaper activity.

> The only problem is learning to fly is prohibitively expensive for most people. Skydiving is a much cheaper activity.

I assume you are talking about flying an typical small airplane?

You can learn to paraglide for well under $2k.

Paragliding is even cheaper.

I second this. Learn to fly.

I'm never happier than when I'm flying. I can see how a similar effect happens to sky divers.

Former skydiver here, 1400+ jumps logged. The effects of skydiving on you mental state are well known to us, though rarely put into writing. I'll defer to Charles Lindbergh, who had a way with words (in addition to airplanes) to sum it up [1]:

"When I decided that I too must pass through the experience of a parachute jump, life rose to a higher level, to a sort of exhilarated calmness. The thought of crawling out onto the struts and wires hundreds of feet above the earth, and then giving up even that tenuous hold of safety and of substance, left me a feeling of anticipation mixed with dread, of confidence restrained by caution, of courage salted through with fear.

How tightly should one hold onto life? How loosely give it rein? What gain was there for such a risk? I would have to pay in money for hurling my body into space. There would be no crowd to watch and applaud my landing. Nor was there any scientific objective to be gained. No, there was deeper reason for wanting to jump, a desire I could not explain. It was that quality that led me into aviation in the first place — it was a love of the air and sky and flying, the lure of adventure, the appreciation of beauty. It lay beyond the descriptive words of man — where immortality is touched through danger, where life meets death on equal plane; where man is more than man, and existence both supreme and valueless at the same instant."

[1] The Spirit of St Louis, Charles Lindbergh, 1953

I got to see a very good friend of mine a few months ago from my hometown; someone I grew up with. He got really into Skydiving when we were in University. He kept trying to get me to jump. Guy spent a lot of time and money in the summer doing jumps and getting his various certificates. He got to the point where he was qualified to pack his own chute.

He had one bad landing and shattered his leg. Apparently paramedics have no sympathy for people who injury themselves jumping out of a plane. He did jump for a few years after recovering from that. His roommate screwed up a landing and punctured his lung when he slammed into a stop sign (ironic, right?).

My friend stopped jumping. He has two kids now, and he said that was part of it. He was worried a bit about getting pulled into that culture for the rest of his life, but he knew older sky divers who didn't party all the time and do insane amounts of cocaine (I hung out with some of his sky diving buddies and dear god, do they love their cocaine).

But he had a few other friends die in jumps, and he started contemplating who he was and why he dived. He's now a band director at a community college. Now that he has his own program, his kids, his wife, he just realized it wasn't for him any more.

There's a genetic component to depression, there is a societal component to depression, and there are situational components to depression. A lot of therapy is to identify rumination when it happens so that you can short circuit that neural pathway (thought process) and focus on being more realistic (ironically) or in the moment. You can think of depression as a deep neural network that's been overtrained on certain inputs to always predict depression. A life or death scenario forces you to act in the moment and decide in the moment (or very near future). That short circuits the rumination as well. Maybe it is an entirely different brain system as well.

Definitely, would do it regularly if not for my daughter.

Cheapest therapy ever, ~$200. Everything in life gets the reset button. Just so happy to be ALIVE. I kissed the ground on my return, haha.

A friend asked how long it lasts, personally was about two months, but there are still residual effects years later.

The article describes me. Your comment too.

As to the article: I found my cure with skydiving, the complete and utter helplessness and giving in to the powers that be made me loose my depressing desire to (believe that I can) exercise control over everything, which would never really work, which would make me feel inadequate, which fueled my depression, which let to less power to control, which... you get the idea.

While skydiving I know I've given up control (on a controlled moment) and that helps me deal with other moments where I observe that same loss.

As to your comment: Since I have kids, I do not feel I can risk my own live as much since they somewhat depend on me and I owe them my presence. Thus I stopped doing it regularly (once a month) and now only do it when I need it (once a every year up to once every 5 years). That's "how long it lasts" for me.

Statistically parachuting is not all that dangerous. You're about as likely to die from running a marathon. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micromort

when you do have jumped more than 10 times it's only $25 a shot (even cheaper if you BYO parachute)

Motorcycling can do this too. I've ridden with quite a few people who get depressed if they can't ride.

I'm not a speed demon, I wear reasonable motorcycle gear, and I don't do anything for the sake of danger/thrillseeking.

But getting back in the saddle last year after a long hiatus and using it as my primary means of transport has done wonders for my state of mind. (And my wallet for that matter, which relieves stress, which then comes around to state of mind again.)

I've got more than enough storage to go grocery shopping, I've got music through my helmet (Sena doesn't have much competition, but I don't have many complaints) and I've got nice warm clothes so cold is not an issue.

I do miss it on days when there's snow on the ground or low visibility, but around here that doesn't last more than a few days, a week at most.

Just got back from a trip overseas. The most calming, enjoyable part wasn’t the beaches, the food, the tours, etc. It was zipping around on a scooter all day.

It works for me, in a really remarkable way. My bike broke down twice last year, and I couldn't ride for over a week each time; it was really remarkable to notice how dramatically my mood improved when I got the machine back. I hadn't noticed that I was getting depressed, but I sure noticed the feeling after I got back on two wheels - like drawing in a deep breath, as clarity and calm returned.

Sometimes I use the bike that way on purpose, not to go anywhere but simply to improve my mood. A quick run out east on the highway, up to the mountains and back, will usually knock me out of whatever loop I've got stuck in. I think it has something to do with the way that you have to stay present, immersed in the moment, aware of everything going on around you; there's still some room in the brain for higher-level thought, but you have a base of calm presence to work from.

I suppose for the same reason as is speculated in the article; you can only focus on the moment when you're on a bike.

On a similar tack, in Australia they have been treating methamphetamine addiction with flying lessons: http://www.bbc.com/news/video_and_audio/headlines/43369891/a...

I'm not sure which is more expensive in the long run...

When I was getting my license, I asked another pilot how much money it would take.... "All of it."

I suspect that the life expectancy of a pilot is longer than that of a meth addict though...

Between middle and high school, I went to summer camp, where there was a ropes course. I remember how scary it was to jump from the 60 foot platform, even knowing that the zipline harness would catch me. It was an experience of being very scared, but pushing through the fear, and then getting the instant reward of how much fun it is to whoosh through the air and accomplish something difficult.

Though probably less scary than skydiving, it is still considerably scarier than most things people ever encounter in everyday life. And you can't quietly shy away from it, either, the way you often can from social situations or intimidating opportunities or novelty in real life; you're standing there on the platform, everyone is watching and cheering you on; and success is binary-- either you jump, or you are shamefully lowered back down to the ground (which is still probably not much less scary anyway).

I didn't think of that experience of being very important, but it occurred to me recently that many people have never had that experience-- of being very scared, but pushing through it. It resets your baseline for fear, and it shows you what you are capable of. It is, I think, important training for the skill of managing any strong emotion, but particularly fear.

It is a kind of experience I think everyone should have in their life, ideally early on.

If this were true, I wonder how many people would have taken the first step toward curing their depression a few seconds before ending their own life.

"I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable -- except for having just jumped."


Darwin used to immerse his head in cold water - the Victorian 'reset button' for depression.

There's an incredible amount of euphoria when you conquer your fears.

To me (IANA...) this reads like 'Sky Diving relieved my anxiety which cause(s/d) my depression'.

... which is compatible with the recent understanding that depression is (usually?) the result of being worn out by chronic stress.

Worth remembering that it's not always true - some people have genetic predispositions if I'm not mistaken.

The two aren't mutually exclusive. You can have a genetic disposition to being worn out by chronic stress.

I'm not arguing that is bad. Just pointing out that for non-anxiety (I think anxiety and stress are still something different) related depressions this might not help.

I find flying little airplanes has a meditative element. One does not ruminate idly while flying, but is effortlessly focused on aviating, navigating, and monitoring in the here and now. Very calming.

There is a real downside to this not spoken about. If/when you get hooked into an adrenaline based lifestyle and for some reason have to leave the lifestyle behind (financial, family, injuries) it can be extremely devastating to not do what was in essence keeping you alive. Still worth it but the crash can be worse than the cure, unless you figure out how to persevere gracefully.

Different experience here. I did one dive. Nice view from up there. Not very exciting. Falling out of the plane was good fun, felt a bit nuts. The fall was very pleasant. Opening the chute was fun. The canopy ride was boring and uncomfortable hanging in the harness. Saw the video of the guy who jumped before me, he was woohooing all the way.

I'd love to see a clinical trial on this. What's a suitable placebo for jumping out of a plane, I wonder?

"There has never been a double blind test on the efficacy of parachutes!" -Internet Scientist

Not sure I'd trust a parachute without proper testing.

We have some retrospective research though, although I'm not sure the causation was shown, not just correlation.

Having three kids cured my depression.

It often feels like falling out of a plane.

I wonder what gives you grater chance of dying, depression or skydiving?

Purely on gut instinct I'd put my money on depression.

Bad depression can also hurt every day. Bad skying diving only once. (YEMV)

I'm not trying to say that it's not worth it, because I know depression is horrible daily.

Although when skydiving even when everything goes perfect you still hit ground at pretty high speeds. It must be hard for spine and joints and probably can also cause some daily problems especially at later age.

> Although when skydiving even when everything goes perfect you still hit ground at pretty high speeds.

No, that's not right. If you can land well, it's certainly no harsher to your body than jumping off a step. If the wind is light then you might have to run a bit. That's all.

Source: I have made hundreds of parachute landings like this.

You might be thinking of round parachutes, which today are not used by sport skydivers.

Skydiving death rate is around 1/1,000,000, depression is around 1/20 IIRC.

Depression - between 1/100 and 1/14 (lifetime)

Skydiving - 1/150000 per jump.

At least according to:




Skydiving and BASE jumping can be both a cure for and a cause of depression, depending on how long you spend doing it and how many of your friends go in during that time.

Sailing did this for me.

Sailing is an incredible way to right yourself. I'm reminded of Bernard Moitessier, who almost won the 1968/69 round-the-world race but quit and decided to keep on sailing: why return to civilisation when you've found true peace already? It's a really great example of how the way we live in modern times just isn't great for our psyche.


You know, I grew up reading one of his books, "Un Vagabond des mers du sud" (in Romanian "Hoinar in marile sudului"). I could bet you a fiver that he is one of the reasons I became obsessed with sailing since a very young age. After moving to London I figured out I am in the best place ever to learn sailing. And here I am now, Level 3 RYA dinghy sailing + just got my power boat license. I will be always grateful to my sailing club (North London Sailing Association) for introducing me to the English sailing culture and helping me get over some crap in my life.

I'm not a fan of the clickbait title here. It trivializes depression.

I think the only cure for depression is death. Too morbid?

You manage depression with behavior and therapy. You can attempt to treat some of the symptoms with drugs. You can break out of a rut by trying new things. But curing depression... like once and for all? That's not realistic.

"Sky diving helped me get out of a depressive episode," or "Skydiving helped me stave off having depressive episodes..." would be more accurate.

As someone with a sourceless depression for many years, I also used to think (and still do sometimes) that death/oblivion is the only "real" cure, and anything else is a temporary distraction from the problem.

Lately I've been trying to see it from a different direction: What am I really looking for when I harbor suicidal thoughts? Escape, and more specifically: Freedom.

It's not that I WANT to die; on the contrary, I want to live forever! There's too many things I want to do and see. I want to get off this planet and learn what's beyond. But I can't, and in the back of my mind I feel there's no point to anything. I like to create but nothing lasts forever. So I'd be content with just being able to explore and discover as much as I can, as long as I can.

Skydiving definitely gives a sense of freedom, as well as some degree of control – I could choose to throw away my parachute and splat on the ground – but I suppose the rush of physical sensations might make one feel alive enough at the moment to not want to die just then..

Depends on a source of depression - some people may have genetic issues with serotonin path (just like ADHD people have with dopamine, or diabetics with insulin). Fortunately anti-depressants help out with this.

There is a nice book, "Listening to prozac", written by a psychiatrist who originally believed everything can be cured by therapy, but finally admitted that some people need to stay on anti-depressants for the whole life, since the source of their depression is neurologic.

“Stave off episodes” or “cure” is a modelling distinction.

If the sense of depression doesn’t cloud over a life anymore, they both amount to the same thing.

There’s nothing trivializing about that. It’s just an individual’s story of coping, recovery, and hope.

Skydivers suffer from depression too. It would be interesting to know if skydivers as a group are more or less depressed than non skydivers or people who skydive less frequently. Are the effects the same for someone with +1000 jumps or is it the change in environment/trying new things that is the key to stave off an episode?

It could be that they've adapted to the input. Basically the novelty of the dive has worn off. It'd be interesting to see if they still get the same adrenaline response every time.

I did my ~30th jump with a guy who was approaching 20,000 jumps. He seemed to get just as high off of it as I did.

Over time, the high changes -- from a feeling of "holy shit I'm alive!" to a much more sublime appreciation of the sensation of freedom while in freefall. You're not just dropping like a stone: every surface of your body becomes an aerodynamic control surface, and you feel like you can do anything (except, er, go up). That feeling of freedom never seems to diminish.

A confounding factor may be hobby and the social aspect.

If you take a different perspective, the point isn't to see a one-time treatment that cures an illness, the same way you would with medication and surgery. In that sense death is a cure for anything and it's a total cop-out.

I've made two attempts on my own life in the past decade and I'm incredibly grateful that I didn't get the realistic 'cure' I was looking for in those brief moments; in fact it could barely be considered a cure at all, especially if you believe in things such as karma and reincarnation (and this is true for many folk).

Acceptance gives you the opportunity to enjoy your life while still being aware that there are times and situations where you really struggle and you've got to take care of yourself through them. You can take various steps to pull yourself out of the rabbit hole, even if only for a while, and get a better understanding of how you can manage your triggers or become more resilient to them. It might be a lifelong struggle, or you become resilient enough that you can deal with the dark moments really well or even sidestep them entirely by noticing certain feelings coming up. This means you still feel like a human being with a full spectrum of emotions without having them medicated or repressed out of existence.

The key thing in stories like these is that often the person suffering the depression (or similar mental illness) is motivated to do something they would never have thought of before (or been too afraid of). It's not really staving anything off because if you reframe it, what you're seeing are these creative, beautiful and inspired acts to embrace life like they never did before. Travelling, skydiving, adventure, art, music, going to the cinema alone, meditating, volunteering...

These remedies are otherwise known as 'being alive' and they're an incredible reaction to the often temporary desire to shuffle off the mortal coil. And what's better is that you can very easily enrich the lives of others as well as your own in the process, no matter what darkness is lurking deep inside you. If, with your depression or your mental trauma, you manage to live a full life anyway, then wasn't that as good as a cure, if not better? It's even better than managing it.

This is just how it feels for me anyway; I've been dealing with complex PTSD for a long time and, in the most twisted way, I can say that my life became far more enriched through my efforts to work through that. In that sense I think seeing death as the only cure is an insane trivialization of the matter.

With you 100% on acceptance. Just to add to the record: in my experience, medication (at its best) hasn’t numbed me, more that it gives me a window to recognize what I’m feeling, which has helped me to continue pursuing the things that I value. YMMV, of course.

It totally depends on what you're dealing with and where you're at :) Being on Prozac for the best part of a year helped me out for sure, in terms of keeping me going and not giving in, which in turn led me on to other things. I don't see it as the entire solution or a lifelong treatment (you can't medicate enjoyment and fulfilment) but it can be very effective at giving you an opening or a boost into something new, and in all fairness you can't just suddenly accept, like you're flicking a switch and you're okay with everything.

That window is incredibly important.

Psychedelics can cure depression.

When you release the root cause of this stuff it often resolves for life.

Could you explain a bit what you mean by "release the root cause"?

Very often this stuff is caused by developmental or shock trauma of some kind.

One way of describing it is this folks aren't in a contracted or defended state due to the current context of their lives.

Psychedelics (used responsibly) can help to face the emotions (and past experiences) that the psyche has been holding back and supressing (thus depression).

There are numerous access points to shift these patterns, but psychedelics and non-ordinary states work (like Breathwork) have proven to be very effective in my life and in the lives of many I know and work with.

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