The Thai soccer coach taught his team to meditate in the flooded cave — and it may have played a powerful role in keeping them alive

  • A team of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach were rescued on Tuesday after more than two weeks trapped in a flooded cave.
  • Ekapol Chanthawong, the 25-year-old coach, used meditation to help keep the boys alive.
  • The practice is known to have a host of scientific benefits and may be uniquely suited to helping people cope with periods of high stress.

Stop. Breathe. Let everything go.

That approach appears to have been one of the technique used to help keep a team of boys and their soccer coach alive for the 17 desolate days trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand.

All 12 boys and their coach were rescued this week by a team of Thai Navy SEALs.

The 11- to 16-year-old soccer players and their coach, 25-year-old Ekapol Chanthawong, had been exploring the cave after practice more than two weeks ago when it suddenly flooded due to heavy rains from a monsoon. A pair of British divers found the group 10 days later.

Instead of screaming or crying, the group was sitting quietly in the dark, meditating.

Chanthawong, who’d spent a decade as a Buddhist monk, was known to be able to meditate for up to an hour at a time. Reports suggest he helped guide the boys in the practice when they needed it most.

Meditation is known to have a host of health benefits and may be uniquely suited to help people cope with extreme stress. Several studies have found links between meditation and an immediate,measurable reduction in feelings of depression and anxiety as well as physical pain.

It also appears to help us turn the volume down on the intensity of nearby disturbances, whether that be a cacophony of car traffic or the crash and whirl of powerful monsoon waters.

Turning down the volume on stressful situations

For a long-term study published in the journal Emotion in 2012, University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson looked into the idea that meditation might help us cope with outside disturbances.

He found that when he tried to startle two groups of people – one that was meditating and one that was not – with a sudden interruption like a loud noise, the meditators were far less perturbed by the interruption than the people who weren’t meditating. Those results were true regardless of whether the participants were new or experienced at the practice.

That benefit of meditation could have proved hugely helpful to the Thai players, who were cold, scared, and alone more than 2.5 miles deep into a labyrinthine cave network.

In addition, meditation may be linked with heightened feelings of empathy, another key asset for a small team of isolated individuals who need each other to survive.

In a follow-up analysis to his first study, Davidson played the sounds of stressed-out voices to groups of experienced and novice meditators, then observed their brain activity patterns in an MRI. He noted increased activity in two brain areas known to be involved in empathy among members of both groups, but that activity was significantly more pronounced in the brains of the experienced meditators.

These results suggest that given enough time, people who meditate regularly might have an enhanced ability to respond to others’ feelings and empathise with them without feeling overwhelmed, Davidson concluded.

‘We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what’

A growing body of research on meditation also suggests that even a few minutes of daily mindfulness is linked to lower stress levels, more positivity, enhanced creativity, and even better focus.

Something about meditating seems to help people deal with worrisome thoughts. It’s somewhat like taking a broom to the bustling thoughts that can crowd our heads and then waiting until all the dust has settled.

All of those benefits likely drew Chanthawong to the practice – and helped keep his team alive.

“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what,”the Thai Navy SEALs wrote on Facebook on Tuesday, after the rescue was complete.