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Thai soccer team rescued after 18 days underground used meditation to cope with trauma and stay alive

After surviving 18 days trapped four kilometers underground, inside a flooded cave complex in northern Thailand, a soccer team consisting of 12 young boys aged 11-17 and their assistant coach were brought to safety by a coordinated team of expert cave divers.

The soccer team, called the Wild Boars (“Moo Paa” in Thai), along with their 25-year-old assistant coach, went exploring in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system after a practice on June 23. Though the area was dry when they entered the cave, they became trapped when torrential rain flooded the exit path.

Thailand Cave Coaches and Players
In this July 3, 2018, file image taken from video provided by the Thai Navy Seal, Thai boys are with Navy SEALs inside a cave in Mae Sai, northern Thailand. (Thai Navy Seal via AP, File)

The search for the boys began on that same day, bringing in Thai Navy SEALS on the 25th. The mission was stalled and disrupted many times due to heavy rainfall and rapid flooding of cave passages. By the fifth day, over 1,000 army and navy troops were involved in the search, joined by rescue specialists from the US and UK militaries, and eventually teams from China and Australia.

Finally, on July 2, nine days after they went missing, all 12 boys and their coach were found alive and in relatively good condition by two British divers, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, who were then able to help get the team clean water, food and blankets as the rescue was planned. The only member of the Wild Boars who could communicate with the English-speaking divers was 14-year-old Adun Sam-on, a “stateless” student who escaped ethnic conflicts in Myanmar eight years ago.

On Friday, July 6, volunteer diver and former Thai navy SEAL Saman Kunan died after his oxygen ran out while preparing the cave for the extraction of the team, the mission’s sole fatality.

While trapped, the team members were able to survive the nine days before contact was made while maintaining relatively good health by rationing snacks they had brought with them into the cave and regulating their bodies through meditation. The team’s assistant coach, Ekkapol “Ake” Chantawong, trained as a Buddhist monk for nearly 10 years before he joined the Moo Paa soccer club. His experience in leading meditation greatly contributed to the physical health and mental resilience of the trapped soccer team, keeping their stress levels low and their minds conscious.

In times of distress or crisis, meditation is a useful coping tool for accessing mental clarity and physical preservation. It calms the body by slowing down your heart rate, breathing and metabolism, while decreasing levels of cortisol (your body’s main stress hormone), oxygen utilization and carbon dioxide emission. It is also used as a way to distract from and control pain, which helped the boys keep their minds away from their hunger and fatigue until help found them.

“​For Buddhists, meditation is a go-to when distressed or in danger,” Laura Weiss, Stanford University expert in meditation, told CNBC, “Cognitive resources that would otherwise be hijacked by the threat can be accessed once again, meaning that problem-solving capacities increase… Given that insufficient air and food was a major issue for the trapped boys, meditation is actually a very practical response to both of these concerns.”

The team, all of whom are reported to be recovering well, have now been allowed to see their families and are expected to leave the hospital on Thursday, July 19. They, along with their families, have praised Chantawong for leading them through their rescue and keeping them going during the 18-day ordeal.

Narongsak Osatanakorn, former governor of Chiang Rai who became the public face of the rescue operation, said during a press conference that the caves would be turned into a museum for the public and learning center for divers from around the world. The museum would be built in concurrence with a database of information and lessons learned derived from this incident, which could be used to improve rescue operations in case of a similar crisis in the future.

Sources and Additional Reading:

A Stanford expert explains how meditation helped the Thai boys survive – CNBC

12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation – Healthline

How Buddhist meditation kept the Thai boys calm in the cave – Vox

Talented and resilient: the Wild Boars footballers trapped in Thai cave – The Guardian

There’s a reason that the soccer team rescued from a cave in Thailand was so tough and resilient – LA Times

“Stateless” boy who emerged as leader in Thailand cave was key to rescue – CBS

The Thai boys cave rescue: what we know – Vox

This timeline shows exactly how the Thai cave rescue unfolded – Business Insider

Tears flow as Thai boys and parents see each other for first time since cave rescue – LA Times

Thai Cave Rescue: The Watery Trap Is Now Empty – NY Times
A Museum Is Already Planned at Thai Cave Where 12 Boys were Rescued – Hyperallergic