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Avoiding Panic When Scuba Diving

Knowing how to recognize and address a potential case of stress, anxiety or panic when scuba diving is a key tool in an experienced diver’s skill set.

 You may have seen other divers panic or experienced stress yourself during your initial training dives — that building wave of anxiety, the perceptual narrowing and the irrational thought patterns and behaviors that follow. Anxiety and panic can — and does — afflict a surprising number of divers. But how do you recognize and address panic when scuba diving, whether it’s you or another diver who’s struggling?

Although more likely with novice divers, even the coolest and most experienced divers may sometimes panic when scuba diving or even before the dive. Knowing how to recognize and address a potential panic situation is a key tool in an experienced diver’s skill set.

What is panic when scuba diving?

David Colvard and Lynn Y. Colvard interviewed approximately 12,000 divers about their panic experiences in a 2000 study. For the purposes of clarity, in their study Drs. Colvard and Colvard defined panic as “an intense fear of losing control or dying,” and went on to describe it as “a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort that is accompanied by at least four of 13 somatic or cognitive symptoms…often accompanied by a sense of imminent danger or impending doom and an urge to escape…or desire to flee from wherever the attack is occurring.”

And, believe it or not, it’s more common than you may think. The study revealed that when asked if they’d ever had a panic experience during a dive, 24 percent of male divers and 37 percent of female divers said yes. To put this in perspective, it’s possible that one in four divers aboard your next dive boat has panicked beneath the waves at some point in their diving life. You’re not alone.

What causes panic when scuba diving?

Numerous factors may contribute to anxiety and panic when scuba diving. These may include the following:

  • Diving in a new location
  • Challenging weather conditions, such as waves or wind
  • Misplaced, unfamiliar or incorrectly functioning equipment
  • Poor fitness
  • Fear of the unknown, such as new entry techniques or environment
  • Perceived dangerous marine life
  • Peer pressure
  • Task loading
  • Challenging diving conditions, such as strong currents or low visibility
  • Losing contact with dive buddy and/or dive group
  • Diving outside of qualification, training or experience level

Dealing with panic: prevention

First, don’t dive if you have a pre-existing anxiety condition. Being 60 feet underwater is not the place to address an anxiety or claustrophobia issue. See your doctor and resolve this problem before going diving.

When you’re fit to dive, as with many scuba-diving problems, take preventative measures to address panic before hit the water. Doing so is preferable to dealing with it beneath the surface. Divers seldom calm down on their own and a buddy or dive leader is often the only solution once panic begins.

You’ll notice as you read the above list of potential panic triggers that you can easily combat most of them with more knowledge and training. If, for example, you know you’re out of shape, make a conscious effort to lose the excess weight and work on your fitness before the dive trip.

Not been diving for a while? Be sure to take a refresher course in the pool with an instructor at your local dive center before your vacation to update your knowledge and skills. Service your personal equipment too. If you’re renting equipment, take time to familiarize yourself with it in good time before the dives – instead of putting it on for the first time two minutes before the dive.

Research your diving destination before booking your trip. If you find that it offers limited visibility, requires drysuit experience, or features strong currents or has another characteristic you may be uncomfortable with, you may want to choose a different destination.

Once you’re ready to dive, listen to the briefings. Take notes if you wish and don’t, of course, dive outside of your training and depth limits. For example, do not penetrate a wreck without the correct training. None of the aforementioned panic triggers are insurmountable with the right knowledge and skill set.

Finally, don’t bow to peer pressure to dive or be afraid to communicate with your buddy or the instructor leading the dive. Relay your concerns. Your dive companions may be able to help you address them.

Dealing with panic: during the dive

Within the PADI Rescue Diver or SSI Diver Stress and Rescue course you’re taught to stop, think and then act.

If you feel yourself beginning to become stressed or anxious at any point during the dive, stop. Communicate with your buddy. Signal your buddy to also slow down or stop. Don’t feel peer-pressured. Breathe slowly and deeply. Think back to your training. Pause, breathe and gather your thoughts before moving on or dealing with the situation, whether you’re low on air or you and your buddy have become separated from the rest of the group. The most important thing you can do when dealing with any issue underwater is stay calm. Ask your buddy or dive guide for help if needed. And remember, it’s far more difficult to help a diver who is lashing out in panic than one who is calmly requesting assistance.

What if another diver panics?

As you gather experience and receive the correct training you will become more perceptive at identifying stress cues that may lead to panic in your buddy or other members of the dive group.

Early signs of stress to be aware of include something known as ‘perceptual narrowing’. This may manifest in your buddy repeatedly checking gauges or equipment. Or, they may cling onto their jacket’s inflate/deflate hose like a child with a comfort blanket. In some environments the early signs may be repeatedly pulling at the wetsuit or drysuit as if in discomfort.

Stressed divers usually stop communicating
with you and the dive leader and often will not respond to hand signals or communications.

If your buddy looks stressed, establish physical contact and make eye contact before it snowballs into a full panic scenario. Stop, think and act:

  • Use the ‘OK’ sign to provide reassurance and ask if they’re ok – perhaps steady them with a hand around a jacket D-ring or strap. Use your hand to gently signal to them to slow down their breathing and to look at you. If they are still rational they may signal to you what the problem is.
  • Identify the external causes of stress (e.g. loose fin, weight belt or tank strap, loss of buoyancy etc.), and eliminate the stressor if possible by assisting them. For example, when they have regained normal breathing rate you can signal to them that you’re going to help them secure their tank band. Or, alternatively, if they’re struggling to maintain buoyancy, carefully help them to add/release gas until they regain control and re-establish a more relaxed breathing pattern.
  • The cause or side-effect of the stress may be over-exertion and rapid, shallow breathing. If the environment allows, kneel still for a short period of time on the seabed or, mid-water, steady the stressed diver by helping them grasp the shot line or placing their hand on the edge of the wreck. Then reevaluate the situation.
  • Maintain close contact with your buddy and observe if they continue to exhibit signs of stress. If they are unable to regain composure, abort the dive.

Full-blown panic!

If the diver becomes excessively stressed the situation may escalate to full, active panic. The diver may try to swim rapidly to the surface, even disregarding their mask and regulator. Try to slow their ascent if possible. Dumping air from their BCD or drysuit if you can. Provide an air source if they have rejected it. But, crucially, don’t put yourself in danger too – if it looks unlikely you can regain control of the victim you may have to release them, regain a safe ascent rate and deal with the issue when you arrive at the surface.

Even at the surface, panic can set in with divers. Help the diver to become positively buoyant by inflating their jacket. Encourage them to keep their mask on and regulator in their mouth and to relax. Steady them from the safety of their tank valve. Remember, the dive isn’t completed until you’re back on the boat or shore!

Prepare in advance

Panic when scuba diving is not uncommon but also not insurmountable. Prepare in advance. Making sure your equipment is in good working order and that you know what sort of dive conditions you’re facing. Communicate with your buddy and the dive leader about any concerns you may have. And if you want to learn more and have the skills to deal with emergency situations, get the appropriate training from a dive professional. If something does go wrong underwater, stop and think before you act to make each dive a safer one.