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Dealing with Pre-Dive Stress

From unfamiliar tasks to diving in a challenging environment, many different factors can cause pre-dive stress. Here’s how to handle it.

Imagine sitting on a rocking boat trying to focus on the horizon while putting on your fins or running a complex deco-dive plan through your mind before stepping off the dive deck. Many different factors and scenarios can cause pre-dive stress. Here are a few ways of dealing with it to help you have a better dive.

Stress is natural

Feeling stressed is our body’s natural response to unusual or challenging situations. We produce adrenaline, among other hormones, which prepares our mind and body to deal with a challenge, either by working through it or by “running away” to avoid the confrontation.

We can’t avoid stress, but it’s not all bad either. Initially, what’s commonly called an adrenaline rush makes us feel alert. This can actually help us deal with the problem at hand. But as divers, we must learn to manage this stress and keep it from progressing to panic.

What causes stress?

Knowing what causes stress is the first step toward developing coping mechanisms. Here we’ll look at dive-specific situations and how to deal with them.

On technical-diving courses, instructors deliberately task-load their students to help them develop a controlled response to stressful situations. While they may face simple equipment failures initially, i.e., one thing ‘breaking’ at a time, these malfunctions often develop into multi-failure scenarios as the course continues. The goal is to avoid a so-called flight response — an uncontrolled ascent to the surface. On a technical dive that uncontrolled ascent would lead to omitted decompression stops and almost certainly decompression sickness or worse.

Consequently, many students will feel stress while getting ready for these skills dives. One way to prepare is via dry runs: practicing and repeating skills on land to ensure familiarity with specific procedures. Practicing team-based drills also helps students support each other underwater and builds confidence.

Stress during the dive

Sometimes, it’s the (decompression) dive itself that causes pre-dive stress. Decompression diving carries higher risks than recreational diving and tech-diving students must understand this as they progress. Covering this reality during theory sessions and helping students understand how their dive plan aims to keep their dive within the best possible safety margins is key to eliminating any stress. Most tech students will first encounter detailed dive-planning procedures and the requirement to run a dive during their initial course. Ensuring that students can understand complex underwater communications and successfully plan a dive helps eliminate pre-dive stress.

Equipment stress

Obviously, an equipment-related problem right before a dive will cause pre-dive stress. Once you deal with the problem, however, it’s important to break the stress cycle, return to a normal breathing rate and continue dive preparations calmly. One way to reset the ‘stress barometer’ is to start equipment checks all over again from the beginning. This also helps ensure that you haven’t overlooked something in the confusion caused by the failure.

Many new tech divers or tech trainees feel apprehensive about the sheer amount of equipment they are going to carry underwater. This, in turn, can lead to mistakes the diver wouldn’t normally make, buoyancy problems and much more. Spending time setting up new equipment and possibly conducting a pool session before heading into open water are great ways to keep unfamiliar equipment from turning into a stressor. On a dive, making mental notes of what’s working and what could stand improvement also helps with equipment adjustments later. Finally, videoing students to show them their setup, trim, propulsion and more goes a long way toward achieving a more-comfortable configuration early on and reduces the potential for stress to build up.

So, how do we deal with stress?

Preventing stress is not always possible, but there are ways that divers can better handle it.

First, develop a routine for dive preparation, especially for more complex, technical dives. This includes dive planning, equipment setup and checks, as well as logistics during the dive. Do we have all the gas we need? Who is in charge of blending gas? Has the gas been analyzed? Is each diver happy with the planned dive? Is it within everyone’s range of training and experience? Make sure you’ve adequately answered all questions before beginning.

This routine extends as far as gearing up on a boat or on the shore. If you’ve ever seen tech divers get ready, most of them have a routine they do not like to break, and they don’t like to be interrupted either lest they miss a step. What they like least, however, is someone else touching their gear. Not every seemingly-helpful crew member is a trained technical diver, and well-meant adjustments might cause problems later on. Developing your own routine is therefore key to stress-free dive preparation.

Just as important is developing ways to break a stress cycle once it’s begun. Divers must find ways to reduce stress levels, independent of their source. Assuming you’ve dealt with the equipment problem, reducing stress might be as simple as taking a few deep breaths. If the dive involves training, preparation and dry practice go a long way toward avoiding stress.

‘Snapping out of it’ will be a different process for most divers, but it starts with recognizing stressors, eliminating them wherever possible and proceeding calmly. If doing so becomes impossible or pre-dive stressors prove too much, it’s time to call the dive.