Struggling to learn to scuba dive, should I tough it out?

Divers frequently talk to me about the difficulties they have had with anxieties in scuba diving.  Struggling to scuba dive in training is not unusual. Once, I talked to a woman who had not managed to complete her open water training, but had faced some difficult conditions on the course dives.  She said: “It was really hard, but I toughed it out and got through the dive”.  This is a conversation I’ve had many times, in various versions. 

Learning to scuba dive can sometimes be a struggle.

Although mental resilience and determination are excellent qualities, “toughing out” a situation has some drawbacks.   If the main aim is simply to get through something bad, or something you can’t escape, then applying our available resources to keep going and survive makes sense.  But, it’s a terrible strategy for learning to dive!  Here are four reasons:

ONE:  Its dangerous! Really dangerous

Panic kills divers.  There are very few issues that can’t be dealt with underwater. But when a diver panics, they lose ability to problem-solve and they lose control of their actions.  Most frequently resulting in a fast ascent to the surface, and (on rare occasions) a helicopter ride to the nearest chamber.

Learn about why panic is a problem for scuba divers in the Prevent Panic course, the preview includes a presentation about how often divers panic.

We do not want to be going into the water if we think there is a high chance of panic.  People panic only when they see no other way to escape the situation.  In most cases there are lots of ways to deal with a problem, we just need to learn them.  How do we deal with our triggers for panic?  Water in the mask – learn to clear it, and practice mask removal till it is boring;  fear of sinking into the depths – get really good at buoyancy control. 

​​The idea of the pool sessions is that we can learn to do skills competently and confidently in a safe environment.  If a diver has not mastered a given skill, then the last place they need to go is deep into open water.  If we know there is something that is likely to trigger panic behaviour, we need to find a way to increase the safety,  and to reduce the risk if it does happen.  For example, back to the pool, confined or shallow water, better conditions another day, take longer for the course,  increase supervision (1:1 , or small group of 2-3).  Make the skill easier, then practice.  Building up to open water with a diver who knows they don’t need to be anxious. They can deal with that problem by applying their skills. 

TWO:  toughing out a situation leads to learning, but not the sort of learning we want, it teaches your brain to fear the situation or skill

Whether it is a skill like mask removal or a situation like being underwater, toughing something out by definition means that it must be a bad thing.  Forcing ourselves through it only convinces our brain that this is the case. Think about that skill you don’t like.  You are nervous just thinking about doing it, but that’s ok, you’ll push through it.  As the time to do it gets closer, your stress levels rise.  Then, during the skill, you just about cope with the horribleness of it all.  In order to do that you employ coping strategies that are primarily about avoiding how bad it feels (distraction, numbing). And then you are done, you have got through the skill … and there is a massive relief! 

What has happened? Well, first of all it felt terrible, that only improved when you stopped.  So you know that next time won’t be any better, and the physical sensations of relief only rewarded you for stopping.  This is hugely reinforcing your behaviour of needing to get away from this situation however you can.  Secondly, you never fully exposed yourself to the situation so you did not get the chance to learn that the anxiety is manageable and will fade as you get used to that situation. 

Toughing something out is a really good way to signal to your brain that this is a bad thing to be avoided in future.  Many a diver has learned to fear practicing mask skills after “toughing it out” during training.

THREE: you are not learning the skill (you are just learning to tolerate it)

When we are under high levels of stress, the way our brains function changes.  They prioritise short term survival over longer term needs.  They are run from the emotional, reactive part of the brain and the core focus is getting you through and away from the situation.  The connection between this emotional bit and the clever bit of the brain is cut. (Really! Brain imaging research shows that there is less activity along the pathways between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex in times of stress.)

Focus is on surviving the struggle to scuba dive, rather than actually learn!

A second issue is that, if you are in a survival situation, you do not need to remember it clearly, you just need out!  Our brains store information differently during stressful or traumatic events.  The information about what happened is just dumped in storage, it is not sorted or processed.  If you remember anything it will be unpleasant sensations. If you do this enough times you “sensitise” yourself to the situation or skill.  That means you react more intensely, with more anxiety every time you have to face it.  It is the opposite of habituation, where we get used to something. 

This is why you get people who have got through their open water course, but have one skill or situation that they hate.  It terrifies them.  They avoid doing it, they avoid thinking about it.  That avoidance can continue for many years, sometimes even into instructor training.  It can happen that a candidate on an instructor course is still frightened of mask skills, even though they are competent in every other aspect of diving. 

If we want to learn something, we need to be in a relatively relaxed, but alert, state.  There is an optimal level of stress for effective learning.  Basically enough of a stress that your brain understands this is important, but not so much the fight or flight system is activated.

FOUR: fighting anxiety only fuels the fire

When we experience stress, it is natural to look to eliminate the source.  If the stressor is a loose fin clip or a leaky mask, that is easy, we simply fix the problem and calm down.  But, if the source of stress is internal it can be harder to work out what is wrong. Sometimes we get locked into a trap of trying to eradicate the problem by fighting the emotion.  If we are already wound up, getting more stressed in the fight with intangible problems doesn’t help.  What can happen is that our own struggle actually fuels the stress response.  The result is the tension, increasing intensity of emotions, and (if this keeps going) panic.

Plus, if we throw all our resources at fighting the anxiety fire, what is left of our mind to focus on actually learning the skill?!

So are you saying I shouldn’t try to overcome it?

No. Bringing some courage and determination to our training is a wonderful thing, but there is a difference between dealing with a bit of discomfort and forcing ourselves through.  Many divers, instructors included, think that the way to get used to something is to repeat the skill over and over. Sometimes this does work, because the more we do something, the less stimulating it is and the less we react to it. This is called habituation.  But, depending on the exact method used, you may be making it worse.  If we repeatedly subject ourselves to a distressing situation, then we can also become more reactive to it (this is called sensitisation).   

A diver who has become sensitised to the experiences of mask removal is likely to avoid practicing the skill, and there anxiety will spike at the thought of needing to perform it.  Of course, avoiding practice means that they never have the opportunity to improve.  But why would they practice? They have “practiced” before, when they were “toughing it out”, and they have learned that no matter how many times they do it, it still feels terrible!  They have no expectation that can change. 

This is actually relatively easy to avoid and correct.  It just means practicing differently.

So what should I do if I’m struggling to learn to scuba dive?

The alternative? We do need to repeat skills and practice them.  But, how we do that matters. Increase the safety of the situation, in a safe environment like a swimming pool, where “toughing it out” is not so necessary; people can have fun and play to learn.  In an effective learning environment we can reduce the demands of the task and break the skill down into manageable chunks, facing each one separately (baby steps).    We can slow down and work through the fear during skills building.  This can take time.  It may require even more grit and determination than “toughing out” anxiety.  But! This way, rather than having divers who have fought their way through the course and avoid the skills they found uncomfortable, we have divers who have worked to genuinely address the anxiety, and are therefore confident and competent in their skills.