How isn’t there a dive signal for panic?

Yesterday I was teaching PADI Psychological Diver, on a Zoom call, with six divers from around the world. The course encourages sharing of experiences, fascinating discussions and inspiration. This course was no different, and one of the ideas hit with such force, it has to be shared.

Towards the end of the classroom session we look at diver stress and how panic develops. Experiences of stressful dives, or panic are not that unusual, but it’s still not talked about a lot. On this occasion quite a few of the divers were talking about these sort of experiences. One of the students, a diving instructor, after listening to these accounts she thoughtfully asked, “how can I help my divers / students with this, to prevent the problems?”

After a moment or two one of the students, a PADI Advanced Open Water diver , suggested trying what she does with her buddy: “when I start to feel panicky, I give my buddy the signal we use for that”

Remember this is a Zoom call, at that moment it felt like a wave came through the screen. The idea had that much weight. A sign to communicate about feeling stressed, … before the diver panics. An option to avoid the diver heading into that cycle.

A signal for panic, a powerful idea – and it works!

The idea taps into so many things we know about anxiety, panic and how to avoid it. I knew this because I’ve studied diver panic for years, and never considered using a sign for it! The moment I heard the idea, it instantly connected with what we know about psychological stress underwater and, how to address it.

Another reason this idea this idea resonated so heavily was the realisation that there is no universal dive signal for panic: what does it mean when something that people experience does not have a word/sign?

  • it’s hard to communicate about the experience?
  • that you are not allowed to talk about it?
  • it’s not considered important?
  • there is fear that talking about it makes it worse?
  • that people think nothing can be done to help?

I’m not sure. But its a profound idea. After metaphorically picking myself off the floor, I invited Emma to say more about when they used it and how it helped. Here is her account and reflections on the usefulness of a specific signal for early communication of psychological distress.

Emma’s Story: Lessons I Have Learnt From Diving With Feelings of Panic

The Dive

It was a beautiful day, one of those days that you just can’t wait to jump into the crystal-clear warm water. Me and my dive buddy decided to treat ourselves to a diving holiday in Malta with our own dive equipment. It was our fourth day in the water, the dive plan was to swim out to visit the P29 wreck, an easy dive we have completed various times before. We completed our predive check and headed out into the deep blue. My dive buddy, also my partner, have been diving for 9 years we both love wrecks so the excitement was palpable. I have always enjoyed approaching wrecks from distance to see its impressive size grow as the ocean reveals its secrets. Our dive guide told us there was swim out to the wreck but as fit healthy outdoor swimmers we didn’t mind.

We descended and fin out towards the wreck. During the swim, it came over me: ‘Something isn’t right’. I can’t put finger on it but I know it. My eyes start to dart around, scanning the environment for clues to what is making me feel this way, nothing. I can’t breathe, I’m trying to breathe in slowly and deeply through my regulator but it doesn’t satisfy my lungs, I want out. Every muscle of my body is screaming for me to immediately return to the surface, spit my regulator out and take deep breaths of the sea air. My eyes are now frantically searching for danger, I am starting to cough, I just want this all to stop.

Fortunately, I know what to do signaling to my buddy he comes close to me. We stop swimming and my dive buddy asks if I would like to end the dive. I shake my head “no”. My buddy moves so they are facing me and monitors time and buoyancy, I stay level with them and focus on regaining regular breathing. Once I feel in control of my breathing, I take a few moments to clear my thoughts, monitoring my time, air, and depth. I take a moment to slowly take my surroundings in, there are no threats here. It feels like hours have passed but in reality, it’s been minutes. I signal to my buddy, ‘I’m ok let’s swim’ with the rest of the dive going to plan.

This has become one of my favourite wreck dives to date.

Lessons learnt

This isn’t the first time this has happened; it is always the same when it does. The feeling that something is wrong, trying to figure out what the problem is, irregular breathing and the urge to bolt to the surface. With the help from my dive buddy to research we dissected what was happening and put what we learnt into practice. These are the lessons we learnt on this journey.


The signal is the first step, it’s the point in the timeline which is the most significant, its where I can start to take control. By signaling a specific dive signal to my buddy I’m identifying an issue and accepting that I need help. The signal is specific it means I’m feeling the beginning stages of panic. It informs my dive buddy to start the procedure that we have. By having a specific dive signal not only can a diver gain help, but also the rest of the group will have an understanding of what is going on and what may happen next.


Knowledge is important, it not only helps you understand yourself better, but also gives others around the tools to help those around. Awareness of the common triggers for panic (e.g. overexertion, hypercapnia, vertigo) allows the diver to reduce risk. Gaining the knowledge allows you to identify your own stages of distress and recognise stages of others around. This helps the feeling of taking control back in a situation which could quickly escalate out of control.

During training we are taught the concept of not panicking and how to rescue a panicked diver, but not steps that can be taken underwater to reduce the feelings of panic before it sets in. Training in how to handle this situation empowers the diver and others around them.

Disclaimer: this article is written based on the author’s personal experiences and views with the intent to open up discussions about panic and inspire change within the scuba diving industry. The author advises you to follow your training and seek medical and/or psychological advice.

Emma is a keen scuba diver, trained to PADI advance open water with PADI specialties in Deep Diver, Wreck Diver and Psychology for Scuba Divers. She works in the health and safety industry as a consultant which has taught her the importance of identifying risks and implementing procedures to help control them. She holds a degree in psychology and is fascinated by how thoughts and feeling can influence human behaviour and measures that can be taken to control or change our behaviours.

After this discussion, I learned that a new dive signal is being promoted: “I feel unwell/sick”. I wondered how often a new diver might feel nervous or anxious vs how often they might feel physically unwell? I contacted PADI to ask how signals come to be recognised. The signals used by dive agencies are those which are approved by the WRSTC, so as to be universal across different agencies. You can find these on the WRSTC Website. These are approved by  board, as the core hand signals which every diver should know. There is a signal for “distress/help me”, familiar to rescue divers as a surface signal, this may also fit well with the need discussed above. The important thing is to ensure that teams and groups share the same definition of all signals used.