decompression stop

Distress decompression to recover from a bad dive experience

Stress (or more accurately distress) is strangely similar to nitrogen. As divers we protect ourselves from injury because we understand the way that nitrogen build up in the body while breathing compressed gas/air during a dive. Being aware of the way that distress can be stored in the body can help to recover from a bad dive experience. That experience may be anything along a continuum of being stressed by minor problems and frustrations, through to a major incident requiring rescue.

Distress bubbles

The atmosphere is plentiful with sources of stress. Under normal circumstances, this data is filtered, sorted and stored appropriately in the nervous system (memory). But sometimes, like when under excess stress or criticism, there is more data than our systems can handle. When we are under excess stress the brain is prioritising survival (physical or social), and so it reallocates resources. Only responding to small amounts of data and often reacting on instinct and ingrained procedures. During uncomfortable or traumatic events the mind and body is being loaded with data. Like nitrogen, distress data is not particularly useful to the human body. And so it just sits there. Compressed in the nervous system.

Bubbles of distress that have become stuck can cause all sorts of chaos in the human diver. Unlike nitrogen, they do not decompress on surfacing and can remain compressed for a long time. Occasionally, something will happen that reduces the pressure gradient, such as another stressful event. The new stress opens a route for the old distress to bubble up, causing the person to react strongly with anxiety or anger. Quite often this is a source for panic episodes to evolve. It can cause all sorts of reactions. Where the initial event was traumatic, this could include significant changes in emotions, nightmares or flashbacks. For merely uncomfortable or distressing experiences such as making mistakes, being criticised or judged, there can be disturbances to thinking and behaviour.

Distress bubbling up

Understandably, people do not enjoy the experience of distress expanding in the nervous system. The reactions can also drive embarrassment, shame or guilt. It’s not uncommon to try and shove it back down. Hide the reactions and find ways to avoid experiencing the memory. But that’s like trying to push a bubble back underwater with your hands. It just finds another way to get to the surface. Maybe you’ll manage to push it down, but how are you going to get on with life while keeping it there?

Keeping that distress in the system can also cause problems in diving. It can be a simple case of feeling stressed whenever you encounter something that connects to the previous bad dive. For example, if you had a problem at a specific site, being back there might trigger a bad feeling. In some cases, divers can experience panic not because of a problem on the present dive, but because of old distress that has activated.

We can often tend towards avoiding the experience whatever is in the distress bubble. Not wanting to feel it, people can find creative ways to keep it contained. Divers who’ve had bad experiences of mask skills in training may attempt to find ways to make sure their mask doesn’t leak, and avoid practicing this skill. People who have felt judged and criticised during courses may avoid further training, or become unhelpfully focused on not making mistakes. In trying not to break the distress bubble, people sometimes inadvertently increase risk of being injured.

Release distress to recover from a bad dive

Like decompressing, doing safety stops and taking surface intervals to release nitrogen; there are ways to release distress. For a diver to recover from a bad dive, the stress can be let go before bubbles are formed. Just like with DCS, if evolved distress bubbles have got stuck in the system, more help may be needed. It is important to be aware however that, like nitrogen, under the right circumstances, divers can “off-stress” naturally, without harm. There are various ways to support this in our habits and diving environments.

Here are some things that will help to recover from a bad dive:

  • Rest and sleep let the brain process the stored distress data.
  • Talking to supportive buddies helps to sort out the data into a more manageable narrative. Each time you tell the story of what happened, your brain is creating a memory. Being heard and understood is helpful for many reasons, and is only possible in context where we feel physically and psychologically safe.
  • Effective debriefs that include opportunities to understand what went wrong and share perspectives. If there is negative pressure in the form of social judgement, criticism, and other social factors, then the bubble of distress is likely to stay compressed. Psychological safety is critical here. Without it, the trapped bubble can even start collecting more data to fuel embarrassment, guilt or shame. With it, the distress can escape safely.
  • Effective briefs that take forward learning from bad dives (when we can put learning into action, we can hold onto the lesson and let go of the distress). Again, this is a key place for setting up psychological safety.
  • Movement and exercise can allow physical tension to release as well as encourage mental processing. Movement in nature is especially good for this for many reasons. Also consider exercise that gently moves attention right-to-left and back again, such as walking.
  • Writing about what happened, how it is impacting you and what you have learned. This can be in any form that works for you. You may only need a blank sheet of paper or empty word document – the notes section of your dive log! You may prefer something with prompts, such as a journal, like this one created by a military/commercial diver.
  • “Sitting with it” can be challenging, yet effective. Like staying at a stop allows nitrogen to leave the body, simply observing and noticing the experience in the distress bubble can lead to letting go. This could take the form of meditation, or just allowing memories to be there when they arise. Honestly, this is not always fun – but it has a big payoff: resilience to stress in future.
  • Do something stressful! Really! Not distress, but eustress, the good kind of stress. Solving a problem, fixing something that’s broke or physically challenging exercise, where appropriate. Not as a distraction or a way to force down the bubble, but an expansion.
  • For distressing or traumatic events, consider therapy to access supportive listening and advanced methods of re-processing to release the distress sooner, before it causes problems. For example, EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitsation and Re-Processing) is highly effective in letting go of distress, and accessing useful learning.

More Information

This article was written by Dr Laura Walton, a UK-registered Clinical Psychologist specialising in diving psychology. There is more information and support on the website, including a resource page for divers involved in diving accidents/incidents.