Scuba diver panic causes and prevention

scuba diver panic

In a state of panic, the human being acts on instinct, generally heading mindlessly for the nearest escape. A person in panic cannot think clearly and their actions are not rational. Their brain is operating on survival mode. Scuba diver panic is a real problem underwater.

We can’t breathe underwater without our equipment, and we can’t go immediately to the surface because of the effects of pressure. Panic is a dangerous state for a scuba diver.

What does the research say?

A study that reviewed snorkelling and diving accidents over a 20 year period. The study found that reports rarely noted the mental/behavioural state of the diver. In those that did, panic was a feature in 68 percent. – Davis M, Warner M, Ward B. Snorkelling and scuba diving deaths in New Zealand, 1980-2000. South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society (SPUMS) Journal 2002 June; 32: 70-80

And it is not as rare as you might think …

Experience of panic and near-panic underwater has been reported between 25 and 54 percent of divers.  This means perhaps as many as one diver in every buddy pair has panicked, or almost panicked, at some stage during their diving. – Morgan, W. P. (1995). Anxiety and Panic in Recreational Scuba Divers. Sports Medicine, 20(6), 398–421. & Colvard DF, Colvard LY. A study of panic in recreational scuba divers. Undersea J. 2003;Q1:40–4

So we need a way to understand panic in scuba diving …

What is the Panic Triangle?

This is a theoretical model for the onset of panic in scuba divers. It is based on review of the literature and direct, informal observation.  It is a way we can understand, talk about and, prevent divers panicking underwater.   A peer-reviewed article on this topic is published in the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine Journal.  .

REFERENCE: Undersea Hyperb Med. 2018 Sep-Oct;45:505-509. The panic triangle: onset of panic in scuba divers. The abstract is available here.

A metaphor

If you have ever done any mandatory fire training, then you have probably heard of the fire triangle model for how a fire starts and burns.  The fire triangle states that three things are needed for a fire: fuel/combustible materials, oxygen and heat. 

Similarly, if panic is the fire, then it takes three circumstances to ignite it:

The three sides of the panic triangle:

a gap in readiness

a gap between the actual demands of the dive and the diver’s current skills, equipment or preparedness.

a difficulty in regulation

the diver’s ability to regulate their emotions and physical reactions, and also their ability to direct and sustain attention.

a stressor

a thing that happens that may cause a diver to become stressed, such as an external problem, or a distressing thought.

Learn more about scuba diver panic

Read more about the way these factors interact to spark panic, and some tips on reducing the risk by downloading this free PDF guide.

Prevent Panic in Scuba Diving

The “panic triangle” is a quick way to summarise the key factors, but understanding those factors means going a bit deeper. Prevent Panic in Scuba Diving is an informational course to improve diver awareness of the things that create diver panic and ways to reduce risks. It is for diver’s who are concerned about panic, or who encounter issues as a rescue diver or professional.