Diver Anxiety and Panic

Diver anxiety is normal

We are underwater.  We would not survive long without our scuba equipment.  Experiencing emotions like anxiety and fear is perfectly normal.  These emotions are our signals to detect problems.  Diver anxiety and panic happens because anxiety can sometimes get out of control. ​​

panic: uncontrollable fear or anxiety

Scuba diver anxiety and panic is common          

Experience of panic and near-panic is reported by 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.  You are likely reading this now because it has happened to you or your buddy.g these can stop panic from developing. 

explaining diver anxiety and panic

Panicking is embarrassing

A diver who is caught up in a panic response has little, if any, control over what they are doing.    Often they won’t even remember what happened.  Because they were not acting consciously, they probably did stuff that was really dumb.  Such as rushing to the surface far too fast, removing equipment or shutting-down mentally.  Back on the surface, after regaining access to the more intelligent part of their brain, they now feel pretty stupid.  If what they did endangered others, then they are likely feeling shame or guilt. 

Panic is a problem in diving

A panicked diver cannot think clearly.  That means they are incapable of solving the problem that is freaking them out.  They have probably no idea what the problem even is anymore.  Their only focus is to reach safety at all costs.   This leads to dangerous actions.  Panic has been reported as a contributor in 68% of deaths in scuba diving.  It is also likely that episodes of panic are under-reported.

Emotions like fear and anxiety are okay.  Losing control of our actions is not.


We have an instinct for survival.  We fight, flee or freeze to escape danger.  When a threat appears the survival system kicks in and drives our actions.    Sensations, thoughts and emotions can all trigger the survival reaction.  The system was not designed to work with scuba!

Panic is a short circuit

When we are diving there are lots of events that can put us under stress.  Everything from a mask flood to a regulator failing.  Stressors are not always so obvious.  They can also be a thought or sensation.

If something happens when we are diving, we look for the source of the problem and a way to fix it.  Sometimes we do not have the skills to deal with the issue.  Sometimes, we can’t even work out the source of stress.   This is especially tricky.  If we can’t stop whatever is causing us stress, we may get more stressed!  This can lead to a short circuit: the reaction to the stressor is creating more stress.  The person is fused, they have lost the ability to think clearly and are not able to control their actions.  This is panic. 


Panic is avoidable

There are lots of ways to reduce the chances that you will panic.   Most cases of panic are linked to divers putting themselves in situations that they are not ready for.  Keep to the limits of your certification.  If you want to do more, then take appropriate training first.  Practice correct techniques.  If you have the skill to address a problem, then there will be no panic. 

Learn about the causes of panic in diving, particularly excessive task-loading. 

We can also learn to manage our responses to stress.  There are lots of psychological skills you can learn to handle anxiety and fear.  Applying these can stop diver anxiety and panic from developing. 

Diver anxiety is understandable, but panic is to be avoided underwater.

Want to learn more about what make scuba divers panic? Pick up your free, downloadable eGuide here.