Overcome panic in scuba diving: regulating emotion

This article is one of seven on ways to overcome panic in scuba diving.  Panic is a complex issue, and it is important to explore what is happening for each diver.  This series is simply an introduction to help people raise discussions about their experiences and seek appropriate support.

Have you ever noticed yourself reacting with emotions? Feelings like anxiety, excitement, anger or joy? Have you also noticed that sometimes it is easy to calm yourself down when stressed, or wind yourself up you need motivation, but sometimes you feel like the emotions are running you?  In the second article of this series, we considered how stressors in the situation can mount up and increase the likelihood of a diver panicking. But that is not the full story. 

How many times have you seen someone in a stressful situation who is still able to stay calm, and respond effectively?  Have you also seen someone under a seemingly minor stress breakdown and completely lose the plot?  Why the difference?

Emotional regulation

We all experience emotion, it’s normal.  But sometimes the actions we take are not helpful.  What makes people’s ability to cope with stress so different, and how is it that it varies at different times, even for the same person.  To understand that, we need to know a little about how people “regulate” their internal states. It is a bit like regulating the temperature of your house: when it is cold, the thermostat senses that, and the heating goes on.  When it’s warm, the heating is switched off again.  The thermostat can be altered to change how the system respond to, and regulates, temperature.  We do something similar in how we respond to stress.  

Except! Human emotion is considerably more complicated than temperature.  So we all have a range of tools to respond to emotion with.  All of these tools are things we do.  Some of them are things are observable, for example, someone who is angry and goes for a run to calm down.  If another person was there, they could see that behaviour.  Similarly, if we feel upset, and try to make ourselves feel better with cake, or beer! (No one ever does that!)  But lots of the ways we regulate emotion are invisible, they happen internally…

here are a few people use:

  • talking yourself through it,
  • saying kind words to yourself,
  • beating yourself up,
  • dwelling on what you did wrong,
  • worrying over what might happen,
  • thinking through the problem causing stress and working out a solution,
  • seeking reassurance from other people,
  • mental distraction,
  • numbing out,
  • shifting perspective,
  • adopting a positive view,
  • hunting through old memories,
  • telling yourself you are okay,
  • remembering to stay present,
  • focusing on what is happening,
  • using humour to defuse,
  • catastrophising,
  • running through a two-way conversation in your head,
  • self-soothing (it’s like a feeling of a hug, but without the hug), 
  • grounding in the reality of the situation,
  • visualising skill performance,
  • acceptance and willingness… 

Depending on the situation, you can see that some will help people calm down and respond effectively to the issue that has triggered emotion … some will make it worse.  For example, worrying is something people do to get away from anxiety and fear, but it generally only winds people up more, after a while it leads to tiredness, and mental fatigue that makes you even less capable of dealing with situations.  Distraction, as covered in the previous article, takes precious attention.

Prepare the dive to overcome panic in scuba

​​Some of the internal behaviours that can wind people up may be relevant to overcoming panic in diving.  Often, but not always, the scene for a diver panicking is set up before they enter the water.  Perhaps they haven’t slept, worried about the dive.  Maybe a fear has been going round in their mind, a skill they struggle with, or an irrational phobia.  Or even just a thought that just won’t leave them alone.. “what if …???”  How you regulate emotion really matters here, if you suppress the worry, and just force yourself through, the tension often remains.  Alternatively, you can use effective communication, talk to your buddy/guide/instructor and work out this issue in advance.  

Once panic takes hold, you can’t calm yourself down.  But, there are a lot of points on the wind-up to panic where effective regulation skills will make all the difference.  Take a breath, shelve any thoughts that are making you anxious without actually helping, act on the thoughts that need to be acted on, consider changing the situation if you notice you are too anxious, if anxiety is driven by some concern, communicate the concern and assert yourself.  All of these actions are skills, just like recovering and purging a regulator.  It is just that they can be harder to see.  It is also worth knowing you can learn skills in self-regulation, and use these to help you stay aware.

Improving regulation

There is very little research in effective self-regulation strategies in diving.  There a a couple of studies that showed breathing techniques to helpful, and also mental rehearsal of completing a skill, or dive, successfully (in advance of the dive, not during).  If nothing else, it is something more productive than engaging in worry.  What we do know is that it is important to self-regulate in order to stay situationally aware.  Allowing emotions to wind-up our systems means breathing faster, and having a faster heart beat, which is not usually helpful in scuba diving.  It messes with our buoyancy and depletes air supply.  It can also drive the positive feedback loop of panic.  Once wound-up, excessive stress changes the way the brain works and so we can no longer thing clearly, and that is when we lose awareness. 

One aspect of panic prevention is effective self-regulation, and opting out of dives when you know your ability to regulate is compromised (e.g. lack of sleep, hangover, major life event).

If panic, anxiety or any other mental health concern is an issue for you, then seek advice from an appropriate professional (e.g. your doctor, or other healthcare worker).  For scuba diving training and advice on your diving, contact your instructor.