overcome panic in scuba diving: stay aware

stay aware when diving to overcome panic

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. In this article we look at how to stay aware when diving and what makes this important in avoiding panic.

“I don’t know what happened, I just panicked” 

When divers panic, they frequently will not remember what it was that caused them to become so stressed.  That is because with extreme anxiety and panic there is a loss of awareness.  You were not aware of what was happening, you may not have known where you were and you may remember very little.  

Why can’t we remember?

Being aware when diving means that we know what is happening, and we can take in information to make predictions, or decisions.  Having awareness means we have the information we need to problem-solve and make complex judgments.  Where does that information come from?

It is flooding in through our senses constantly – there is a stream of data flowing into our eyes, ears, skin, tongue, nose … all of the time.  In addition to that, there is all the data our own minds can churn out from old memories (“ooo, careful now, remember what happened last time” or “I once read somebody died when….. !!!” –  yep, thanks mind, just what I needed, or not).  In general, our brains are good at filtering this huge amount of data, and putting is together into an model of what is happening.  For example, the sensation of water trickling into the mask, .. clear it, …still happening? … could be some hair trapped, try sweeping it out, … clear it,.. okay better. (Incidentally,  “how the brain works underwater” is a topic covered on , and is relevant to preventing panic.)

What are we aware of when diving

When we get really good at certain skills, our brains can register and respond to them without being fully aware – that is handy, but it can mean we also lapse into non-awareness.  We need to be able to re-engage awareness if something needs to be thought through.  We also need to know that our brains do fling our attention around, and that’s normal.  What we can be careful of is what we do with the voluntary bit.  How much of your attention is being dragged into worry or rumination? How much is being wasted on non-essential tasks? What will you focus on? What are your priorities: monitoring depth, orientation, time and gas supply… while still allowing yourself to appreciate the dive?

Focusing on what matters

​​What about all the unhelpful stuff your mind is doing? The lists of what might go wrong, the show reel of your most embarrassing moments in training to date?  Well, we learn how to deal with thoughts as we grow-up, and we all have different skills.  All skills work to a certain extent, if they are used in the right context.  For example, distraction techniques like humming or doing sums, can take your mind off something difficult (and I know a lot of divers say they are helpful)… but, do you really want to be distracted underwater? What if you distract yourself from the anxiety so well that you also forget to check your air? Numbing and distraction techniques are a blunt instrument.  They block out the unhelpful stuff (great). ..but they also block out the essential things you need to remain aware of (not so great).  

Use skills to stay aware when diving

There are lots of alternatives! At the core, its about not putting yourself in a situation that stresses you out to that level, but to build the skills you need to do that dive first. However, even training and doing dives that are within your ability zone can still generate mind-chatter.  Take a look at your toolbox of skills for dealing with your own mind, and for regulating emotion (which we will look at next).  Is it meeting your needs, or could you use some more?

In a state of panic, a person can’t think.  But there is a lot you can do with your thoughts, before you enter a state of panic.  Then you can deal with the source of stress, and prevent the panic.

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.