overcome panic in scuba diving: take action to avoid panic

This article is one of seven on the topic of overcoming panic in scuba diving.  In this article we consider how to take action to avoid panic. 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 felt stressed as a diver? Panic is driven by stress, yet, we need to deal with stresses all the time as scuba divers. Humans breathe air.  We are used to moving around under the force of gravity.  Underwater the world works a little differently for us, it is to be expected that some aspects of that environment will put us under pressure – both figuratively and literally! But what is stressful for you?

What makes you stressed when diving?

Is running out of air stressful? Would a catastrophic regulator failure be stressful? Probably, for most divers.  What about strong currents? A leaking mask? A fogged mask? A buddy doing something you were not expecting? The thought that you might run out of air? The feeling that you are not getting enough air? Being at depth … 

The level of stress experienced by different divers on encountering the same stressor is highly variable.  What you think is a disaster might be relaxation for another person!  Why? One clear reason for the difference in how a diver would react to a stressor is whether or not they can deal with it.  A mask full of water really is not stressful if you know you can dive without a mask, and have practiced this.  Failure of a regulator may be intensely stressful for an open water diver, but not so much for an experienced diver who has an ample redundant air source to get them safely to the surface.  

​​Panic is not nice. It’s a complete loss of control brought about by a sort of short circuit in our nervous and endocrine system.  None of us wants to be in that state, and you wouldn’t go there by choice.  Panic arises when we can see no other way out of the problem; when you can’t see an escape, the stress level rises, and starts to affect your ability to think and see things clearly … so it gets worse!  (BTW: We will look at how panic affects thinking in the next article).  Eventually this sensation of being trapped with no ability to fix the problem can spiral out of control, and that can be where panic sets in.  

Take action to avoid panic

So what can you do about this? That’s actually quite simple, learn to fix the problems … before you are in a stressful situation.  If you know how to deal with the stressor, then most likely you will take action to remove it effectively, and your stress level will drop.  You will also feel calmer and more confident during the dive if you know that you can deal with foreseeable events.  Even better, practice those skills till you can do them automatically, without thinking… that way you will remove the stressor before you have actually noticed it! We can take lots of actions to avoid panic in diving, for example by training.

What should you learn? Whatever you need to be able to do for the type of diving that you are doing.  If you are an open water diver, going to 18 metres, no overhead  environments, you need all the skills that were covered in your Open Water training.  Find opportunities to practice.  Something like mask clearing you may need on most dives, but responding to out-of-air scenarios is (hopefully) something you won’t encounter.  If that does happen, you want to be able to run through the drill smoothly and safely … and you will only be able to do that if you have practiced it!  Look for club pool sessions and coaching in your local area, you get to improve your skills and meet other divers, so it is something to do for fun. 

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.