There are a variety of things that cause divers – new and veteran alike – to experience anxiety and panic attacks that can ruin an otherwise great SCUBA day. I can and do often personally attest to having full blown anxiety for the first 74 dives in my log book. Sometimes I was able to complete the dive, others I had to call it for any number of little things that went wrong – because my anxiety was causing me to make mistakes with gear or practice. This is freshest in the mind of all prospective Open Water students who take the first plunge to sign up for their SCUBA certification. How will I deal with my claustrophobia? I’m scared of [insert your Oceanphobia here], how will I deal with that fear?
I’ll leave the self-help YouTube wormhole up to you and your insomnia; what I can promise you after over 1000 dives, is that anxiety is real – but it’s beatable.
Anxiety is the worry about things which have not happened.
Panic is the state we find ourselves in when something is actively going wrong.
Both of these terrible and frightening planet-killers can be neutralized with one weapon: eliminate the element of surprise. Our job as instructors and divemasters, is to prepare you for the scenario which would otherwise cause a diver to panic – your job is to mimic and practice.
Before I share the simple secrets of beating the anxiety and panic… it’s important to let you know the final product: Anxious people make the best divers. They are safer, more cautious, follow their computers, and respect the fact that they’re wearing life support equipment in a pressurized alien environment. You’ll find with time and exposure to diving that anxious Open Water students with a plethora of dive-related issues to overcome, end up in the professional dive industry as recreational instructors, equipment engineers, hyperbaric chamber technicians, underwater welders, and even Life-Light Rescue etc. Having (generally) overcome my own dive anxiety, and meeting similar divers around the world in their respective professions has given me a great perspective on the power of desire vs. fear.
My one goal was to eventually become so comfortable I could SCUBA with Sharks in the Caribbean like I’d seen on someone’s MySpace (yeah it was a few years ago). But I was terrified of Sharks. I couldn’t even look at the sleeping Nurse Sharks minding their own business during my--second attempt at--Open Water Certification class in Key West, Florida. My first cage-free Shark dive wouldn’t be until after 450 or so dives. I also had one great aspiration of finding a Seahorse, which for me, was the equivalent of a needle in haystack. I found him in Puerto Rico after 700 dives.
Desire vs. Fear, will push you past any limit you’ve ever put on yourself. Why you are diving is important to know – because the Ocean will test your limits. We weren’t given our gills, we made them, and so there’s a mental evolution we anxious land-dwellers have to commit to every time we put on our fins.
This is a bit difficult to do if you have never been underwater before, but there are lots of Ocean documentaries that can help give you some great potential perspective. I found it weird that as terrified of diving as I was in the beginning, my dreams of diving were always pleasant, like I’d simply dropped into a controlled aquarium and the fishes were all friendly like in Finding Nemo. I realized at some point, that my own mind was attempting to teach me that I had nothing to fear. I began using this method consciously before I would do a back-roll off the boat. Visualize my friendly aquarium… and almost always I felt suddenly more peaceful about entering the other world. For those of you who are a little less of a meditating hippie, this can be accomplished (almost) as well with dive planning with your buddy before every tank, and having a buddy who can be trusted to follow said plan.
Ah, the dreaded mask flood skill. Why do we hate it so much? Because we can no longer see what is around us which causes us to feel isolated and alone. It also creates a situation in which water may go up our nose and then down our throat which can cause us to gag, cough and choke. I've never personally been waterboarded, but I believe that the feeling is very likely similar. Yes, scary just to read. This is unfortunately part of diving and unavoidable at some point to be momentarily blind underwater with the threat of burning salt water going up your nose. So how do we prepare so we don’t get startled and make mistakes with our life support gear? We practice to achieve mastery and take the scary out of it.
The best way to overcome the anxiety is to acheive mastery in an environment in which the individual feels a sense of control. Having Anxious Divers put their face in the water while breathing through a snorkel or from a regulator while wearing swim goggles is a phenomenal way of overcoming anxiety. The point is to acclimate to the feeling of water on the nose, while being able to see, having the knowledge that they can lift their head if they need to, but building up a comfort with having their chin tucked into their chest. When a person has their face in the water, having their chin tucked will drastically reduce the chance that they will get water up their nose. Having a person get into a routine of tucking their chin when they experience anxiety also creates a routine for them to help overcome future anxiety when it occurs unexpectedly. A person with their chin tucked is more likely to stop irratic movements and leads them towards the problem solving method of SCUBA...STOP, BREATHE, THINK, ACT.
Once the anxious diver has mastered this with they're face in the water, they then wear swim goggles while kneeling in shallow water for several minutes. As soon as they are comfortable with this, they should spend several minutes lying on the bottom (reinforcing a horizontal diving profile) in shallow water. When the anxious diver is fully comfortable with this, they can move on to partially flooding a mask. I will generally challenge the anxious diver to keep the mask flooded for as long as possible. In almost all cases, the anxious diver clears the mask without even trying. Often times it is when the anxious diver tries to clear the mask that they begin to overthink the situation and panic returns. Only after they have attained complete comfort and mastery to this point do I have them partially flood a mask and actually try to clear it.
Mask Removal & Replacement
This usually comes quite easy after some time at the surface acclimating to breathing only with the mouth, but sometimes a moment of panic ensues when the diver goes to replace the mask in their open water dive. What goes wrong? Well, first of all, it’s the first time they’ve done this skill while submerged in full gear in open water – if anxiety already exists about the Salt water environment then the difference alone will be enough to derail what might’ve been a perfect mask removal and replacement in the pool. In an effort to rush through what they believe they have already mastered, students can entangle their mask strap in a multitude of ways that will cause a scrunch between the mask skirt and the neoprene hood, or pull their nose up, or cause a crinkle in the seal so water continues to trickle in, or perhaps the strap gets knotted and causes too tight a suction on the face and then there is constant flooding and more panic on the divers part as they cannot asses what they’ve done wrong, because they’re simply new.
I’ve found the easiest hack to this is to eliminate the mask strap. I’m not saying to remove it, although you can technically dive without it; Hold your mask, lenses down, in the palm of your hand. Pick up the mask strap and lay it up and over the top. Suction mask to face, and if you breath only out of your mouth it will stick. You should now be looking out of your mask with the strap dangling in front of your face. “Clear” your mask. Now with one hand pull it over your head. We’ve eliminated the fumbling of pulling the strap away from the trough of the mask while attempting to wrestle it over your head and hood.
For the sadistic instructor reading: extra points were given in my Open Water class for the mask scramble dive at the end of the pool day. All masks and snorkels were confiscated and sunk into the deep end of the pool, students were left with only regulators and instructed to blindly descend and swim to the deep end, find their mask, put it on, clear it, and ascend with their buddy. It should have been called bowling for divers. However, don't let anxiety get the best of you, this is not something that Justin does in his Open Water classes at Justin's Scuba Time.
Another great trick to take advantage of is simply knowing your gear like your own hand. Put your BC on, close your eyes, and train your hands to know where every button and dump is; be able to asses if you could turn on your own air. Practice taking it off on the right side, so that you always remember to never yank your regulator out. These very simple practices will help you to know your gear so well, you’ll rarely get to an emergency in which you are not able to solve yourself, without panicking.