Never Panic Again

by Doc Vikingo

An underwater panic attack can be a life-threatening experience. Follow these tips to keep it from happening.

Research suggests that over half of advanced divers have experienced panic or near-panic while diving. A number of dive medicine experts believe that panic is the leading cause of diving fatalities. If we define panic as an irrational state, then consistent with this definition are the all-too-frequent reports of divers who bolt for the surface, refuse alternative air sources and become combative with rescue attempts, and are found dead with weight belts attached and gas in their cylinders. Other features of panic may include disorientation, feelings of intense fear and rapid heartbeat.

Overcoming panic begins with an awareness that careful recreational divers with well- functioning, good-quality gear, who are diving within the limits of their training and experience, have a very small chance of injury—fatal or otherwise. Secondly, don't get discouraged or berate yourself if you do experience some anxiety while diving. Virtually all divers experience anxiety under water at some point in their diving career.

How To Beat Panic

There are a number of steps a diver can take to prevent or manage panic.

Get proper training > Choose a course that is long enough to allow you to take your time learning dive skills, rather than one that crams everything into a week or less. It is also important to search out an instructor with whom you feel comfortable, and then identify a buddy in your dive class with whom you are similarly at ease and confident.

Be fit to dive > That means not only maintaining good physical conditioning, but also resting and eating properly before a dive. It will do no good for you to be fatigued, breathing hard and metabolizing the last of a high-sugar breakfast. Diving with a cold or other illness is inviting trouble.

Visualize the dive > Listen carefully to the briefing and then visualize and rehearse it in your mind before you get in the water.

Ask questions if you have any > A dive leader's knowledge and experience can help dispel doubts and fears.

Practice breathing > Initiate slow, full respiration well before entering the water.

Check all your gear > Make sure your equipment is configured for maximum comfort and efficiency.

Do a buddy check > A buddy's assurance that your gear is in place and working properly will increase your confidence.

Get acclimated > Get used to the water before descending by pausing on the surface, or even snorkeling briefly. This may be especially helpful when the water is cold.

Avoid task overload > Equalize your ears before entering the water and then again on the surface. Tighten your weight belt on the surface if you need to, and clear your mask shortly after submerging. This will allow you to focus on your actual descent.

Descend carefully > Many divers are calmed by slowly following a descent line or natural feature of some sort, rather than free-falling through open water. Descend feet-first, deflate your BC slowly and don't hurry the process.

Orient yourself > If vis is poor, use what orientation aids you have available, such as your stream of bubbles, a little water in your mask and your instruments. These can be remarkably reassuring.

Pause > If you feel your heart rate increasing and experience other indicators of fear, stop your descent, try to determine what is distressing you, and attempt to remove the source of stress. Some divers find that hugging themselves is calming.

Breathe > If panic strikes despite your best efforts and you feel the need to surface, try your best to remember to breathe continuously so as to avoid arterial gas embolism.

You Panicked, Now What?

If you have a panic attack despite your best efforts, what should you do next?

Talk about it > First, discuss with an instructor what occurred. He or she will no doubt have some useful suggestions, such as additional pool sessions, descending while maintaining direct eye contact or even body contact with the instructor, or some other form of one-on-one assistance.

Dive somewhere else > If you feel low water temps and limited vis are the primary issues, find a location with kinder conditions.

Get help > Some people are generally more anxious than others, and this may predispose one to diver panic. Such anxiety can be treated with systematic desensitization, an often effective technique for dealing with phobias that relies in part on progressive muscle relaxation. More traditional "talking therapies" have not proven particularly effective with irrational fears like diver panic.