Panic Underwater – avoiding

Recent studies suggest that episodes of panicking underwater may explain the origin many recreational diving incidents or accidents. Read on about how to avoid underwater panic….

Anxiety is a normal human emotion we all experience when we face threatening or difficult situations, fear or anxiety can help us avoid dangerous situations or get out of them. It can make us alert and it can spur us to deal with a threat or other problem rather than simply avoiding it (i.e., the “fight or flight” reaction).


A more intense form of anxiety is panic, a sudden, unexpected but powerful surge of fear. Panic can cause a wholesale flight from the immediate situation, a reaction that is especially dangerous for scuba divers. A diver who experiences panic at depth is subject to near-drowning, lung overexpansion injuries and even in rare cases, death.

In susceptible people a heightened awareness of potential but definite dangers, complicated by a normal anxiety of being underwater, can cause a phobic anxiety state. The diver may then develop an actual fear of descending into the water. Some divers experience this while learning to dive, but other stronger motivating factors — finishing the class, spousal, parental or peer approval, an unwillingness to appear fearful to anyone else — can temporarily override their fears.

Diving stress can be divided into two categories: physical and psychological. One can lead to the other and they can feed off each other. A wetsuit that is too tight, if you are too cold, if your equipment is not comfortable – can all be categorised as physical stresses. Peer pressure, fear of the unknown, pressure to gear-up too quickly – are all psychological stresses. If your skills are not up to scratch, you may encounter situations with which you will be unable to cope. That is also a psychological stress, which in turn will almost certainly ensure that you won’t be able to cope with those situations. No diver should put himself in a situation that causes extreme stress – these situations will be different for experienced divers and new divers.

Stress underwater can develop from lack of confidence in your own ability, your buddy’s ability, your equipment or your surface support. Panic does seem to affect trainees more often, but occasionally experienced divers with hundreds of logged dives experience panic for no apparent reason. The panic most likely occurs because divers lose sight of familiar objects, become disoriented and experience a form of sensory deprivation. Among inexperienced divers, there is usually an objective basis (e.g., loss of air, overhead environment) behind the panic response.


An individual’s physical condition is also very influential in the development and progression of panic underwater. Recreational diving requires a good level of general fitness (particularly cardiovascular) and stamina. Fatigue can be a serious issue in the underwater environment, with additional factors such as fitness and cold exacerbating the problem. However, this is not to say that individuals with a physical disability should be excluded from diving.


It only takes a minute to go from cool as a cucumber to scared, disoriented and out-of-control. In most cases, scuba incidents are avoidable if the affected diver just uses their common sense and follows their basic dive training. But, it is entry into a state of panic that usually cause the diver to panic unnecessarily and behave irrationally, breathe faster, expel the regulator, make frantic grabs for air supplies and show a lack of concern for the safety of others or want to shoot up to the surface with little or no consideration towards possible decompression sickness. These panic responses can also cause the affected diver to pass out, or even have a heart attack if they have a weak heart. Panicking also hinders the ability to solve problems and get to safety when equipment malfunctions.


There are numerous methods to manage anxiety and panic:


  • Practice your diving skills until they become second nature.
  • Never dive beyond your training and capabilities.
  • Always make sure you dive within your own comfort zone. Only you really know your limits.
  • Thoroughly prepare for every dive and plan every one of your dives.
  • Deal with small problems as they arise to prevent lots of small problems becoming one big one.
  • Test out only one item of new equipment at a time. No extreme dives with unfamiliar gear.
  • Don’t dive if it doesn’t feel right. Nervous excitement is not to be confused with real concern.
  • Dive with a more experienced buddy when extending your personal experience.
  • Ensure that you are fit to dive. Both physically and mentally – particularly after a prolonged period out of the water.
  • No diving with hangovers! Don’t let a Saturday night binge ruin your dives.
  • 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 snorkelling 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 buoy line or natural feature of some sort, rather than free-falling through open water. Descend feet-first, deflate your BC slowly and don’t rush your descent.
  • Orient yourself. If the visibility is poor, use what orientation aids you have available, such as your stream of bubbles, a little water in your mask, your instruments or even your buddy as these can be incredibly reassuring.
  • Stop for a minute. 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.


It is also important to be able to recognise the signs of impending panic. If you experience any of them, stop to relax, breathe, think — and seek help.

  • Rapid breathing or feeling like you can’t get enough air.
  • Rapid heart rate, palpitations or heaviness in the chest.
  • Gastrointestinal distress, “butterflies,” nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Muscle tension, headache or tremors.
  • Trembling voice or inability to speak.
  • Sweating, chills or hot flashes, feeling out-of-control or impending doom.



You Panicked, Now What?

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


Talk about it. Discuss with your buddy or your instructor what happened as they will no doubt have some useful suggestions, such as additional pool sessions, or training. Descending while maintaining direct eye contact or even body contact with your buddy or instructor, or some other form of one-on-one assistance.


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


Get professional help. Some people are generally more anxious than others, and this may predispose them panic underwater. Such anxiety can be treated with systematic desensitization, an often effective technique for dealing with phobias that relies in part on progressive muscle relaxation.



How to help a panicking buddy.

You need to help reduce the level of stress and bring your buddy back from the brink of panic. Put one hand on their shoulder
Establish good eye contact
Signal for them to stop and breath deeply
Often, a reassuring squeeze of the hand that lets your buddy know you’re there for them is enough to calm them down.


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, however, if you can keep your wits, remain calm, you can find a way out of almost any situation.



Remember the maxim: If you do encounter a problem underwater remember – stop… breathe… think… act.