Freaking out when scuba diving is understandable

As a new scuba diver, it is not unusual to get a bit freaked out at some point. It can happen during training, or maybe not till 10, 20, 50 … dives in. It’s hardly surprising though, because we are going into an extreme environment. We can’t breathe. Everything looks kind of weird and strange things can happen. Until we get used to all of this, we might be freaking out when scuba diving once or twice. So it’s something we need to learn to handle.

But, it’s hard to know how to address the problem, when you don’t know what is causing it. Often the stuff that triggers fear for new divers is not obvious. So it can feel like you are just freaking out for no reason.

freaking out in water

There is always a reason for the freaking out

Even if you can’t see a reason, there is a reason. Something must have set off the alarm in your brain that jangled all your nerves and put you on edge. If you check in with a more experienced diver, your guide or instructor, they will easily think of a few possibilities.

  • Breathing too fast and feeling like you couldn’t breathe
  • Swimming too hard
  • Conditions that are new to you like currents, drift, waves, darkness, low vis …
  • Being overloaded with the tasks
  • Getting knocked or bumped
  • Equipment issues like a BCD being too big, too much or too little lead, leaking mask …

We can also consider whether gas density effects, like narcosis and hypercapnia are a factor.

Some less obvious reasons

The reasons you may be freaking out when scuba diving could also be very subtle.

  • The pressure change (descending / ascending) caused an odd sensation in your ears. You were not aware of it, but the slightly off-balance feeling made your brain freak out.
  • Your mind thought it might be helpful to say something like: “don’t drown”, “what if my air runs out?”, “I wonder what is out there, … in the dark water?” Y’know, just because our minds like to do that. Maybe it even gave you a graphic image to torture yourself with!
  • A genuine concern that is nagging at the back of your mind. You don’t feel fully comfortable with the situation and you don’t know why.

A real reason for concern

We also need to remember that there maybe a good reason that you are freaking out when scuba diving. It could be your brain has picked up on a problem and you are just not fully aware of it, or acting on it. For example:

  • The dive is beyond your training or depth limits.
  • You haven’t yet mastered the skills you need to dive automatically, like buoyancy control
  • You are yet to master the skills you need to handle possible problems (leaking mask, equipment failure, buddy separation).
  • The group is doing something you are not ready for like going into a cave or overhead environment
  • You don’t know your buddy and whether they are capable of helping you if need be
  • Concerns about the safety plans and procedures
  • Your buddy is miles away and not aware of you. (Should be within 2 seconds reach).
  • You have missed something important like checking over your kit, or doing a pre-dive check with a buddy

Change some things in your scuba diving

There is often a lot more you can do to improve things. First, look where you are diving. Are you happy with it? Do you feel safe with the people you are diving with? Have you checked the dive shop reviews and sought recommendations? What do you think of the safety procedures? Of course, these things vary greatly, partly due to culture and availability, and we all have different levels of what we will accept. For example, if you are diving in a remote place, it is a bit harder for the shop to get kit supplies.

Second, think about the dive plan and whether this fits with your current skills and experience. If you have just finished open water, and the dive is to 25m, then it clearly does not.

Third, plan ahead. Find out what sort of dives are available. If they are JUST a bit much for you, maybe book in extra time for training or skills refresher to increase the chance you’ll be comfortable and safe on the dive.

Fourth, keep building skills. This is often possible to do at home, on a regular basis, even if you are only diving on holiday. Book in refresher or coaching sessions to build competence with finning, buoyancy control and basic skills.

Fifth, dive more, because the more we dive the more comfortable we get. This is especially true if we dive within our comfort level, then add in more training to stretch our skills. Then dive some more within that bigger comfort zone.

Apply psychological skills

After considering the above, there is also lots you can do internally to deal with the weird, almost freaking out moments.

  • Breathe. Normally, which means slowly and deeply.
  • STOP. Just stop. Hover where you are and breathe. This lets your brain and body calm down a bit.
  • Ask yourself – “what is it?” Sometimes this lets you notice what is causing the issue, sometimes it lets you realise there is nothing that is immediately a problem.
  • Signal for support. If you feel frightened or weird, signal “something wrong” and connect with your buddy or the guide. If there is a problem they can help, if its more just you feel freaked out, just making eye contact or reaching out can be calming in itself.
  • Focus on what you are doing (manage buoyancy, follow the dive plan, tune into the situation and be aware of where the other divers are).
  • If you don’t feel safe to continue the dive, just call it. End the dive.

If you are experiencing panic while scuba diving, there is also a reason. Check out reasons diver’s panic here.