This article is one of seven on the topic of overcoming panic in scuba diving. Panic is a complex issue, and it is important to explore what is happening for each diver. To really overcome panic we must look at context, consider what is happening in the situation. In this article we look to change something about the dive in order to avoid panic. This series is simply an introduction to help people raise discussions about their experiences and seek appropriate support.
Humans are far more likely to panic when we are out of our depth. Panic has no real benefit, so will usually only happen if the person has no other options. Either the person is incapable of addressing the problem they are facing, or they perceive that it is impossible or inevitable. No one would choose to panic if they could see a better way out!
Change something about the dive
Whether or not you will be able to fix a problem, or deal with a stressful situation underwater, depends very much on what is actually happening to you! And what is happening to you will depend largely on the dive site, the conditions and the specific risks of the area. Depth. Visibility. Water movement. Marine life. Site features (sandy bottom, wall or cave, wreck or reef).. Who you are with. All of these have an impact on the situation you will be in, and all of them are predictable at known dive sites. Conditions can change, but with familiar dive sites, professionals generally do know the site. This is much harder to have a concept of if you are a new diver, or unfamiliar with the area. But you can still find out what to expect and compare that with your current level of diving.
For example, if you have only ever dived in clear blue waters, then a different site that has low visibility, or is known to silt out easily may make a difference to how comfortable you feel. Or if you know you are still developing skills in your buoyancy, then there is a big difference between diving a site where the bottom is at 20 metres, compared to 70 metres – (even if you are not planning to go to the bottom, it is worth knowing how far down it is!)
Are you ready for the dive?
Are you ready for hovering over a 30 metre drop? Or would you prefer to be hovering over a shallow reef? Also consider the topography and features of the site, will you be on a wreck, diving swim-throughs or caves? Overhead environments (like going into a wreck or cave) come with new challenges, firstly there will be a barrier between you and the surface – are you equipped for that? There may be risk of the bottom getting stirred up and creating a silt-out, when you can’t see the exit! – is your finning and buoyancy good enough to avoid that yet? If it happens, do you have the skills to deal with it?
Look at the dive in advance
Okay, so it is worth bearing in mind that you don’t know what you don’t know, But you can certainly gather information about the dive site in advance: look at the reviews online, listen to the briefing, ask the guides for more information, (if need be) make requests for changes to the dive plan. Always remember that whether you dive or not is your decision, so if it sounds like the site or the plan is way beyond you, sit it out. Dive another day.
Human behaviour is complex, and whether a diver will panic depends on lots of different things. The situation is just one part of the picture. In the rest of this series we will also consider diver skill, ability to regulate reactions and to think through problems.
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.