This article is one of seven on ways to overcome panic in scuba diving. Panic is a complex issue, and it is important to explore what is happening for each diver. This series is simply an introduction to help people raise discussions about their experiences and seek appropriate support.
Have you noticed that certain people can wind-you up, or make you feel unsafe? And other people make you feel relaxed just by being there?
There are many ways that diving with other people can influence how stressed we are and how we cope with stress. Panic can be contagious. That’s because if you don’t know how to deal with a problem and you notice your buddy is beginning to panic, then that is likely to raise your own stress levels. Also, who we are with makes a difference to how comfortable we feel.
Something that can make a real difference to your stress levels on a dive is how familiar and comfortable you are with the group and the guide. Being able to trust your instructor and their ability to lead the course in a safe manner makes a difference. We also accept information more readily from people that we like and trust. Feeling safe with your instructor also makes a difference to longer term learning. It is also important to feel safe in the group.
Physical safety or social safety?
Safety has two core aspects for humans: physical safety and social safety. Both make a difference to how we regulate emotions. Physical safety is easy to understand. In diving, if we fear we are at risk of drowning our immediate survival is threatened, and that triggers stress responses. BUT, stress responses can also be triggered by a lack of social safety, which is when we feel at risk of social judgement and rejection from the group. Humans’ long-term survival relies on being accepted by other people in their society. If we are rejected then we are vulnerable. So no one likes feeling they are getting it wrong, or holding up the group.
Fear of failure and social judgement can subtly wind-up our systems, as well as driving behaviours that may indirectly increase the chances of panic. For example, a diver who has a concern about the dive, or does not know how to perform an important skill, but is frightened of looking stupid, may not ask for help. Or, the person who is fixed on appearing to be a “good diver” hides difficulties. Social safety matters, and it affects physical safety.
Overcome panic in scuba diving and the role of trust
Another way that people affect us, is that they can help us to calm down and overcome panic. You will maybe know some people who can make you feel safe by squeezing your hand, or just smiling at you. Hugs can have this effect too. Positive, accepting social contact calms us physically and psychologically. This can be really useful in diving and many instructors are aware of how important it is to gain their students trust, because that connection keeps everyone calm and in a good place to learn.
It can however have a flip-side, sometimes we can become reliant on other people to regulate our emotions, and forget we have other ways of doing it. Its a bit like learning to dive while holding hands, it helps you stay in position. Until you let go to signal and then one of you goes up, and the other sinks down! Neither of you noticed how much you were balancing each other out! It is important to learn to control your own buoyancy, and it is useful to learn to regulate your thoughts and emotions.
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.