Overcoming scuba divers anxiety

It’s been my life’s dream to explore to the ocean. At age 12 my parents signed me up for scuba lessons and literally the day before they started the class was cancelled. There’s few places I feel as alive other than down at 90 feet below the ocean. Even above the surface I can stare out into the endless blue dreaming of spotting a whale or shark.

Diving with whale sharks in the Philippines.


Diving trips have also seem to bookmark key moments in my life. We popped over to Thailand to do our open water course after learning I’d been offered a new job. We did our advanced course in Egypt during the time I quit my role at Automattic. Before starting my new role I took a trip to Cyprus and did my first wreck dive. Since then, 2 years passed since we’d been diving. Two masters degrees for Annchen and a wild couple years for me yielded zero dives. There was more going on behind the scenes though.

Panic

In my first 6 months at my new role I experienced my first ever panic attack while in Canada. The experience triggered a month of learning a ton about dealing with anxiety and panic. Perhaps it was always there. Perhaps behind the scenes the life was getting to me. The result was some level of claustrophobia and sudden feelings of shortness of breath. London, particularly the underground, is not an ideal setting for someone experiencing claustrophobia. 

This experience taught me so much about myself. The power of our thoughts and the importance of our mental health. The manifestation of a panic attack made me think back and connect panic attacks to other times of anxiety throughout my life. It made me think and talk through traumas from my past. Thinking back, I realized I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand these things earlier in life. I overcame my anxiety and thankfully have not experienced a panic attack since that time in 2016. But one unfortunate connection I drew from this time was that the thought of diving now freaked me out a little. 

Origins of dive anxiety

Back in 2016 before my first panic attack I do recall a time where I experienced some anxiety in our first deep dive. 90 feet under the water is not an ideal place to experience anxiety. When scuba diving it really just takes one misplaced thought. A seed of doubt if you will. This seed can grow into a dangerous irrationality that you are not safe even though all other evidence is contrary. On this particular dive I tapped our instructor on the back and signaled that I was struggling with breathing. He grabbed me, looked me deep in my eyes and had me breath with him. I instantly felt safe. That connection under water and calmness from him gave me the assurance that I was in fact, fine. The truth was I needed him to know I was struggling. He had me switch from my normal regulator to my backup which in some weird way made me feel better. The good news is that I overcame that moment and went on to dive more on that trip without incident. 


The story doesn’t stop there though. I think once you’ve experienced anxiety under the water it’s something that can realistically rear it’s head again. In Cyprus it was my first time diving without my wife and it was my first time doing a wreck dive. The whole thing kind of freaked me out. It probably doesn’t help that the Zenobia dive has a bit of a bad rep. Half way through the first dive I had a fin fall off, it was quickly retrieved by the dive leader. A few moments later I found myself trying to overcome a racing heart and couldn’t quite get it under control. I tapped the dive instructor and he turned around and almost immediately I was fine. Dive 2 I was fine. 
Some time after this I started a new role and experienced said panic attack, on land. Two years went by like a flash. I thought about diving from time to time but somehow the experiences that could be marked by triumph built up into a tiny fear that I can no longer dive. 

Getting back in the water

It had been 2 years since we’d been diving and it was time to get back out there. I was so afraid that I’d freak out under the water. The nights leading up to our dives in the Philippines I had trouble sleeping. This fear was mainly built on the notion that if I experience more intense anxiety under the water than I won’t be able to dive anymore. Strategically I planned that we do a shallow shore dive. We opted to do this rather than a full on refresher course. About 15 minutes in I experienced some anxiety but was able to put to practice breathing techniques and positive self talk to overcome. What followed was euphoria knowing I am stronger than I use to be. Since this time my wife and I have done about 20 dives in 5 countries. While I do experience anxiety at times, I’ve learned a ton of helpful lessons about how to handle the situation that help me. 

Know your limits

One thing that’s helped me is reading about dive sites before embarking on dive trips. If you aren’t comfortable with depths, night dives or wrecks then don’t do them. Most dive companies are going to ease every diver into their sites by doing easier dives to kick off your trip but this isn’t always true. If you aren’t comfortable going sub 20 meters (60 feet) be sure to let your dive company know you want to do some shallow dives to start your trip. Some dive destinations cater for this better than others, do your homework.

Talk about your fear

I roped my wife into diving and yet I’m the one that experiences more anxiety than her. How ironic. She tends to assume I’m always fine when sometimes I’m not. I’ve had to let her know pre-dive that I need an extra dose of interaction with her. Simple underwater jokes and code language makes me feel so much better under the water. You can dive in the biggest groups yet it’s still very much an individual experience under the water. Having someone under there that is looking after you helps.

Get to know you dive instructor

If I am able to laugh and joke with my instructor this really makes me more at ease in the water. Take some extra time to get to know your instructor and build some rapport with them. If you aren’t comfortable with your instructor consider switching. 

Develop a pre-dive routine

I’ve learned that I am so much more confident in the water and enjoy it so much more when I take some time to prep in the morning. I also go out of my way to skip drinking coffee and I eat a lighter breakfast. When I’ve been a little nervous recently I wrote myself a little note telling myself what I love about diving. Sounds a little weird but I often think we forget to give ourselves credit. Be kind to yourself.

More whale sharks!

Visualization

Imagine yourself having the most amazing time flying through the water. Seeing unspeakable beauty, in a world that few people get to experience. See yourself doing this. Experience yourself descending down, smiling. These are the moments we all dream of. Imagine breathing the cleanest air you’ve breathed in a long time.

Postive Self Talk

I could write an entire blog post just on this topic. It’s a huge deal. We have so much more power to influence our experience with our minds than we realize. Focus on the beauty below. Tell yourself how incredible it is. Tell yourself how wonderful it is that you’re doing this activity in this moment. If you need to write down some mantras about diving or about yourself that help you feel more confident. I sometimes have music lyrics in my head. Most recently it was Jack Johnson’s Holes to Heaven. But Bob Marley tunes work well. I often tell myself that I can’t wait to dive with my young nephews some day and think about them. Goofy movie quotes are also on play in my head. My favorite is definitely from the movie Cool Runnings. Smile as you amuse yourself and experience the best activity on the planet.

Bliss.

During the Dive

Don’t let conditions, the lack of fish or pre-dive blunders get in your head. If they do just remember you are fine. Focus on positive self talk and remember your dive instructor is all for you letting them know you need a break. It’s incredible how good they are at helping you relax. So don’t buy into the false idea that anything is wrong. You’re healthy (if you aren’t, don’t dive), you’re capable, you love this and if anything goes wrong you’ve got your buddy to help you out.

Have you experienced divers anxiety? Have you overcome a fear? Feel free to share below. 

Comments

  1. Michael
    October 14, 2019 / 9:56 pm

    Wonderful story and diving tips! Thanks Joel

  2. Ellen Bronkowski
    October 14, 2019 / 10:28 pm

    Joel ♥️ Love your honesty and helpful, practical advice on overcoming anxiety. It can can be used in many of life’s circumstances.

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