Anxiety and stress need to be stopped if they are to be prevented from escalating into diver panic. Signs of the onset of panic include feelings of anxiety, spooky feelings, unusually negative feelings, ineffective kicking, lack of peripheral vision, unusually fast heartbeat and hyperventilation.

The earliest signs of panic are different for everyone. For me, it is a knot in my stomach coupled with the feeling of a lack of oxygen. For one of my buddies, it is an overwhelming despair and a feeling of impending doom. For another buddy it is a barrage of excuses and legs that kick like noodles. Each of us manifests anxiety, stress and the onset of panic in different ways. What do you do or feel?

Recognizing uneasy feelings and different reactions will help you identity the onset of stress and anxiety that can lead to panic. Once you recognize your “panic meter” is climbing, you can effectively take steps to stop the problem before it intensifies from uncomfortable feelings to out of control panic.

Anxiety, stress and panic occur with different intensity in each person as a result of unexpected change. What is a mild annoyance for one diver could be an emergency for another. Panic is an unreasoned response. It can be caused by self-doubt or an actual lack of ability. Lack of physical conditioning or skills to cope with a situation such as currents or waves can cause anxiety that escalates into panic. Have you ever gotten caught in a current and felt as if you were being swept out to sea? Have you ever been too weak to pull yourself out of the water and into a small boat? Have you ever broken a fin strap and wondered if you could get back to shore with only one fin?

Peer pressure can also cause a panic attack. If you evaluate the day’s environmental conditions as beyond your comfort zone, it can be tough to tell your buddy you will not be diving. It could mean no diving for him/her after a long journey to the site. The thought of being the one to cancel a dive and cost everyone time and money can be intimidating and stressful. Have you and your buddy talked about this situation in advance and given each other permission to call off a dive – without any argument? Have you learned that everyone gets seasick at some time?

Lack of knowledge can frighten a diver. Since caveman days, humans have been threatened by anything in the physical world they did not understand. Sometimes a little knowledge about a subject allows people to jump to untrue conclusions that are scary. On an early open water dive one of my students became visibly agitated underwater, ripped off his mask and began rubbing his eyes. A cloud had passed over the sun and the underwater scene had become noticeably darker. However, since the class had just listened to a lecture concerning the medical aspects of diving, the student interpreted the sudden darkening as a symptom of a terrible diving malady and the first step in his going blind!

Lack of knowledge is one of the easiest causes of panic to cure. Diving magazines, books, television shows, diving seminars, club activities, advanced training courses and experience in the water add to your depth of knowledge. Diving in new locations and with new buddies are fun ways to expand your knowledge base. Imagine the interesting critters and behaviors a marine biologist buddy can point out – or what you can learn about the rocky reef from a buddy who is an amateur geologist. Find a buddy who is a surfer and you’ll learn more about waves than you thought possible.

Advanced diving recognizing diver panic

How To Recognize Pre-Panic In Yourself

Inevitably, you will get stressed out about something while diving and it will lead to a panic situation. Here’s a sample checklist to monitor yourself for the onset of anxiety leading to near or out of control panic:

* Reluctance to do something that is normally OK

* General feeling of anxiety

* Spooky feelings

* Unusually negative feelings

* Making excuses about why not to do something

* Being crabby or impatient

* Breathing hard or feeling as if you are not getting air

* Ineffective kicking – no power in your kick

* Fumbling with tasks that are usually easy to handle

* None of your equipment seems to work right

* Your heart is pounding

* Your wetsuit feels as if you gained weight during the dive

* You are suddenly unable to clear your ears

* Feeling as if you have blinders on – lack of peripheral vision

* Finding yourself totally focused on one thing, to the exclusion of everything else

How To Recognize Pre-Panic In Others

Other divers could be experiencing all the same physical and mental symptoms you are. Most of these are difficult to see in others. If others don’t recognize they are getting stressed and likely to panic, how can you have advance warning?

* A change in behavior, i.e., if he/she is the calm, quiet type and gets animated and talkative when stressed

* He/she is impatient, critical or argumentative (more than normal)

* Movements become jerky and without purpose

* His/her kick turns into a bicycle kick or becomes ineffective

* His/her eyes dart around and have trouble focusing on one thing

* Air consumption increases

* Breathing becomes erratic – no steady stream of exhaled bubbles

* He/she forgets the dive plan or ignores the planned limits

* He/she tries to adjust equipment but is “all thumbs”

* He/she cannot correctly assemble and don equipment

How To Head Off Panic Inducing Problems

Panic that requires others to intervene and assist is the result of a diver ignoring all the early warning signs outlined above. Divers can avoid getting this out of control with a three step plan: 1) preparation, 2) performance and 3) self-rescue skills.


How can you prevent problems before they occur? Good preparation is a key to problem reduction and prevention. Inspect your equipment long before you leave home, then make one last check to be sure everything got packed. Talk frankly with your buddy about the buddy system and how you hope to make the dive. Set some rules you are both comfortable with concerning what to do in an emergency. Discuss issues you’ve thought about as potential problems. From discussion comes understanding and answers to questions. Most people are more confident in difficult times if they have the answers and know what to do.

Thinking ahead – seeing trouble coming – is a tremendous help. Solve the problem when it is a simple broken fin strap, not later when it is an exhausted diver with a broken fin strap foundering on the surface. Taking timely steps to resolve minor problems usually means the dive continues safely. No one views routine problem solving as an emergency – it is a normal part of diving.


When an emergency does occur, the four step plan applies. These steps should be committed to memory: 1) Stop, 2) Get Control, 3) Think, 4) Act.

STOP what you are doing – everything – for a moment. The pause allows you to focus and take the next steps. Do not automatically head for the surface. Assuming you have air, settling on the bottom (if it’s shallow enough) can be the easiest place to problem solve.

GET CONTROL of your breathing. Consciously breathe in a slow, normal manner. Make taking control of your breathing a conscious activity. It may only take a few breaths to slow down and stop hyperventilating.

THINK about the possible actions that can be taken. Sometimes this involves a little investigation to be sure you are solving the actual problem. Is your lack of forward motion owing to entanglement or did a fin come off?

ACT to fix the problem. Now you are in control of your actions, breathing and thoughts, you have the tools to make a reasoned response to the situation.

Self-Rescue Skills

Although scuba diving is a buddy sport, limited communication is a barrier to assistance. The farther apart you and a buddy are U/W, the more engrossed you are in an activity or the more demanding the environmental conditions, the more you need to be self-reliant. Self-rescue skills include establishing positive buoyancy, opening an airway, cramp releases, in-water equipment adjustments and underwater navigation skills.

Since losing your air supply is a major problem, plan for redundant air options. Use a regulator equipped with two second stages or carry a separate, self-contained air supply with its own regulator. This small scuba tank or pony bottle is strapped to your primary tank. Spare Air, an even smaller scuba tank with a built-in mouthpiece, is another option. It travels in a holster and is more compact than a pony bottle and regulator.

Another panic inducing problem is vertigo. One minute you feel fine and the next you are dizzy and queasy. Most divers never experience vertigo, so they are very surprised and confused about what to do. Stop, settle on the bottom if possible and stare at a fixed point. The vertigo may pass quickly. If you are in mid-water, hugging yourself seems to be helpful. Keep your eyes open. Closing your eyes may make everything spin. Vertigo can be caused by cold water on the eardrums. If you are not wearing a hood, hold your hands over your ears to warm up the water in the ear canals. When the eardrums warm up, the vertigo may subside.


Probably the greatest self-rescue skill is self-awareness. The earlier you tune into your gut feelings about a situation, the sooner you are in control. Awareness and control stop stress that escalates into panic. Listen to what your buddy says “between the lines.” Sometimes a series of equipment frustrations is a buddy saying “the water is too cold, dirty, bumpy for me today and I really don’t want to dive but I can’t say that to you and save face.”

Once confronted with a situation, stop, get control, think and act to problem solve your way out of the difficulty.


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