How to Deal With Panic

By: Dr. Thomas Powell

We have all been there. Things are going great. You move just a little too quickly or do not take that extra moment to ease your mind and suddenly everything goes wrong. You find yourself trying to cope with a mental barrage of confusion. These moments can be horrifying and, in certain cases, they can have deadly results. Panic is a topic that we all discuss and every instructor wonders about.

When will the day come when I have a student “bolt on me?”

Panic is covered in pretty much all open water scuba training material, but it can also be difficult to simulate. We discuss out-of-air emergencies and we practice different emergency bailout techniques, but we do so without the real fear associated with extreme problems. In training, we know that a professional is near and that at the end of the day we are supposed to be under that person’s care. The real factor that is missing is what happens to your mind during panic. In many cases, we may forget what we have learned and don’t behave in the best manner available to achieve positive results. In reality, how many times have you seen divers practicing emergency skills when they have not been diving for an extended period? Does it seem like most people view refresher courses as an obstacle they do not want to endure? Do you think every diver remembers how to react when they have not practiced scuba-related problem solving since an open water course that took place 10 years ago?

Diver Panic

Imagine yourself as a diver. You have not gotten wet in at least a year because life simply took you other places. A vacation finally arrives and you get the chance to strap on the old dive gear and get back to something you enjoy. As usual, you did not have the time to take a refresher course at your local dive shop before you headed out on your adventure. Work just had to be completed before you left town.

Once you arrive at your destination, you decide you have nothing to worry about and convince yourself there is nothing complicated about diving. That evening, you and your best friend decide to start your week with a simple night dive just off the beach from your resort. A few minutes into the dive, you realize you are burning gas a little faster than you used to, but that may just be associated with your lack of fitness during the past year. You and your buddy have always been about even so far as gas consumption in the water, so in your mind you will be done at about the same time. Simultaneously, you are jealous at all the diving he has gotten to do while you have been dealing with work recently.

Time passes and you are amazed at what you see, but after a bit, you also notice that it takes a little more effort to breathe.

You decide that you need to stop and see what is going on with your gear just as your second stage stops delivering air. Your gauge has been the last thing on your mind for the last little bit. Two desperate pulls for air follow and you instantly think you are going to die. You look up, around . . . anywhere for help. The surface seems so far away and that is all your mind can acknowledge. There is no fixing a total loss of air, right? Suddenly, you see your buddy looking at you with a confused face. Things are pitch black with sudden flashes of light. Is it yours? Is it his light? You know there is a signal or some way of showing him that you are in trouble, but there is no time for remembering those actions. You lunge for him, grabbing wildly and hoping for that air you know can save you.

In this case, the diver was excited to partake in a wonderful vacation, but forgot all about using common sense.

We as people are not designed to function underwater without a bit of equipment-based support. Even then, gear can fail. This factor is why we focus so hard on good skills, practical knowledge, and muscle memory. We practice those hand signals in class over and over so that they become ingrained in our scuba lifestyle. Similarly, instructors teach us to know how to do things, but we have to take a bit of personal responsibility and continue practicing what we learn. People get rusty at things they do not practice. Panic can overwhelm a person to the point of total shutdown. In our worst moments, we need to have to ability to rely on physical reaction, muscle memory, and the ability to calm the mind in order to solve problems. If we do not practice for bad moments, our physical reaction may become our worst enemy as we blindly grope in terror.

Dive Buddy Panic

Now, using the same story as above, imagine you are the buddy in this scenario. Things have been great. You have been cruising along a little reef seeing all sorts of interesting things. Suddenly your buddy stops cold and he looks a bit lost. You go back to looking around but realize his light is not following. You turn around and see he is wildly flailing. Carefully, you approach him pulling out your alternate air source. It is just a habit you picked up in class watching your instructor. In a lost moment he pauses and seems to recognize you when you use your light to get a clear view of him. He seems to have seen you, but only long enough to lunge toward you. You thrust your alternate air source in his direction and he takes it, ramming it into his mouth. After a moment, you grab the shoulder strap of his buoyancy compensator and give him an “OK” signal. He responds, still acting confused, but you begin your ascent.

This converse storyline to the original shows a diver who recognized a problem, approached with caution, and prepared for secondary issues. The end result was a positive one, but what might have happened if the buddy had not taken the alternate air source? Would the diver have been ready to kick away and recover? Could a potential diver fatality have resulted in two? Was the panicked diver an asset or a risk to the buddy?

Common Sense

Being a diver is a wonderful thing. Not everyone gets to participate in this sport. The problem is that many divers seem to feel that an open water program, or a subsequent class, culminates in diver perfection. This mindset is anything but true. We all have room to improve, develop skills, or even learn new things. The other thing to realize is that just because we learn how to do something once does not mean we will always be masters at those learned skills. The old adage “practice makes perfect” is a good way to view things in the scuba world. The more we practice or work to perfect our scuba skills, the better we will be in both the fun times and the scary times.

In the scenario above, things would have been much easier if the panicked diver had recognized his problem, immediately signaled his buddy, and initiated an air-sharing process. The reality is that even if we do practice these skills, panic can destroy our common sense. We may have to rely on muscle memory. Essentially, if we practice something over and over, our reaction is physically memorized so that you may perform that action without complex thought.

Lastly, we all have to be responsible on a higher level if we are going to play in a realm for which the human body is not designed.

In this case, the dive buddy had been able to dive more often than the panicked diver. He was likely aware that there had been no time for the panicked diver to participate in a refresher. When they arrived at their resort, the buddy should have insisted on paying a professional for a bit of his or her time. The panicked diver was not prepared to serve as a proper dive buddy. If someone gets hurt on day one, what good is the rest of the vacation? Are you not there to have fun? Remember that saying “no” is an OK thing to do. In contrast, the panicked diver should have recognized that he was not safe, prepared, and ready. He should have recognized that he was responsible for both himself and the potential safety of his buddy.

Both divers should have been willing to say no to that first unprepared dive.

In truth, the reality is that you know your skill set and where you stand. If you are unsure, then find a way to become sure. Otherwise, diving today might not be a good idea. If you are not prepared to be a good buddy, then you and your partner are both already in jeopardy. Diving is supposed to be fun and enjoyable. You do not always have to take the next class, but you could consider simply finding a professional to help you work on your skills until you are again confident in the water. The better prepared we are for the bad times, the more often we will have positive results.

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2 replies
  1. Rusty
    Rusty says:

    In my almost 50 years of diving (30) as an instructor I have seen a number of folks panic in the water. All with a good outcome because of very qualified instructors or dive buddies.(I know not PC) dive partners.
    I personally have never been in a situation that my training and experience had to deal with my own panic until 3 1/2 years ago. I had to have emergency open heart surgery and had 5 bypasses done. This situation suddenly presented itself in a very strange way. When I woke up after 10 hours of surgery in ICU I saw my beautiful wife but I felt strange. There was what can only described as a 6 foot 4 inch diameter tube down my throat (I know it wasn’t that big but it felt like it. To make matters worse (this is where the panic started) both my hands where tied to the rails of the bed.
    My wife saw it in my eyes very quickly and placed her hand on my shoulder and said remember your training, Stop and breath, so I stopped moving and closed my lips around the tube and by golly there was plenty of air (oxygen) flowing so the panic immediately subsided. The point to this story is even your dive training can stop your panic in most situations so STOP AND BREATH when you feel a panic attack coming on.
    P.S My cardiologist has cleared me to keep diving and instructing, there was no damage to the heart because I didn’t suffer a heart attack and at 60 years old he said my heart looked like a 35 year old.

    Reply
  2. Samir Boughlita
    Samir Boughlita says:

    Gérer la panique c’est cibler, d’abord, les sujets à risque, et l’expérience des instructeurs rentré en scène dans ces moments précis.

    Reply

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