nervous looking scuba diver with hand on top of head signaling ok

Overcoming Scuba Diving Anxiety

Co-written by Dave Morera – SDI Instructor

& Carrie Morera, PsyD – Psychologist

What is Scuba Anxiety?

Scuba diving anxiety can put a damper on some diver’s love for scuba. Of course anxiety can be a common state with people in general and not just Scuba diving. In the last few years, people are doing much better at identifying it and seeking help, as opposed to decades ago where admitting a state of anxiety may have had a negative connotation.

Although common, some people still fail to recognize such state, and even if recognized, help is not the first thing people seek. As an instructor, I have witnessed scuba anxiety in new Open Water Scuba Diver students the most, and the sources are seldom the same for all individuals. Some common reasons for anxiety include:

  • Information overload
  • Learning a new way to breathe
  • New skills to learn
  • Being uncomfortable in the water

In my early stages as an OW student, I was also very anxious and almost did not finish day 1 of Confined Water. Luckily my wife is a doctor in Psychology and helped me push through to achieve my goals. Now, not everyone has a personal psychologist, so how can you get through anxiety hurdles and achieve something you have been wanting to do for a while?

I sat down with my favorite psychologist 😁 to find some of the most effective anxiety coping mechanisms.

What Helps with Scuba Diving Anxiety?

1.    Breathe

Breathing is one of the most effective techniques to calm yourself down when you begin to have scuba diving anxiety. Sometimes we get anxious and before we know it, our breathing rate has increased (I wonder what the SAC rate would be at that state 🤔),  our heart starts pounding and it becomes very difficult to perform most tasks. Having a rapid breathing rate will make you more buoyant but as a new student, it will become very difficult to maintain your position causing an overall bad experience. When underwater, take deep, continuous breaths. Controlling your breathing will help you slow down and regain clarity of thought on where you’re at and what you need to do next. A simple, yet effective technique for ABOVE the water is to do the box breathing exercise, used by many including U.S. Navy Seals As you can see the common number is 4, and this makes it easy to remember as a box has 4 sides, so you can visualize a box and each side represents each step to be done within 4 seconds. Box Breathing = 4 parts, 4 seconds each.

diagram showing box breathing holding inhale and exhale four seconds each

2.    Ground Yourself

What does ground yourself mean? I have a good idea around the concept but decided to let the expert explain this one. Dr. take it away…

Grounding is a practice that you can use to take away distressing feelings, especially if you are experiencing scuba diving anxiety. Here are examples of three types of grounding techniques:

  • Physical techniques – Use your five senses to reduce anxiety. For example, move your body. Back fin technique, frog kick, turn around. How do your feet or hands feel each time they move through the water? What do you see around you? What sounds do you hear?
  • Mental techniques – These techniques help you stop thinking about what is distressing to you at the moment. For example, recite something like the alphabet, a favorite quote, a poem, or favorite lines from a movie.
  • Soothing techniques – These techniques promote positive feelings and warmth, distracting you from anxiety. For example, think of five positive things that bring you joy. What is it about each thing that makes you happy?

Grounding techniques are effective, but they are temporary. Practice some of these techniques when you are not feeling anxious, so they are easier to use when you are feeling distressed.

3.    Don’t OVERthink Scuba Anxiety

If you are like me, “What IF” is a common thought going through your head. Don’t overthink what you are doing. Whether it’s learning to breathe from a regulator, going on your first deep dive during an Advanced course, or diving in a new location even though you are a seasoned diver.

Some of us tend to overthink on aspects that we already know. Understandably the stakes are high, and by no means I’m advising you to downplay Scuba diving and inherent risks, but instead to lean on your knowledge, training, and experience and dive within such limits.

  • Proper planning is key. Knowing and visualizing what you are about to do will help you silence that mental overload.
  • Knowing what the plan and back-up plans are will help ease your mind.
  • Have a pre-dive discussion/visualization with your dive buddy.
  • If you are in a course and don’t understand something, please ask.
  • If the pace is too fast and is causing you to be anxious, please speak up. We all learn in different ways, and instructors are more than happy to help out.
  • If you are getting anxious for no reason, look at the bubbles coming out of your reg, or your instructor’s/buddy. Sometimes your mind does its own thing, and we need to snap out of it.
  • Don’t think about the skills you have to do in OW1 if you are on CW1, or don’t think about your safety stop, when you should be paying attention to your descent rate. Keep your mind focused on the current task. One task at a time.
  • Trust your equipment and your training to overcome scuba anxiety. If you have done proper checks on your gear, such gear should do what is supposed to do. So, you should not be anxious that you will sink to the bottom of the ocean if you have a fully inflated BCD. During class we train for emergency scenarios incase those happen.

There are many other techniques, and some may not work for everyone. To quote one of my students “Scuba Diving is life changing”. It sure is, and I love to introduce people to this great adventure; however, scuba anxiety can be a big hurdle for some to get over in diving, but not impossible.

If you are new to diving, or simply struggle with anxiety, you can leverage these techniques and get your life back.

You are in control.

The information, opinions, and recommendations presented in this blog are for informational and educational purposes only and should not be considered professional, clinical, or medical advice.

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