Panic Underwater and How to Deal with it

Panicking while underwater is extremely dangerous. Luckily, scuba divers undergo extensive training to prevent, identify, and respond to panic, significantly reducing the risk.

In this article I dive deep into this topic, exploring risk factors, strategies, and common questions about underwater panic.

Can You Dive if You Have Anxiety?

The short answer is yes, you can dive if you have anxiety. However, this has not always been the case, and divers with a history of anxiety and panic disorders should ensure that they are engaged in effective treatment before attempting to dive.

Panic disorders used to be considered a medical condition that would automatically disqualify people from scuba diving. In 2001, however, this condition was modified to untreated panic disorders, recognizing the positive effect that mental health treatment can have on individuals with anxiety, and how this leads to safer diving experiences.

Why Do Divers Panic?

People with anxiety and panic disorders know that it can hit you at any time, often without warning. However, panic can also be triggered by specific things. In the context of diving, there are a few situational triggers that can cause a diver to panic.

First of all, inexperienced divers, especially those embarking on their first dive after completing their open water certification, are more likely to panic. As divers gain experience, the risk of panicking decreases.

Of course, even experienced divers can have anxiety or panic attacks. However, these are still typically triggered by unfamiliar or novel situations, such as new equipment or an unfamiliar dive location. Also, attempting a dive that is outside of someone’s experience level can make them more anxious as well.

Additionally, bad weather, limited visibility, high currents, losing sight of your diving buddy, and encountering a threatening marine animal can all trigger anxiety and panic as well.

Because of these factors, it is important for divers to always know their own limits, never attempt dives that are outside their comfort level, and train themselves on how to respond to panic safely. Divers should also always feel free to cancel or postpone a dive if conditions are less than optimal and should make sure that they fully understand the dive brief before starting out.

Signs of a Panicked Diver

The signs of a panicked diver are the same as general anxiety symptoms. Typically, a person experiencing panic will:

  • Have the sensation that they cannot breathe properly, and/or take very shallow, rapid breaths, sometimes hyperventilating
  • Experience their heart rate increasing or becoming irregular, and may feel an intense weight or heaviness in their chest
  • Feel sick to their stomach, nausea and digestive issues
  • Shake uncontrollably, similar to intense shivering
  • Have altered mood states, feeling intense fear, anxiety, or irritability

People experiencing a panic attack may show any range of these symptoms or even none of them, but these are typical. However, divers show a couple of unique signs of panic:

  • Their irregular breathing is often noticeable by other divers because of the appearance of their air bubbles
  • They may experience ‘tunnel vision’, which means that they have a hard time finding or following their guideline
  • Because of the fight-or-flight response, it is common for divers to attempt an uncontrolled ascent to the surface

diver meeting marine animal

Who is Most at Risk of Panic Attacks While Scuba Diving?

As you might expect, individuals with an established history of anxiety and panic attacks are at higher risk of experiencing panic while diving.

Among those, research shows that women are more likely than men (37% vs. 24%) to experience a panic attack while scuba diving.

As mentioned above, this can be successfully mitigated by effective mental health treatment through therapy and medication.

Of course, anyone can experience panic at any time. Especially to new divers, underwater environment can be scary, and you never know what might send your body into panic mode. This is why training is so important.

How to Deal With a Panicked Diver

If you notice that your diving partner appears to be freaking out while on your dive, there are a few things you can do.

First of all, you should be aware of and be able to identify the signs of panic, which I covered earlier. These can be difficult to observe underwater with all of the equipment involved, however, you should pay attention to your partner and look out for the following:

If you suspect that your buddy is having a panic attack, you should first try to approach them calmly. You do not want to rush over to them, which could escalate their panic and make the situation even more unsafe.

The most important thing you can do is to remain calm yourself, as this will help your friend regulate themselves as well. You should try to maintain reassuring eye contact and model deep, slow breaths for them.

You should check to make sure there is no real threat – such as equipment failure or other danger. You should try to use hand signals to communicate with your friend and understand what is going on.

If it looks like your partner is not recovering control over their body or emotions, then you should try to help them ascend back up to the surface. You should attempt to get them to ascend slowly and safely so they do not move too quickly, which can cause decompression illness.

Keep in mind that while assisting a panicked diver, your safety is also important. Sometimes, people experiencing panic can lash out and might end up endangering you in the process. If you are unable to assist them for whatever reason, you should safely ascend and address the situation from the surface.

Can You Take Xanax Before a Dive?

Even though Xanax is a popular medication used to treat anxiety and panic, it is not safe to take it before a dive. This is because it often produces sedative effects and can slow your movements and reaction time, which can be dangerous while diving.

So How Do You Avoid Scuba Diver Panic?

The best way to avoid panic while scuba diving is to train, know your limits, practice appropriate, safe responses to underwater anxiety, and always dive with a partner. Panic is always a risk, so the best thing you can do is to know how to address it when it comes up.