Dive Panic: Why it Happens and How to Prevent it.

I am not a detective and I do not want to suggest what has been the cause of historical and recent Extended Range diving incidents. However, the interesting common denominator is that the cause of death often remains unknown since the diver fails to surface. When I hear of such incidents it prompts me to examine and share with the diving community one topic that is simply impossible to ignore: dive panic and stress. I can assure you, with no doubt, that each diver that has failed to rejoin us experienced stress on their last fatal dive.

What is stress?

Stress is an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil. It is a normal human emotion we all experience when we face threatening or difficult situations.
  • Fear is a response to a real or perceived immediate threat.
  • Stress is the expectation of future threat.
Stress is associated with the secretion of adrenalin and it can help us avoid dangerous situations or get out of them. It can make us alert and it can spur us to deal with a threat or other problem and not simply avoid it (i.e. the "fight or flight" reaction). However, if feelings of foreboding become too strong or last too long, they can hold us back from many normal activities and have debilitating outcomes.

What is panic?

  • Panic is a more intense form of stress - a sudden, unexpected but powerful surge of fear.
Panic can cause a wholesale flight from the immediate situation, a reaction that is especially dangerous for decompression divers. An Extended Range (XR) diver who experiences panic at depth is subject to near-drowning, lung over-expansion injuries, decompression sickness, and death. Panic attacks are extremely dangerous underwater, and sometimes it is difficult to know what triggers them. Out of the millions of certified XR divers, a percentage of those will die each year, but little is known about the precipitating events for many of these deaths. A coroner’s report of "drowning" tells us nothing about what led to, or caused a diver’s death. Reports by DAN (Divers Alert Network) and other agencies into scuba diving accidents state that: "Researchers in diving accidents implicate panic, as a response to stress or anxiety as the major cause of diving fatalities" In Medical Examination of Sport Scuba Divers (1998), Alfred Bove states: "Panic, or ineffective behavior in the emergency situation when fear is present, is the single biggest killer of sports divers". In 1998 the Recreational Scuba Training Council (RSTC) guideline for the Recreational Scuba Divers physical examination listed "a history of panic disorder" as an absolute contradiction to any form of scuba diving. However, we must be very clear that there is no way to determine that panic in accidents does result in fatalities. This is merely an assumption based on knowledge of the psychological and behavioral responses that people make to stress. What we do know is that many people feel stress before a dive especially when they are starting out on their more advanced XR diving journey. READ MORE: HOW TO OVERCOME DIVE ANXIETY – PART 1.  

Types of dive panic.

1. Intense panic.

The essential feature of a panic attack is a period of intense fear that is accompanied by a sense of imminent danger and an urge to escape, or a desire to flee from wherever the attack is coming from. An expected result of a dive panic attack would be that the diver’s breathing rate increases, thereby resulting in decreased efficiency or oxygen exchange, and a feeling of suffocation ensues. The diver would then typically try to make a rapid ascent to the surface or departure from a certain location or frantically grabs for air supplies and lack of concern for the safety of others. Very problematic if there is a decompression obligation or if they are in an overhead environment.

2. Passive panic.

Another way that panic can show itself is what we call passive panic. These divers are perceived as calm, they will sink, and perish without a call for help. The buddies of these divers thought their associates were non-stressed and normal. Recognizing this form of dive panic is very difficult. The victims show no outward signs of any difficulty but most will have "blank eyes". Underwater they may lose their regulator and not try to replace it. They will not try to save themselves. Typically, a passive victim will seem confused, or vague and then slip underwater. It is the diver’s total inability to look after themselves and willingness to sink that appears in most case studies. READ MORE: 15 ESSENTIAL SAFETY TIPS FOR DIVERS.  

Why does dive panic occur?

Either way, the dive panic manifests itself, it arises when individuals lack a solution to a critical problem. Sometimes, experienced divers with hundreds of logged dives also experience dive panic for outwardly no clear reason. Dive panic most likely occurs because divers lose sight of familiar objects, become disoriented and experience a form of sensory deprivation. The likelihood of a victim of dive panic coping with any situation is slim to none: In the study of divers’ deaths, many still had a form of a weight system in place, the mouthpiece from the regulator or breathing loop had been removed, wings or buoyancy compensators were not inflated, and there was still breathing gas available. This all suggests panic.

Preventing dive panic – the importance of training.

One goal of all scuba diving agencies at all diving levels is to provide the diver with solutions that should become automatic behaviors. Training builds your diving confidence - nobody can argue this point. Years of research and tried and tested techniques have gone into the creation of today’s diving programs. Modern-day XR training has been specifically designed to ease stress and slowly build upon skills to a point where divers are ready to increase depths, penetration distances or decompression obligations. Organizations, such as SSI, have skills and procedures that divers must learn in sequence – these standards are adhered to by SSI Instructors worldwide. Studying theory, watching videos, and learning skills in confined water is followed by practicing in the open water with your instructor. This is a key learning philosophy that SSI applies to all levels of training. For divers training in XR programs, their basic diving skills should be habitual. This is essential now that they will be entering a world where sometimes to "go up" is simply not an option. Decompression diving throws into the equation even more potential stress situations that need to be trained for and managed well. The SSI training philosophy allows the diver to slowly develop at their own pace – only progressing when comfortable with each section. GO BEYOND – BECOME AN SSI EXTENDED RANGE DIVER.  

Reducing stress and dive panic.

The fact of the matter is that XR diving has inherent risks that simply cannot be removed. However, we can prepare ourselves and reduce the chances of stress and dive panic by:
  • Participating in training programs.
  • Gaining experience by diving regularly.
  • Respecting our limitations.
  • Gradually increasing the complexity of our dives.
Stress is also an emotional factor that cannot be eliminated from human psychology. However, there are ways in which we can have better control over stress. We can develop an awareness of where, when, and how stress can occur, so we can keep a good handle on it. The underwater world can be as unpredictable as it is amazing, this is what keeps drawing us back to it. Dive safe everybody.

Be Prepared with SSI Diver Stress & Rescue.

Would you like to know what to do if your buddy is in trouble or has a panic attack? The SSI Diver Stress & Rescue course prepares you for all situations. EXPLORE MORE: 9 REMOTE DIVE SPOTS. Always try to dive in peace. A rope gives security Stress can lead to serious injuries