What can you do to help a friend or a dive buddy who experiences anxiety? Chloe from The Scuba Place shares her personal experience dealing with anxiety in and out of the water.
Lockdown is nearly over! None of us knew how long it would last, what to expect or what to do. Throughout lockdown, we’ve been restricted from working, socialising, doing what we love, seeing who we love and so much more. The long-term restriction has affected some more than others and has taken a toll on the mental health of many. I feel it’s important to discuss this so we can better understand how lockdown has affected people not just physically and socially, but mentally, so that when the time comes, we’ll be ready to get back into diving safely. To that point, I would like to share my struggles and experiences with my mental health in and out of the water, so others can learn and become more aware.
One aspect of mental health I want to address in particular is anxiety. Anxiety affects everyone, even though you may not realise it! Anxiety can include feelings of nausea, lack of motivation, becoming lazy or over-active, shutting down, or acting fidgety, over thinking situations or feelings of underachievement, and many many more symptoms. I personally don’t like to define the term anxiety, because I don’t believe there is one specific definition. What we need to take notice of, is that if any of these thoughts start to feel like they can’t be controlled, it can lead to a panic attack. Panic attacks can be life threatening, especially under water, so it’s important we learn more about what to do if it happens. I personally struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, which can be quite difficult, especially when you’re a diver. I thought I would share some mishaps I’ve had in the past, how I overcame them, and how having a buddy who’s aware can reduce stress and danger.
For me, I couldn’t tell you why I am anxious 70% of the time, and that is extremely frustrating. Not knowing where these emotions are coming from is particularly overwhelming for me, and I often work myself up into a panic attack. Over time, I have learnt to accept my anxiety, acknowledge it’s there, and use some coping mechanisms to help although, I haven’t perfected this yet! There are certainly times where I can’t tell myself I’ll be ok in ten minutes, an hour or tomorrow. The feelings can be constant and intense, but I’m learning that it’s ok. Everyone can experience some form of anxiety, and it is normal. For the other 30% of the time, not knowing an outcome can get my anxiety rocketing! So, for someone who isn’t the most experienced diver, I tend to feel sick to my stomach before and during a dive trip – and I promise it’s not the sea sickness, not all of it anyway!
As I mentioned previously, anxiety can be different for everyone, but by sharing how it manifests for me, I hope others can learn more about it, and others who experience anxiety can feel comfortable talking about it. As I’ve not known what causes most of my anxiety, it’s been difficult to pinpoint triggers, but after some time I’ve established that anticipation can be really hard for me. All the build-up to a dive; waking up in the morning, making sure I’m eating enough for breakfast, getting dive kit on the boat, the dive briefing, travelling to the dive site, kitting up and pre-dive safety checks. It can be a lot of waiting and anticipating. Anticipation kills me and I have no idea why. Let me share an experience from my last diving trip. We were lucky enough to go to Grenada in October 2020. I hadn’t been diving for three years, and in all honesty, I was crapping myself. I knew I would be anxious to go diving again because I wanted to make sure I could remember how to dive well, and safely. My biggest fear was putting anyone else at risk, and I think this made me overthink so much. My anxiety was already on board the plane to Grenada before I was!
Luckily, my dad had a conversation with my instructor the day before our first dive to let him know about my anxious tendencies and my panic attacks. I didn’t feel as though I could say anything myself, and I felt a bit embarrassed to talk about it. Looking back on it now, that seems silly. Nonetheless, if you feel as though you can’t speak to your buddy or instructor yourself, it’s perfectly ok for someone who knows to talk to them for you. I know for a fact it made me feel a lot more comfortable straight away. When the morning came for our first day of diving, I was agitated, fidgety, very quiet and I felt sick. However, I did want to go diving. I have such amazing memories from my previous experiences, I knew it was just my brain telling me nonsense through anxiety. But with that first giant stride, my anxiety was literally washed away! I felt all the wonderful emotions that I had on my first ever dive, and every dive since!
It’s certainly important to take the small wins with anxiety to help you when you can’t seem to shake it. For example, the first day of diving in Grenada was a good day for me. Granted, I felt dreadful all morning, but as soon as I hit the water, I was fine. So, how do I deal with my anxiety when it doesn’t disappear, or panic creeps up on me in the water? If you’re a Rescue Diver, you’ll remember that PADI advise an anxious diver to Stop, Think and then Act. This is done through communicating with your buddy, signalling, and then slowing down or stopping until the feeling subsides. This is great advice! Great communication with a buddy massively helps an anxious diver and is another reason why your buddy should be informed if you tend to get anxious during diving. I want to take PADI’s advice a bit further and share what helps for me.
Unfortunately, I have had anxious moments underwater that have led to panic attacks, but how my buddy(s) dealt with it saved us from being in any serious danger. When I feel a panic attack coming on, its sudden and immediate, and the massive wave of anxiety scares me so much I go into a panic. When underwater, I tap my buddy, if they haven’t noticed first, and tell them there’s a problem, and signal it’s my anxiety and I can’t control it. What has helped me best is when my buddy signals if it’s ok to put their hand on my arm – sometimes I welcome a physical touch, other times I feel claustrophobic and want as much space as possible – and look into my eyes. Then with a signal to take slow, deep breaths, we do this together. After a minute, I decide if I feel well enough to continue the dive. Most of the time this is the case, and we continue the dive but if I can’t control my breathing, we end the dive. It’s as simple as that. We get to the surface as quickly and safely as we can (including the safety stop, I must force myself through this) and I have help removing all my kit on the surface. I can feel trapped when I have a panic attack, so I’ve learned that removing my kit helps a lot. If I still can’t control my breathing, I have been lifted onto the boat and I lie down until I can calm down. Having my buddy next to me and reassuring me it’s ok really helps! The one thing I appreciate most when I’m anxious is acceptance. Having someone next to me telling me what’s happening is ok can be so helpful. So much more helpful than someone who is freaking out about what they need to do to help. For me, I typically need space, reassurance, and water when I’ve calmed down.
I hope sharing my experiences, and how I deal with my anxiety, helps you or someone you know feel more comfortable when dealing with anxiety. If you get feelings like me, I hope you’ll now feel more comfortable talking about it. If you have a dive buddy who gets anxious, I hope this gives you a little insight on what you could do to help. Make sure you ask them about their anxiety, what triggers them and what helps them. Everyone is different! As we build up to a dive, many people have feelings of nervousness, fear, or apprehension. Is this what we call anxiety? However you take it, these feelings are completely normal and I’ll say this over and over again!
It’s become my mantra because as an anxious person, I worry so much about affecting other people with my anxiety. I hate slowing down a dive because I feel wobbly, I hate having to end a dive because I’m panicking for an unknown reason. These thoughts will stay with me for the rest of the day and into the night because I feel so guilty. Yet, it happens! It happens to a lot of people and the more we say it is ok, the less people will feel isolated, guilty for having normal emotions, or that they can’t talk about their feelings.
When we scuba dive, we are literally jumping into a new world, an alien environment. It is so important to remember that we aren’t built to breathe underwater, so the concept of doing so may throw our brains sideways a bit! Anxiety can be different for every person and that’s why it’s so important to share your feelings with your buddy, instructor, and others. Anxiety is normal, and it’s perfectly ok! Everyone experiences it and the best thing we can do is talk about it and educate people. We can then be more aware so we can help those who need it. But remember, even if your buddy isn’t an anxious diver, always check up on them, because a great buddy relationship makes for even better divers.