Panic Attacks Underwater

What is a panic? 

Based on my personal, informal research, I’ve noticed that many of dive masters or diving instructors actually have had no experiences of panic attacks on land or underwater. Everyone seems have an experience of slight nervousness, anxiety or a bit of fear. But never a panic attack. I am no expert on diving but I happen to be somewhat experienced in anxiety and panic, which is the reason why I’ve practiced yoga for more than 15 years (more on that later). 

According to SSI and PADI, panic is defined as a situation in which any stress factors accumulating to the point of losing control and the whole thing becomes unmanageable for a diver. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, panic is defined as “sudden overpowering fright, a sudden unreasoning terror often accompanied by mass flight.” It is absolutely irrational and completely uncontrollable when panic shows up. Even though our instructors or dive masters are highly skilled and experienced and no matter how much they emphasise that what we experience in panic is irrational, when it arises, it is just uncontrollable. And this is the part that instructors and guides seem to have a hard time understanding. Let me just tell you. I have dealt with anxiety and panic all my life from childhood severe claustrophobia to adulthood every day anxiety. On land, I managed to have a grip of things and I know where to turn to when it shows up. But underwater, I’m still very inexperienced. During the panic, people do absolutely irrational, unthinkable things that range from tunnel vision to fast breathing and diving instructors’ or dive masters’ jobs is to stay calm, protect themselves and their divers. It is a tremendous task to be bestowed upon and if you’re the guide or an instructor, you’d learn ways to deal with panic divers from experiences and guidance. But what they may not talk about is what to do after the panic dive.

Hash it out

Whether on land or underwater, it’s extremely important that we talk about this. Merely being told that “everything is fine” or “with experience, you’d get better” may not be enough. If a diver is prone to anxiety in general, they may need more than just a little pep talk. They need for you to be empathic, not sympathetic. I realise the French definition of being sympathetic is different than the English one. So this might be of help. Once we understand what it means to be empathic to those who have had a panic attack, then we’re on the right track. Remember, right after the panic experience, we’re not asking for solutions or what to do next time it happens. All we want is for you to understand what it feels, breathe together and sit with us. That’s it. The next step comes after this empathic connection. This is where the practice of Tapas can be introduced. 

Tapas ~ Practice of Patience

Tapas is a concept of the practice in the ancient book of Yoga called the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. It is a practice rooted in the idea of sitting in the fire of feelings. Tapas guides us during the peak of any feelings, be it anger, anxiety, full on panic, distress, or even happiness and joy, to be fully absorbed in the feelings, detached from the stories we create in our heads and thereby coming to the neutrality of such feelings. 

Let me simplify. 

When you start to feel a little nervous, notice those feelings even if they suddenly turn into full on panic. Do not focus on stories like “I’m fully underwater” or “I can’t do this anymore” or “the current, the current, the current!” But rather, feel the panic, feel the nervousness. Where do you feel in your body? Do you feel tightness in your chest? Do you feel stomach slightly light? What do you see around you? Do you feel the heartbeat? Stick to the factual observations, not stories. As we feel the panic, the more we try to suppress it, the more nervous we get. So observe your panic 100% without being carried away with it.

At this point, you have a choice: to avert the situation entirely and let panic control your mind and body to ascend fast, which would end up disastrous to be sure, or stay with your physical sensations or feelings and make the first rational move, breathe. Simply stopping and breathing activate our parasympathetic nervous system that allows us the opportunity to relax and make the safe next move. Take all the time you need to stop and breathe. There is no rush. 

This simple process is extremely important. It is ok to feel panicky, nervous or anxious. It’s important to understand that there is no problem with panic. What matters is what you do with it. 

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