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Whether you’re going for your first dive or your fiftieth, it’s normal to be nervous. While scuba diving is a generally safe activity, the experience of being out of our natural element and surrounded by water gives many people a feeling of panic. For some, it’s enough to keep them out of the water completely.
If you’re scared of scuba diving, here are a few things you can do to enter the water confident, calm, and prepared.
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…But first, you need to know how fear works
Fear is our body’s response to perceived danger. Some of these threats are real and keep us from harming ourselves — like the fear of driving too fast or putting our hand close to fire, but many are irrational. This fear triggers a physiological response like a rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, an upset stomach, and a general feeling of discomfort. The easiest way to avoid feeling this fear is to avoid what we’re afraid of altogether. When we avoid the thing that we’re afraid of, our brain rewards us with feel-good neurotransmitters. This validates our irrational fear, making it worse.
The longer we avoid something, the more afraid we tend to become.
Realize how powerful your imagination is
Since vision is the dominant sense for most of us, we often fear the things we can’t see. This is why so many people are afraid of the dark and why we were often too scared to look under our beds as kids. When we can’t see something, we use our imagination to fill in the blank space. For those who are afraid of the ocean in general, they imagine loud noises and tooth-laden monsters.
As you’ve grown up, you’ve looked under your bed hundreds of times, and have confirmed that there are in fact no monsters underneath it — aside from an odd dust bunny or two. We might have a small initial fear of looking under the bed thanks to our childhood, but most of us could still take a peek under it without it being a big deal. Many of us do it whenever we leave a hotel room and whenever we’ve misplaced our favorite shirt!
When you’re only exposed to negative media like Jaws or 47 Meters Down, it’s easy to conjure scary images of the sea. In reality, scuba diving is very peaceful. Since you are neutrally buoyant, it’s calming to feel weightless and the only thing you’ll be listening to is the sound of your breath. Sea creatures are typically shy, and it’s mesmerizing to watch them go about their day as you float on by.
Exposure, exposure, exposure
Exposure therapy is one of the most effective strategies for overcoming fear. Fear thrives on us giving into what it wants. If we avoid what we’re afraid of, we’ll never get to a point where we’re not afraid anymore.
Anxiety British Colombia Canada says, “Exposure involves gradually and repeatedly going into feared situations until you feel less anxious. Exposure is not dangerous and will not make the fear worse. And after a while, your anxiety will naturally lessen.”
Start small and immerse yourself in water as much as you can. First, get comfortable with putting your legs in the water, swimming in a pool, wading in the ocean, snorkelling, and finally, enrolling in a Discover Scuba Diving course. Do baby steps that allow you to feel a small amount of anxiety, and then once that is overcome, move onto a more challenging step.
If you’re already certified, it’s important to not let too much time go between dives to keep those positive feelings about diving at the forefront of your mind.
Learn calming strategies, mantras, and meditation
Did you know that equipment failure is not the main cause of scuba diving accidents? Most accidents are caused by panic. The feeling of panic causes us to act irrationally and that is the source of the accident, not the trigger. For example, there are divers who’ve shot to the surface because they’re afraid of clearing their mask.
A diver might panic over something that’s completely fixable or preventable. Practice clearing your mask, putting your regulator in and out of your mouth, recovering a fin or swimming with a fin over and over until you can do each of these panic-inducing skills without worry. All of these skills can be practiced easily in a pool. For skills you can’t do in a pool, research the procedure (lost buddy, out of air, low on air, etc), visualize yourself overcoming obstacles that could happen during a dive until you can think of the steps to get out of them calmly.
There’s a reason that some of the world’s top athletes rely heavily on meditation and mantras. They know that panic can cause them to make mistakes and think irrationally.
This is where calming strategies, mantras, and meditation come in. Take a look at these mindfulness strategies and download an app like Headspace to learn how to meditate. These will help you become used to controlling your mind and your fear, allowing you to think your way out of diving situations. Mantras also help reframe the way you think about something you associate as negative.
Take a refresher course or do a few pool dives
Knowledge is our most powerful asset in scuba diving! Once we know what to do in any given situation and the role that each of our piece of equipment plays, we can fare much better.
Enroll in a refresher course if you’ve been out of the dive scene for more than a few months. And if you’re one to say, “Well, it’s too expensive!” Realize that forgoing the cost of the course is not worth the mental anguish and potentially dangerous situation you could put yourself in. Scuba diving is not a hobby that you should pinch pennies on — save on hotel rooms, clothes, restaurants, or literally anything else but scuba diving.
Tell your dive guide that you’re nervous
If you’re nervous, there’s no need to hide it. Tell your dive guide that you’re nervous beforehand and ask if they can keep a closer eye on you than they might otherwise. Sometimes, just verbalizing what we are feeling helps relieve some of the tension.
Dive at sites ideal for beginners
Would you go out and run a marathon if you’ve never even trained for a 5k? Most likely not. While the ocean is variable and changes with the weather, wildlife, and currents, there are dive sites that are known for being good for beginners.
Look for dive sites that have:
Little to no current
A depth not greater than 20m
Don’t focus on the wildlife or aesthetic aspect of the site. If you’re a beginner diver, simply being underwater will be a great experience in itself.
Learn to check gear yourself
Don’t blindly trust the gear that dive shops provide. Always follow the “BWRAF” buddy check, even when the old salty men sitting spread-legged in their Speedoes scoff at it. If your gauge needle bounces, you hear a loud hiss after turning your tank on, your air smells funky, your weightbelt is loose, your buckles don’t close properly, or your BCD inflates/deflates on it own, demand a gear swap.
You are your own advocate in scuba diving. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
Dive with additional safety gear
Invest in extra dive gear to help you feel more confident during your dive. A dive knife can help you if you ever get entangled, and a SMB will help alert others should you lose your guide and need to surface outside of the dive plan. These items are relatively inexpensive and could mean the different between feeling prepared versus anxious during a dive.
It’s okay to have good days and bad days
Some days, you might be more afraid than others. That’s okay! Just because you’ve avoided diving on one day does not mean that you’ll be afraid forever. Our feelings are like the weather where we can have a storm one day and a cloudless sky the next.
Acknowledge your achievements
Whenever you make progress in facing your fear, reward yourself! Do something you love, tell your scuba-loving friends, and acknowledge how far you’ve come. No matter if it’s taking a swimming lesson, setting up your gear five times in a row, or blowing bubbles in the pool, you deserve a high-five for your efforts! Facing our fears is no easy task — and will make you so much stronger in the long run.
These strategies can help with fear in everyday life, not just scuba diving. If you can overcome your fear of the sea, you can likely overcome the fear of anything.
Are you afraid of diving? What strategies do you use to keep yourself calm before a dive?