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Fear: Diving phobias

Most people have at least one phobia and some can can be dangerous for you and your buddy. Know what triggers your fearand how to stay in control in spite of it 

Text by Madeline Ricchiuto

Photo: DavidFleetham.com

Photo: DavidFleetham.com

When you first hit the water, either taking the Great Leap off the back of a dive boat or rolling backward off a dinghy, that first moment is breathtaking. You are simultaneously awed by the experience and terrified by the simple logic of ‘I cannot breathe’even if you are currently breathing! For some people, that fear is an all-consuming vacuum of terror, something that forces them out of the water and maybe out of diving all together. It isn’t just a moment of fear, it is a constant shake under the skin that something is wrong, that something should not be, and the immediate response is to try and avoid it.

Of course, there are reasons why you wouldn’t, regardless of the instinctive urge to run.

Most divers feel anxious or afraid on their first open water dive, and at some point all divers will become all too aware of the inherent risks, of the dangers involved. For some, however, that first glorious dive is nothing short of a nightmare. You don’t always know just how terrified of something you will be until you plunge into it head first, and for divers with phobias, the conditions can blindside them.

Some may not even develop a phobia until much later in their diving career, and for them, perhaps it is far more painful. Wanting to avoid something you love is never a comfortable experience, and it’s even worse when you know that you used to enjoy it, because you feel that absence much more keenly.

Having been around some fearful divers and divers with phobias, I’ve seen a few behaviors that they tend to share: rapid breathing, stiffness in the shoulders, a tendency to bail out in the middle of a dive. The similarities don’t end there, however. The self-medicating behaviors can be similar as well.

Most Have a Phobia
For some background on what exactly constitutes a phobia, I consulted a renowned Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT), Dr.  Jack Almeleh. The basics are that phobias come in three types, with social phobia and agoraphobia being the two most likely to come paired with a case of panic disorder. Simple phobias, or irrational fears of an object or an animal, are quite common and quite easy to live with. If you just avoid the trigger object. That kind of life doesn’t suit everyone, though, and it certainly fails if you aren’t sure of your triggers.

It isn’t uncommon for claustrophobic people to find out that diving triggers the same fear response as being trapped in a tight space. Others may find that they are phobic of deep water and simply don’t know their limits until they hit the ocean. Since all certification programs involve skills practice in swimming pools before navigating the open ocean, that fear may only come into play on the day of your first certification dive. In fact, it may only impact your diving once you hit your first wall dive or get down to 70 feet (20m) for the first time. Or maybe your trigger is not being able to see the surface, and that depends on more than just depth. Visibility and weather conditions are a large part of that, and difficult to predict.

For most, this would signal the end to your diving career. It shouldn’t have to, but most don’t know how to overcome such an immense aversion. Even without including panic disorder, simple phobias are nothing to sneeze at. Most of us have at least one though, and the most common are claustrophobia, acrophobia (fear of heights) and animal phobias.

According to Dr. Almeleh, most people with simple phobias never get treatment because they just avoid the things that make them phobic. A lot of times, the only ones who come in for therapy are people who have to move for a job and discover they have a fear of flying. Or, like a former patient, who moved to a place where her ‘triggers’ were all around. This woman was petrified at the sight of pigeons and found it difficult to live in a city like New York with the birds a constant presence. While diving is not something a person must do in most circumstances, there are exceptions.

Keep your focus where it needs to be, not on possible ways you might die.

Steven is an example. He found that diving under any conditions except those of the shallow, clear waters of Caribbean reefs elicited the same fear response as his much more manageable claustrophobia. With two children as avid divers he was uncomfortable sending them off on their own, so he remained in the sport, ensuring family dives were planned for shallow tropical sites. One happy medium the family eventually found was aquarium diving, where they could experience sharks, turtles and rays in a one-tank diving experience. Although an enclosed environment, the concentration of aquatic life in the tanks was unparalleled in the wild, and the conditions overall were agreeable in relation to his own condition.

There are other divers like Karen, who start diving to get over their phobias. While it’s generally inadvisable to jump straight into the water, the training process for dive certifications – with its education, safety, and pool sessions – mirrors one common treatment of phobias, which is the process of systematic desensitization. A psychotherapist would go about this by gradually introducing the trigger objects to their patients, working their way up to the full thing. This would likely be started with images, then onto objects, slowly getting closer in scope to the full trigger, stepping up slowly. Another alternative is hypnosis, which works on mental rehearsal and seeks to correct the negative thought processes behind the phobia. Systematic desensitization mostly works by changing the associations with the fear object.

Photo: DavidFleetham.com

Photo: DavidFleetham.com

Of course, if you discover diving to be a trigger after your training, that method is probably not going to help you with your phobia.

Dr. Almeleh, while a prodigious Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, does not practice systematic desensitization with his patients. Most of the individuals who seek his help suffer from agoraphobia or social phobias, not simple phobias. He has found, through years of practice, that hypnosis “works as well, if not better” than desensitization therapy, because it helps correct the thought processes that led to the phobia in the first place. “The first step is education,” he said. “Learn about your phobic object, what makes it scary to you, and how it can hurt you.” And from there, he says, you can start the process of recalibrating your cognitions.

Stories like Karen’s do make for good inspiration to the fearful-but-not-phobic among us. And there are many other divers like her. A simple Google search comes up with a slew of blogs dedicated to getting over a fear by SCUBA diving. 

For the non-phobic, those behaviors and actions outlined in therapy can be repurposed and can help us deal with a more rational nervousness and fear. The simplest, of course, is exposure. The more you dive, the less terrifying it is. Beyond that, perhaps you learn not to dive in situations that make you uncomfortable.

Hypnosis exercises might help you calm your nerves before a dive, and help you burn through less air on a dive. They will definitely help you keep your focus where it needs to be, on yourself and your partner, on the dive at hand. Not on the ‘what ifs’ and the possible ways you might die.

Diving to get over phobias mirrors the common treatment process of systematic desensitization.

Other relaxation techniques can be helpful but if they don’t work, it’s better to bring out the big guns rather than dive despite your anxiety.

Divers of all comfort levels, from the terrified to the slightly nervous, are a danger to themselves and their dive buddies. There’s no real debate on this. Any diver more concerned about his or her fears than personal safety is a liability. According to DAN, one out of 211,864 dives results in a fatality. The number may not be all that high – more divers are killed in car crashes every year – but it’s noteworthy that the most common causes of fatal incidents are pre-existing conditions, poor buoyancy control and rapid movement/ascent.

We readily understand that both poor buoyancy control and rapid movements would likely occur during a panic attack or for a diver confronting his or her fears. It’s a lot harder to manage buoyancy while hyperventilating and as for a rapid ascent, the instinctive reaction to phobias is to avoid the thing causing distress, so a panicking diver is likely to ascend far too rapidly.

While it’s easy to say that you should know and respect your limits to maintain control, buoyancy and otherwise, and to avoid a potentially dangerous rapid ascent, the reality is that if you aren’t aware of your limits to begin with, there’s a good chance fear will prove hazardous to your health, even deadly.

It does not need to be, however. If you, or someone you know, suffers from a phobia, especially one that’s diving related, it’s best to seek professional help. At the very least, let everyone you plan to dive with be aware of your condition so they are not blindsided by a phobia-induced behavior. It’s never a good idea to abandon a dive without letting your partner know, and if your group is aware of your specific triggers, they can help you manage them and make sure that you don’t get into a dive that’s beyond your comfort zone. 

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6 Responses to “Fear: Diving phobias”

  1. Tim Duggan
    25/08/2014 at 9:53 pm #

    Hello. Found this article VERY informative.

    I SCUBA certified in 2005 pool “dives” and training in the Washington, D.D. area…did my ‘OW’ final certification in Hawai’i.

    WHEN I did the ‘OW’ certification, I found that (at 60 feet) I felt a bit “panicky”…the Regulator allows only so much breathing, and when fighting a current, on the bottom (when demonstrating the removal and re-applying of the BCD (etc) it can result in a bit of exertion. (This led to a slight lack of breathing composure….where I felt out-of-breath. NOT a great feeling, underwater!!) I found that my regulator did not meet my breathing requirements.

    This (I think) has led to a bit of intimidation, in OW dives.

    Any ideas??

    Thanks!!

    Tim Duggan

  2. Caro Dinter
    05/11/2014 at 1:28 am #

    Like this article a lot! It describes in a very good way how I felt during my first time “breathing under water”.

    Last year I met a guy in Bali/Indonesia. It was a lot of fun diving with him and I felt very save. He´s also an expert in special scuba education for people with fears about scuba diving in Amed/Bali. Get in touch with him: NoFearDiving.com

  3. teresa
    06/11/2014 at 10:24 am #

    well….im kinda still scared

  4. Patris
    09/01/2016 at 5:15 pm #

    Hi All,
    I just completed the online training for scuba and passed the close pool exercises except for the mask clearing and removal. Several years ago I had a near incident in drowning and this resurfaced during the mask exercise. My poor husband paid for both of us to do this together and I piked out! I tried several times and to be honest wearing contacts was also a distraction. To top it off the wetsuit was a size too big so I was shivering teeth were chattering. to epic fail. That night I looked up youtube to observe mask clearing and wish I had done so before day 2 anyway Ive walked about from scuba misses a few hundred dollars in my pocket. Im sticking to skiing 🙂 but I dont like failing and just want to get my cert to say that I could do it.

    • Tracy Searles
      17/01/2016 at 5:01 pm #

      I am afraid because I have claustrophobia – I have been a flight attendant for 35 years and have skillfully forgotten about it while seated in the last row by the window (where the engine is). If I think about it I would hyperventilate. Once in the Pyramids in Egypt I hyperventilated with claustrephobia and the first time I went on a dive in Turks I freaked out at the stabilizing 3 minute point on the way down and calmed myself, made the dive and focused on the coral and fish and enjoyed it immensely – when I came to the top we had to sit on our BCD’s and then put them back on again and I could not – out of breath. The instructor said that I was tired and after lunch in 2 hours for the 2nd dive I could do the drills first and I said No Thank you and did not dive again – this was 2 years ago and now I am going to Turks again and I am going to do the online E-Padi course and pool course this week – I am hesitant. I am thinking – just take the e-course, go to the pool this week with the dive shop and go and see if I can do it. Any advice? Afraid of heights too but not as bad as the clausterphobia.
      Your comments are appreciate d.

  5. Jim
    22/09/2016 at 2:43 pm #

    I trained in a pool, first OW in aquarium, and final in lake in CO. I had no idea what I was in for when I rolled over the dinghy off the coast of the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic. I mean, I recognized the anxiety, but trusted my training and my partner. Ends up, I couldn’t regain control of my breathing enough to remember that confidence in my training and partner after I was in the open water. With much disappointment, I sent my buddy down with the dive master, and returned to the dinghy.

    We’re heading to Cancun next month, and I’m going to give it another go. I’m recognizing my fear for what it is, and am clearly communicating my situation to dive companies as I attempt to land on one in these final weeks approaching the dive (and hopefully, dives).

    I will overcome this new fear of mine!

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