In my last video, I shared my experience with stress and fear of going through my cave refresher course after being away from caves for several years. I’ve received a number of impactful comments and messages about other people’s experience with fear and scuba, so I’d like to use this video to share how I work with, and move through anxiety. We’ll be doing this while watching fun diving footage from a couple of cave dives in the Dos Palmas cenote in Mexico. These tips can be applied to any kind of diving or situation in which you are feeling anxious. Obviously, there are many ways of doing this, so take what works for you and leave the rest.

Diving with a stranger

This dive day presented a new experience for me, and a new stressor: diving with a stranger… in a cave. I was fresh out of my cave refresher and still working on my comfort of being in caves in general. Add in diving with a total stranger, and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. As we drove to the cenote, we went through the standard ‘get to know you’ questions, and I started to feel better about the situation. I knew he was a solid diver because my friends at Darkside Divers connected us for this dive day and I trust their judgement. As we spoke, it was clear he was experienced as a diver, and in the caves specifically. Also, he was kind and supportive to hear about my complicated feelings on cave diving. Those are all green flags in my book.

Let’s talk about fear in scuba diving

Despite what my content looks like, I actually have a long history with anxiety. I did not always have good tools to deal with my big feelings, and it has become one of my missions as a scuba instructor to help others with whatever fears come up with scuba diving.

I push myself to talk openly about the challenges I’ve experienced in this realm because I find that scuba divers are nervous about airing their mistakes, near misses, and accidents. There’s a lot of judgement and shame which keep stories locked away, ultimately doing a disservice to the community because we don’t get to learn from them. 

For example, this cave diving day: We did two dives that day. The first dive, we encountered a restriction I didn’t feel good about, so we changed our plan and went somewhere else. I could’ve forced it and gotten into something I was uncomfortable with, but instead I used that dive to gain confidence and when we went for the second dive, I was able to go through the restrictions with ease of mind. 

Why do we get anxious?

Anxiety springs from living in the future and stressing about things that *could* happen. In my experience with cave diving, I have these vivid visions of being trapped or lost in a cave. Worry and fear are normal, and typically good things because their primary purpose is to keep you alive. However, if you’re like me, allowing the worry to control your life would mean you don’t go out and do things that light you up. The mind’s cycle of worrying can only be broken with continuous conscientious training and effort.

Manageable nerves vs unmanageable anxiety

The main distinction that every diver needs to determine for themself is the difference between manageable nerves and high levels of anxiety that could lead to an accident. Each individual has to spend time within their minds to understand this difference because there’s no way for me as an instructor to quantify that for you. The test that I use is am I able to regulate my emotions and think clearly? For me, this doesn’t mean that I have to be able to reach a zen state for the entirety of a dive, but am I able to check in with myself when I’m feeling anxious, take some deep breaths and bring myself back into my skin?

Another important piece of information to understand about myself: how do I deal when things really hit the fan? The ability to stay level headed and respond when my clients or buddies are in danger is a combination of good training and experience as well as instinctual crisis management. 

I say this because I have seen good, strong divers completely freeze when faced with a scary situation and it’s not a simple response to train away. This is one of those things in diving that divers won’t know until it happens, so I recommend learning and practicing safety skills in order to give yourself the best upper hand in a situation.

The tools I use for facing anxiety in diving

I started building tools to manage my anxiety through a consistent yoga practice, and actually, getting sober and going to therapy expanded those tools and my ability to regulate emotions.

  • Preparation: If you feel like you are not sufficiently trained for the type of diving you are about to do, call in the professionals. Get with an instructor and work through skills or scenarios that cause you discomfort.
  • Team: Nerves can be lessened by diving with people you know and trust. However, I recommend staying away from “trust me” dives. “Trust me” dives are where you relinquish responsibility for the dive in some way. It’s a common thing less experienced divers do with their experienced buddies, and especially with Divemasters who are being paid to lead a dive. Even if you are going on a guided dive, you need to understand the plan, ask questions, do your dive checks, and be a good buddy.
  • Food/drink: Don’t drink alcohol the night before, and if possible, skip the coffee in the morning as well. It may also help to eat or not eat before a dive, depending on your body’s needs.
  • Visualization: I take myself on the dive before I even get into my suit. I may not know exactly what I’m going to encounter on the dive, but I can go through the dive prep and make a guess on what things are going to look like. If possible, I like to do this while stretching or simply taking some nice deep breaths.
  • Breathing: I extend the length of my exhalation in order to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Now, volume-wise this doesn’t mean that you exhale more than you inhale. You need to keep the inhales and exhales to more or less the same amount of air, but focus on changing the speed of releasing that air.
  • Focus point: I find that if I slow down my eye movement, I’m able to relax more. Find an area of the reef or cave and notice every little detail about it. This brings you into mindfulness of the present moment and it’s impossible to be anxious when you are fully in the moment.
  • Contact: This one might be a little weird, but I’ve found it to be soothing, so why not share it? The idea came from the fact that it always feels grounding to hold someone’s hand, so I started using gentle touch to calm myself. I take my right index and thumb and softly pinch the skin between my left index and thumb. The pressure gives me something physical to pay attention to and it keeps me in my body instead of floating away with whatever is going on around me.

Collect data points

When you can, take notes about your SAC rate. You could have that information readily available with transmitters and computers or you may need to calculate it from a steady portion of the dive. Track when you feel comfortable and what your SAC rate is vs what it is when you’re stressed. Don’t get obsessive about it, but it’s helpful information, especially for dive planning and thinking about contingencies.

In my situation here in the caves, this last dive was when I really noticed my SAC rate began to relax back to normal, so sometimes, it just takes some patience. There’s no need to berate yourself for being nervous, especially if it came from some kind of bad experience while diving. The important thing is to talk about it with your buddies and move through it so that you can get back to enjoying yourself in the water. 

Join me on upcoming Azul Unlimited dive expeditions

See what trips are coming up. I always give my community first dibs on spots, so you can sign up for Patreon (and get trip discounts) or my email list to be the first to know about new expeditions in the future.

scuba diving trip to los cabos
whale shark snorkel trip to la paz

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