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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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March 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 41, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Stop Panic Before It Starts Underwater

simple exercises every diver should do

from the March, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Experienced divers are, for the most part, calm and collected, but there can be an unknown kernel of fear lurking inside that can explode if the situation underwater takes a turn. That's known as panic -- going from cucumber-cool to out of control. Though new divers are more apt to panic, experienced divers are also at risk of doing the same should a dive go awry.

Some divers are more susceptible to panic than others because they have higher anxiety levels. A 2000 study by David Colvard, a psychiatrist and divemaster who researches dive panic, found that 45 percent of men and 57 percent of women with a history of panic attacks reported panicking on one or more dives, compared to 19 percent of men and 33 percent of women who had never panicked before. They are more likely to panic when faced with a flooded mask, poor visibility or buddy separation. Even experienced divers with hundreds of dives experience panic for no apparent reason, most likely because they lose sight of familiar objects, become disoriented and experience sensory deprivation. So how can divers learn how to prevent panic before it even starts? It's all in how you breathe, Colvard says.

How can divers learn how to prevent
panic before it even starts?
It's all in how you breathe.

He came to that conclusion years back when a dive shop in his hometown of Raleigh, NC, asked him to help a woman who had had a bad dive experience in Mexico and was headed to Hawaii for her honeymoon. She wanted to dive with her husband, but was apprehensive about it. "I said I would help, but I first had to figure out what to do," he said. He couldn't find any good information about easing panic until he came across breathing exercises created by Tom Griffith, then the Director of Aquatics and Safety Office for Athletics at Pennsylvania State University. "They were from back in the '80s, and not much had been done since then," Colvard says.

When Colvard's "patient" first put her face in the pool, she nearly jumped out of the water, so Colvard decided to use Griffith's breathing exercises to get her relaxed. "After starting the breathing exercises, she could put her face in the water, then put her mask on in the water, with the gradual focus of exposure to the water and getting desensitized to it," he says." "I eventually got her underwater and into the deep end of the pool, where she took her gear on and off. She went on her honeymoon, hired a private divemaster and dived successfully."

Colvard recently revamped his website,, which focuses on dive-related panic, and he has put Griffith's breathing exercises there, free for anyone to download and listen to (they're in audio mp3 format). When Colvard and Griffith first teamed up to promote the exercises, we wrote about them in Undercurrent, stating, "It's the best effort in the diving community to come up with a practical means to control diver stress. The program will no doubt keep many divers active who might otherwise surrender to stress and stop diving."

Before you stop reading here, because you're thinking, "I'm an experienced diver with plenty of panic-free dives under my belt, I don't need these," you're wrong, Colvard says. "The most surprising thing I've found researching this is the longer you dive, the more likely you are to have a panic-related accident. Your level of training or number of dives doesn't guarantee you won't have a problem. We intuitively assume that those factors would reduce your risk, but the fact is, you can't control everything." Also, if you are trying to get your spouses or children into diving, understanding the importance of deep breathing, plus following the exercises, should be a part of their curriculum to better ease them into the sport.

The two-hour program is divided into four 30-minute segments. Part one is "The Causes and Symptoms of Diver Stress," with Griffiths explaining them (this one can be skimmed; even Colvard says he doesn't agree with everything Griffiths says here). The second part, "The Calming Breath Response," is the most important one -- a lesson in breath control, relaxation and "belly breathing." Colvard taught the technique to the woman going to Hawaii, and uses the tape with his anxiety-suffering patients. He says the breathing technique can be taught within five minutes, but you need a feedback mechanism to ensure you have it down. "Place one hand on your chest, and one finger on your belly button. When you breathe, your chest should stay still while your belly button goes in and out, and that's how you know you're using your diaphragm. Also, do this while you look in the mirror -- the only thing about you that should be moving is your belly."

Part three is "Mental Rehearsal for Controlling Underwater Stress," using imagery to help listeners relax, breathe slower and think clearer; it's a technique top athletes use prior to competition. And part four, "Systematic Progressive Relaxation," leads you through guided-imagery exercises that makes you aware of any physical stress, then offers techniques to directly relieve it. Colvard says the exercise helps divers inoculate against stress underwater.

In a standard dive accident involving panic, he says, "most divers were already anxious to start with, and probably weren't aware of it beforehand, then multiple things that went wrong and were unexpected." That's why he advocates that new and veteran divers alike do belly breathing before they get in the water. "We were taught to 'Stop, Think, Breathe and Act,' but no one tells you how to breathe. Most people breathe with their shoulders, not their diaphragms, but that area is the whole key to controlling the anxiety breathing. If you are tangled in kelp and stuck, could you learn these techniques at that moment?"

While Colvard's 2002 study showed that divers with a history of panic attacks are more likely to have them underwater, not all of them do. But regardless, of the divers he surveyed who have had a panicky experience underwater, 90 percent of them went back and got more training. "It was like a wakeup call to say, 'Hey, I need to learn a little more here.' An experience like that does behoove you to get more training."

--Vanessa Richardson

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