It can happen to any diver – it’s how you deal with it that counts. Simon Pridmore looks at diver stress, and techniques for handling it when it occurs
STRESS IS A POTENTIAL RISK on almost every dive we make. Some of the more obvious examples are time-pressure stress from having a limited air-supply, and task-loading stress from needing to do a number of things simultaneously.
In scuba-diving, stress is particularly unwelcome. If it is not controlled, it can very quickly lead to panic and, when we panic, an untrained response can make the situation worse rather than better.
Panic is always life-threatening when it occurs under water, and is the most common contributing factor to diving fatalities.
To deal with stress and avoid panic you must first recognise that stress is present. To do this, you need to be both aware of the signs and in tune with what your mind and body are doing.
Indicators of stress include clumsiness, delayed response, disorientation, fixation on gauges, an increased breathing rate, irritability, tension, unease, and unusual anxiety or apprehension.
Be conscious of your mood and remain objective so that you interpret it correctly. If you begin to find something your buddy is doing intensely annoying, it is far more likely that you, rather than your buddy, are the one with the problem.
Once you have identified that stress is present, your intuition will tell you that there must be a logical reason for it.
That is to say, because you feel worried, you must have something valid to worry about.
This is not always the case. An increased breathing rate accompanied by a feeling of unease or apprehension can simply be a result of a build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream following a hard swim against a current.
The secret to coping with the onset of stress under water is to clear your mind, analyse the situation and then act.
To clear your mind, stop all activity; grab a rock (making sure first that it is a rock) and rest. Exhale slowly and completely, compressing your diaphragm to expel as much carbon dioxide-laden air from your lungs as possible.
Then inhale fully, expanding your diaphragm. Do this a few times.
As your brain clears, you will be able to work out what is going on. Do you have any valid reason to be worried? Is there any urgent need for action?
Look at your pressure gauge and make sure that you have plenty to breathe. Check your decompression status or no-decompression time remaining. Run a quick check over your dive gear to make sure everything is in place and working.
Then act. If you have plenty to breathe, are comfortable with what your computer is reading and all your equipment is functioning correctly, then you may just choose to continue your dive, reducing your effort so that the panic doesn’t return.
If you are low on breathing gas and/or have exceeded your planned decompression status, then your priority will be to make a controlled ascent to a shallower depth.
It is always wise to take a moment to gather your thoughts before you act, to make sure that you are about to do the right thing.
However, taking too long over this process when you are deep under water can exacerbate your predicament because of the limits of your air supply. So your thinking time is limited too.
This is the main reason why it is important to practise emergency and self-rescue skills intensively, to the point where your response to an emergency will be automatic, instinctive and correct.
Technical divers constantly practise gas-sharing and switching between their primary and secondary regulators.
Their responses are so conditioned that if a real-world emergency takes place and an out-of-air diver grabs the regulator from which they are breathing, they will automatically switch to their back-up regulator before they are intellectually conscious of what has happened.
The emergency is over almost before it has begun. There is no reason why all divers should not practise such drills equally intensively.
The most effective way of dealing with stress is to recognise that you are in a situation that is likely to provoke it, or identify your stress in its very early stages, anticipate the consequences and act quickly to nip it in the bud.
In the following two case histories, the divers concerned both recognised that they were suffering from stress, but didn’t fully appreciate the potential risk.
Fortunately both events took place in
a training scenario, with an instructor present to over-ride their instincts, anticipate the threat on their behalf and teach them a useful lesson.
CASE HISTORY 1:
“I was one of three students on a deep-diving course. We had spent a long time discussing the dive plan, and were all looking forward to it. We descended quickly down the reef wall, but when we arrived at depth I felt uneasy. I was breathing more quickly than normal and I became anxious and disorientated.
“My instinct was to abort the dive, but I didn’t want to let down my instructor or the other guys in the class, who had spent so much time preparing, so I decided to tough it out.
“When the instructor signalled OK?, I just responded OK. However, instead of moving on, he looked at me for a few seconds with a quizzical expression in his eyes, then collected us all together and signalled up with his thumb.
“I felt an immense sense of relief, but when we arrived back in the shallows at the top of the wall, my mind cleared, my anxiety disappeared and I felt terribly guilty at having spoiled the dive.
“So I signalled to the instructor that I was happy to go back down, but he shook his head and we spent time in the shallows instead, running through skills.
“The deep dive was rescheduled for the next day, and everything went fine.”
It is possible that had the group remained at depth on the original deep dive, the affected diver’s mind would have cleared after a few minutes and the dive would have gone smoothly.
However, once the instructor noticed that one of his students might be on the verge of panic, he assessed that, given the relative inexperience of the group, staying at depth presented an unacceptably high risk if the situation were to escalate.
His prompt action ensured that there was no escalation, and eliminated the possibility of a host of adverse scenarios. The diver was aware that he was compromised and should really abort the dive, but decided instead to carry on and accept the additional risk so as not to disappoint other members of the team.
He was unaware that he was suffering from perceived peer-pressure stress as well as his other symptoms, and this one additional factor could have led to disaster, had it not been for the instructor’s intervention.
CASE HISTORY 2:
BAD NEWS FOR RUTH
“I was at the dive-centre with my buddy preparing our gear for the final dive in our course when one of the divemasters arrived with the news that a diver that we knew from another dive centre had died in the recompression chamber following an incident the day before.
“On the boat, the news was playing on my mind but I told myself not to dwell on it, as I had to concentrate on the forthcoming dive.
“On arrival at the dive-site, we saw that a strong current was running and that it had carried the buoy, which we were going to use to mark our descent and ascent, under water. I glanced at my buddy and he looked concerned.
“It felt like everything was conspiring to prevent us doing this dive, but it was the last day of our trip and we would be flying out the following night. So we were going to have to do the dive now, whatever the conditions, in order to finish our course.
“Our instructor came over as we were changing into our wetsuits and asked if we would mind postponing the dive to a future trip, given the circumstances.
“I almost cried as a strange combination of emotions flooded through me all at once, including grief for the diver who had died and also relief that we were not going to dive today.
“In the end, we rearranged our flights and enjoyed a perfect final course dive a couple of days later.”
The instructor could not have known for sure how the news the students had received would work on their minds at depth. He did know, however, that the fact that they were undertaking a big dive would already be creating a certain level of anxiety, and that a strong current might lead to additional task-loading.
Aborting the dive before they had even entered the water made absolutely sure that what seemed like a steadily accumulating series of stressors did not result in a tragedy.
Even though the diver correctly identified a number of the indicators, the diver mistook the time stress created by their flight plans for the next day as a factor justifying additional risk.
The diver would never consciously argue that a flight schedule is worth risking your life for, but stress clouds the mind and leads to poor decision-making.
In both these incidents, the instructor acted decisively to break the chain of events that might have been leading to disaster.
BREAKING THE CHAIN
Every accident has a chain of events that leads up to it, but often the chain is visible only afterwards.
You don’t always see a chain before an accident takes place, but if you do see one or if you only think you see one, you need to have the courage to break it, even if this leads to your being criticised by others in your dive team.
Cave-divers have a rule that eliminates peer pressure and fear of recrimination and saves lives.
This rule is: “Any diver can abort any dive at any time for any reason without having to explain themselves to anyone.”
When one of your team gives the up signal (or turn signal in the case of cave-diving), the rest of the team acknowledges and complies immediately, no questions asked, either at the time or subsequently.
It doesn’t matter if the threat to safety is genuine or not. For example, a diver might abort a dive simply as a result of misreading his pressure-gauge.
The important thing is that if one member of the team believes that a threat exists, then that belief in itself is enough to put the team at risk if it continues.
‘Any diver can abort any dive at any time for any reason without having to explain themselves to anyone’
Read more from Simon Pridmore in:
Scuba Confidential – An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver
Scuba Professional – Insights into Sport Diver Training & Operations
Scuba Fundamentals – Start Diving the Right Way
All are available on Amazon in a variety of formats.
Appeared in DIVER September 2016