Distraction, Discomfort, and Disorientation

Avoid the three Ds

While diving is an enjoyable and relatively safe activity, divers should never forget that it involves using life-support equipment to venture into an environment that’s not conducive to human survival. This is why DAN recommends that divers always be mentally and physically prepared to dive and remain focused throughout their dives.

Most dive accidents result from a series of small deviations from safe procedures, and in almost all cases, the accident could have been avoided at any point if a problem was noticed, its implications understood, and an appropriate response implemented. Distraction, discomfort, and disorientation are dangerous because they can impair focus and situational awareness.  


Task-loading (doing or managing too many things at once) is a common reason that a diver may become distracted. An example is attempting to hold a light and camera while navigating an overhead environment. It is easy to focus on one task to the exclusion of others when that task is complicated or particularly demanding.

Strong emotions can be significant enough to impact your ability to dive safely. If you’ve recently experienced grief or trauma, for example, take time to evaluate your well-being and emotional state as objectively as possible. If you have reason to believe that intrusive thoughts or overwhelming emotions might interfere with your ability to keep tabs on your depth, gas supply, and buddy, postpone your dive to a later day.

Anxiety can lead to uncertainty about the nature and reality of threats as well as self-doubt about one’s capacity to handle situations. Physical symptoms of anxiety can vary widely, from damp palms and a quickened heartbeat to the crippling feelings of a full-blown panic attack or phobic reaction. The ocean can be a major stressor for some people. As stress increases, a diver’s ability to recognize and respond properly diminishes. In a demanding situation it is critical that a diver be able to recognize and break out of the escalating cycle of stress before it reaches the level of panic. Be sure you have effectively managed any anxiety you’re experiencing before you proceed with a dive.


When divers call the DAN Medical Information Line with questions about diving with various health and medical conditions, DAN medical staff typically advise against diving if the caller is experiencing any pain or discomfort. One reason for this is that pain could later be mistaken for a symptom of decompression sickness, complicating diagnosis after diving. But an even more important reason to avoid diving with pain or discomfort is that these symptoms can impair focus and awareness.

An upset stomach is not uncommon in diving settings. Seasickness affects many divers, and travel-associated disruptions to diet and schedule can also lead to queasiness. While it may be reasonable for a diver with nausea to enter the water to see if they feel better on the surface, they should not descend unless their symptoms resolve. In fact, they should be supervised while on the surface. Many divers have heard that it’s possible to vomit through a regulator. While this is generally true, that doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant experience.


It should go without saying that diving and intoxication do not mix. While diving there’s too much information to keep track of and too high a possibility of needing to make high-stakes judgment calls to risk being impaired. Remember you’re responsible for you buddy’s safety as well as your own.

But recreational drugs aren’t the only things that can lead to mental fogginess or slower reaction time. Poor sleep, jet lag, and hangovers all have the potential to affect mental acuity. These are not uncommon among traveling divers, so be sure to consider how they might affect you, and postpone diving as necessary.

Some prescription (and even over-the-counter) medications have side effects that could make diving less safe. Warnings against using a drug while operating heavy machinery, for example, might also apply to diving. For this reason, doctors trained in dive medicine recommend against diving when taking a new medication for the first time. For a prescription medication taken daily, 30 days is recommended in order to ensure the dosage is correct and to reveal any side effects the diver is likely to experience. At least one doctor should be aware of all medications an individual is taking to minimize the risk of drug interactions. A diver should not dive if he experiences any side effects that could cause distraction or decreased awareness if they occur underwater.

Keep in mind that any irritation, uncertainty, or trouble you’re experiencing on the surface is likely to become a bigger problem underwater. So whether you’re dealing with an ongoing musculoskeletal injury, a jellyfish sting from a previous dive, or a persistent headache, stay out of the water until you’re confident your focus, awareness, judgement, and ability to manage additional stressors is back up to 100 percent.