Simple Jitters or Enduring Anxiety?

While it’s perfectly normal to feel a mix of emotions before a dive — excitement, anticipation, fear, apprehension, nervousness — sometimes the overwhelming feelings long precede the event. Rather than being transient, these negative feelings of apprehension and fear may severely impact a person’s everyday life.

For divers who suffer from anxiety, this can be problematic, as diving itself can be a major stressor. In certain cases, it could prevent or stop people from participating in the sport altogether. But there is hope for divers who have anxiety: Mild anxiety is treatable and does not have to be an obstacle to recreational diving.

What is Anxiety?

A short-lasting feeling of anxiousness is common for many, but for someone suffering from an anxiety disorder, the debilitating feelings of worry and dread tend to persist and may worsen. Affecting about 40 million adults every year, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 31.1 percent of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Symptoms may be psychological (nervousness, sense of doom, worried thoughts) and physical (trembling, sweating, weakness), and could become so severe they interfere with daily activities like job performance or relationships. There are several types of anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder and separation anxiety disorder.

Everyone experiences both stress and anxiety, there is a difference between the two: Stress is a reaction to a threat in a situation, and anxiety is a reaction to the stress — but the symptoms remain even after the stressors stop.

Anxiety disorders are treatable, and yet only about 37 percent of affected adults seek treatment. Treatments include talk therapy, medications, support groups, coping mechanisms and stress management techniques. People should work with their doctor to select a treatment plan that is right for them.

Anxiety and Diving

Diving is not without risk, and in stressful situations, the diver needs to react quickly and appropriately. A diver with anxiety may not be able to function in a situation of escalating stress. Or, the diver may not be able to help their buddy in an emergency.

There are several common stressors in diving that could exacerbate anxiety. They include:

  • Time pressures — No-decompression limits and gas supplies introduce constraints on the time that can be spent at various depths, and while these are safety precautions, they can prove stressful to plan and manage.
  • Task-loading — Diving requires multi-tasking, and it can be hard to function with so many things to do and monitor at the same time.
  • Environmental conditions — Dive sites, currents, marine life, water temperatures and visibility are all examples of factors that could induce stress.
  • Equipment — Unfamiliar equipment or using equipment with which the diver is insufficiently trained is not only a stressor but also a major safety concern.

While diving can be stressful, additional training and practice can help reduce feelings of anxiety. For instructors, it’s important to remember that some people need extra practice and repetition to feel safe in the water and in control of the situation. One-on-one instruction may prove beneficial.

Before taking the plunge, talk to your doctor about effective treatment options that are compatible with diving. Medications may introduce their own concerns.

Anxiety, like any other medical condition, can manifest with a range of symptoms and levels of severity. Mild anxiety does not need to prevent someone from diving — but it must be controlled, and proper precautions should be taken. If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, speak to your doctor about treatment options whether diving is appropriate for you. As always, DAN is available to consult with divers and medical professionals who have questions about fitness to dive.