How to Avoid Panic While Underwater

by Mihai Pinzariu on September 23, 2019

Let’s face it – as human beings, we get anxiety. We panic, we get stressed, we freak out. It happens to us whether we’re on land, in the air, or underwater. That said, it’s a whole lot easier to deal with on land, where we’re comfortable and in our zone, with help nearby. Panicking while underwater, or far out in the ocean away from the shore, however, can be a lot scarier. You’re out of your element, out of your comfort zone, and on top of all that – you’re panicking.

While we can never completely control the events in our lives, we can do our best to prevent them from happening or knowing what to do when they do happen. And so it’s the same with underwater panic – the best you can do is know what the causes usually are, the best ways to avoid it from happening, and what you should do when it does happen. So we’ll go through each of those things, one by one, so you can hit the sea with no fear.

What exactly is underwater panic?
You might already be familiar with the feeling of anxiety or stress. A little bit of fear mixed with discomfort, threats, or the unknown can cause us to go from calm to crazy in no time. Panic is just a more extreme version of this feeling, and can lead to snorkellers behaving irrationally while out at sea. Ever heard of a panic attack? It’s here that panic becomes dangerous, sometimes leading to preventable accidents.

Physical & psychological stress
Underwater panic is usually induced by stress that can be divided into two categories: physical and psychological. Physical stress will start off as something slightly uncomfortable, growing in intensity until it’s unbearable and begins to cause panic. Things that cause physical stress include poorly fitting swimsuits or snorkel masks, uncomfortable equipment, feeling cold or tired, losing an essential piece of equipment, malfunctioning equipment, and so on. So next time you head out to sea with a slightly-too-tight wetsuit, think twice. You might be able to hack it now, but how will you hack it half an hour later?

Psychological stress comes from uneasy thoughts, such as lack of confidence in your skill or ability, fear of being underwater, feeling pressured to keep up with others, fear of the unknown, and so on. Of course, physical stress can also lead to psychological stress. If you’re snorkelling because everyone else is, or you’re trying to impress someone, or because you’re angry and want to release some stress – maybe take ten minutes to destress and make sure it’s the right decision.

Common panic inducing moments
As humans, we’re pretty different, but we’re also quite similar. Just like anxiety, a lot of us get underwater panic from the same types of things. If you’re heading out for a snorkel in any of these conditions, make sure you’re aware of how to avoid and handle underwater panic. And make sure you know that it’s cool to stop and get out of the water whenever you want, and you don’t have to keep going just for someone else’s sake.

Entanglement – Foot got caught in something? It can be easy to freak out and start thrashing around, losing all hope, and imagining your death at this very moment. Instead, don’t. Stay calm. So what, your foot is stuck in something. Big woop. Stay calm, and slowly work to untangle it. It’s unlikely your foot will be stuck there forever.

Poorly fitting equipment – What’s important here is to know the signs of extreme discomfort, so when you reach that point you can turn around and go back. We’re not saying to avoid snorkelling altogether if you’ve got equipment that doesn’t fit quite right, but just be aware of your limits and head back to shore for a break when need be.

Rough seas – There’s not much to say here except: don’t go out snorkelling in rough seas. While you can’t always control that sort of situation, you can help yourself by snorkelling with a buddy, and carrying a whistle and visibility vest to make you easy to spot from afar.

Lack of confidence – Whether it’s lack of confidence in your skill/ability, in your equipment, or in your diving buddy, try not to hit the water when you’re not feeling great. Remember to always snorkel within your own capacity and avoid trying to impress others, and if you’ve got a buddy who’s a lot slower than you, either don’t go out with them or make sure you stay within their zone calmly and patiently.

Lost equipment – Perhaps you lost your snorkel or a fin halfway through the activity. You could either stress out about it, freak out, and end up in a completely unhelpful panic – or stay calm and try to approach the situation rationally. Who said you had to snorkel your way back out? If you’ve lost essential equipment, get back to shore as soon as you can, however you can. If that means dumping your other fin because you can’t carry it back, then do so. You’re more important than a piece of equipment.

How to spot the signs

You can’t always predict when or how panic will strike, but you sure can teach yourself to know the signs to look out for. If you find yourself experiencing any of the following while underwater, it’s likely that you’re reaching your limit and it’s time for a break.

  1. Rapid breath or feeling as though you can’t get enough air,
  2. Increased heart rate, heart palpitations, or chest tightness,
  3. Feeling of butterflies, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea,
  4. Tense muscles or tremors,
  5. Headaches,
  6. Sweating, chills, hot flashes, feeling out-of-control or negative.

What to do when panic strikes
So you’ve seen the signs, and panic is about to hit. It’s not gonna do you much good if you don’t know where to go from there.

  • Talk yourself through it – Stay positive, stay calm, and stay in control. Talk yourself through the anxiety and remind yourself that you’re safe and in control. Things will be okay, you’re strong and in control and fully capable. Everything will be fine, and your panic will be over.
  • Focus on breathing – As with anxiety, one of the most powerful ways to put a stop to panic is by focusing on the breath. Try to slow and lengthen your breath, inhaling and exhaling, focusing on the expansion and contraction of your lungs. Keep your attention on your breath and less of it will be focused on the panic, while the body naturally responds to your breathing and relaxes.

How to avoid underwater panic
After all this, we reckon the best idea is to just avoid getting yourself into a situation where you might panic underwater. You already know some of the common causes of underwater panic, and here are some more precautions to keep in mind:

  • Don’t go snorkelling while tired, hungover, in a bad mood, feeling ill, or after having a strong coffee,
  • Be confident in your abilities and don’t snorkel outside your comfort zone, in water that’s too rough, or in the presence of underwater creatures you fear (e.g. if you’re terrified of sharks, don’t snorkel in an area known for shark spottings),
  • Always snorkel with a buddy you can trust, and someone you’re not afraid to embarrass yourself around,
  • Snorkel in comfortable, well-fitting equipment. If this is impossible to obtain, don’t be overconfident and only snorkel for short periods so that your equipment doesn’t cause extreme discomfort.

Panic is just a state of mind, and something that shouldn’t be given into. Make sure you’re always prepared, aware, and calm – and should panic strike, tackle it head-on and make us proud!

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1 comment
by Kit on November 26, 2021

Excited to have received my Equaliser Pro mask today 😃! Really hoping this mask will calm me and give me a much better snorkelling experience than I had many years ago as a teenager, using rented equipment that probably was a poor fit for me. That first time I ended up swallowing much seawater while trying to snorkel in rough sea!! 😩🤢


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