Psychology of diving
by dr. Gary Ladd, R. Psych
Lets have a look at a few things you can do to reduce the likelihood of finding yourself panicking in the water. The first thing you can do is stop pretending you are somehow immune to the risks that come with diving. No one likes to feel vulnerable or believe they are putting themselves at risk for injury or death by going diving. Avoiding talking or thinking about dive panic is a popular way to manage the uneasy feelings that might come up if you focused on it. Another common method used to defend against the yucky feelings is to deny outright that there is risk involved or to acknowledge there are risks for others but for whatever reason (e.g, your advanced training, tons of experience, whatever) they don't apply to you.
Once you have acknowledged you are not immune to panic, there are many things you can do to reduce the likelihood of it happening. We often think of panic as a sudden reaction to an unexpected event. While it is true that sometimes the event is completely unexpected, often panic is the end result of a buildup of stress reactions to a series of events. As described in When panic strikes of this discussion, a diver can panic in any situation that is seen as threatening or dangerous. However, it is more likely to happen when diving in new or extreme conditions, when under great pressure to perform, or when you are in a situation similar to a previous negative experience.
The key to preventing a situation from developing into full blown panic is to recognise early that you are in distress. Diver stress and rescue courses teach how divers respond to stress. Take this information and get personal. Teach yourself to be aware of the early changes that happen when you begin to get distressed. Learn to monitor - your body, your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviour - for subtle yet telltale signs that you are moving outside of your "comfort zone". Then learn what you can do to take charge of the situation. This can involve applying various self-control strategies to taking action to relieve an external source of the stress. The time to do something about this is NOW. The worst thing you can do is ignore what is happening. Your body is talking to you. Listen and respond early.
While you can reduce the likelihood of panicking using preventative measures like responding early to signs of stress, it is important to reduce the risk of getting injured or dying by practising how you will cope with a panic episode when it happens. That's right - plan on it happening to you! Take time to identify the different ways you can get into trouble for each type of diving you are involved in. Do this every time you are diving a new site, profile, or set of conditions. Do it again after you have become familiar with the site or profile. Often, experience will enable you to identify sources of potential trouble you wouldn't have been aware of as a newbie.
Prepare for each scenario. This can include picturing the situation and playing out the "what if"s of what you believe can go wrong and what you believe will be your initial reaction. It can include mentally rehearsing what you need to do to get out of trouble (self-rescue skills). Taking this a step further, you can easily do a dry (land) simulation of the situation and your response. In-water rehearsal is great too but it also takes the most effort. For this reason, many divers rely solely on in-water practice to develop relevant self-rescue skills yet end up rarely or never practising outside of formal courses. This translates into the skills they rely on the most for saving their skin are the ones that are the least developed.
Surviving an underwater incident requires knowing what to do and having learned to do it well enough that conscious thought is not required. What is crucial is you performing the task - quickly. Think of it as your muscles learning to respond directly, reacting without having to wait for your brain to send a new set of instructions.