Scuba diving is an amazing hobby that can take you to all the corners of the globe. But did you know that scuba diving can be therapeutic, both physically and psychologically? In this article I want to focus on scuba diving with anxiety, and how this hobby continues to help me lead a calmer and more fulfilling life, both in and out the water.
What is Anxiety?
I wrote an extensive article on anxiety and travel here, but in short, anxiety is characterized by a sense of impending doom, or loss of control over a situation, whether it is real or imagined. Anxiety can have many symptoms, but many people will be familiar with the symptoms of a panic attack: shortness of breath, racing heart, cold sweats, and the feeling that you are going to die.
Anxiety isn’t always about panic attacks, in fact, many people suffer unknowingly with a generalized anxiety, which permeates their everyday and can even be perceived as simply a part of that person’s personality. People that suffer from generalized anxiety often feel like things will always go wrong, and tend to have a hundred back up plans for every situation. They also tend to suffer from frequent stomach issues, which is more about stress than it is about stomach health.
As we move into an ever more stressful and fast paced society, more and more people are suffering from anxiety in one form or another. There are many therapeutic options available that are super effective in curbing anxiety, but today I want to focus on one that many people may not know about: scuba diving with anxiety.
Breath and Scuba Diving with Anxiety
The number one rule in scuba diving is to never hold your breath. One of the most effective methods of combatting anxiety is to focus on taking deep, steady breaths. From the very first rule, scuba can help someone who suffers from anxiety with a fundamental skill of focusing on the breath. If we can learn to breathe slowly and deeply underwater, we can remind ourselves of this skill when we begin to feel anxious in our day to day lives.
Scuba and the Senses
For me, when anxiety hits, I can experience sensory overload. Sounds become too loud and light hurts my eyes. Scuba diving with anxiety for me was the most welcome sensory deprivation. If you think about it, being underwater means that you have zero sense of smell, and unless you swallow some sea water, you aren’t using your sense of taste at all either. Hearing is dulled to focus purely on the sound of your breath and some of the animals around you.
The light underwater is softened and as an ethical recreational diver, you aren’t touching the reef or anything really except your own equipment or your buddy. I often refer to scuba as my zen place, as the lack of intense sensory input means that I feel instantly calmer and more at peace.
Pressure and Anxiety
You know that feeling of being tucked up under a hundred heavy blankets in winter? That feeling of safety and comfort? Well it is actually a well documented phenomena that pressure helps us to relax and feel calm and safe. So it stands to reason that people with anxiety can benefit from the use of pressure, and scuba diving with anxiety uses this principle beautifully.
As you descend to depth underwater, the pressure increases on your body. This means that your whole body is encased in relaxing pressure, whilst simultaneously feeling weightless and free, suspended in the water. This of course, is not only good for anxiety, it can also help people suffering from pain or in recovery from injury to get an impact free exercise that helps their bodies recover, something you can read more about here.
Slowing Down and Focusing
Scuba is not a high energy sport. In fact, the better you get at scuba, the less energy you expend. If you are swimming at top speed you are going to have a very short dive as you blast through your available air. Likewise, when we live with anxiety we can find ourselves overthinking, and becoming physically exhausted and pushing our bodies to the max.
Scuba diving with anxiety means that we are forced to slow down, and for those of us who worry about needing to be good at things, this is one activity where slowing down and chilling out are mandatory! I find that scuba requires a different level of focus for me, where my mind has a set number of details that is can check through, and the rest of my body is left to relax into the almost meditative nature of diving.
Scuba also provides very clear instructions for emergency situations, so that your anxious mind doesn’t need to overthink or over-plan. In scuba you know more or less what to expect, and how to deal with what you cannot expect or control. Even when situations go wrong, there is a clearly set out way of dealing with each situation, and you will either be trained in these situations or be accompanied by someone who is.
Communicating while Scuba Diving with Anxiety
As someone with a mild social anxiety, I often find myself rehearsing conversations before I have them, or playing out a variety of situations over and over in my mind even if they are unlikely to ever actually happen. You can’t speak underwater, but you can communicate. There is a set system of hand signals that are used underwater, and having these signals means that there is less chance of stuffing up a conversation in an awkward way.
Communication is really pared down to the essentials, mostly checking if your buddy is okay, asking for help, or signaling that there is something cool to see. There is so much less to be anxious about, and if you are anxious, you can practice your hand signals to perfection without worrying that you will be misunderstood. You also get into the habit of checking on your buddy, and being checked on, which is a really reassuring social skill.
So often we forget to check up on our friends, or we get defensive when people ask us if we are okay. Scuba diving takes away all of that, making it mandatory to really look at your buddy in the eyeballs and make sure they are doing okay, and be honest about whether we are okay too. It would be a much better world if we all got used to this outside of the water as well.
Scientific Evidence for Scuba Diving with Anxiety
Divers have known for a while that the benefits of diving go beyond getting some exercise, but science is starting to catch up. The most recent study by the University of Sheffield’s Medical School focused on the work of Deptherapy UK, who work with military veterans who are suffering from various post combat physical and psychological issues.
The study found that diving training and activities had a significant impact on the anxiety and depression levels of the participants, as well as helping to alleviate the social dysfunction and insomnia symptoms of PTSD. You can read more about the study here. You can also support Deptherapy UK in their awesome work by checking out their website here.
PADI also has some awesome articles about the mental health benefits of scuba diving with anxiety and other disorders, and you can read some of that here. You can now also do a PADI specialist course as part of your Master Diver training that focuses on the psychology of scuba. Run by Scubapsyche, this specialization is definitely on my bucket list, and is a must for anyone that not only wants to understanding themselves better as a diver, but help others as well. You can read more about that specialization here.
If you, like me, struggle with anxiety, perhaps you should give scuba diving a try as part of your therapy journey. You can find out how to get your scuba qualifications in Bali like we did, here. At the very least, scuba opens up a world of travel opportunities, with some of the friendliest and chilled people you can meet. Hopefully you will also find your scuba training helping you to bring the zen up out of the ocean and into your daily life.
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