Stressful situations can affect us both on land and underwater, and feelings of anxiety can, for some, turn into panic. Underwater, panic can be extremely dangerous. There are, however, ways to minimise the chances of panicking underwater, such as making sure your skills are honed, you are prepared for the dive and are diving within your limits.
When Panic Attacks
However, even with all the preparation in the world, occasionally things can still happen that can make you lose your cool. During a stressful situation, our breathing changes: Rather than breathing slowly from our lower lungs, we begin to take rapid, shallow breaths, inhaling only into the upper part of our lungs.
This can cause two things to happen:
1. We don’t exhale fully:
A build-up of carbon dioxide is what triggers the urge to breathe, and so not expelling the CO2 as completely as possible will continue to make you feel as though you can’t “catch your breath”. This compounds the stress response and forces your body into a cycle of rapid, shallow breathing
2. This can then lead to hyperventilation, an anxiety attack, and even full-blown panic.
Sometimes, an anxiety attack can actually be caused by poor breathing in the first place!
What to do?
As certified divers, we all know to STOP BREATHE THINK ACT if things start to feel uncomfortable during a dive. But few of us are taught exactly HOW to breathe – and this is possibly the most important factor in staying calm under pressure.
Belly Breathing 101
1. Exhale completely
2.Place on hand on your stomach
3. Inhale deeply, imagining the air entering through your belly button
4. Fill the bottom part of your lungs first. Your stomach should expand as you breathe in
5. Fill the upper part of your lungs last
6. Exhale slowly and completely and begin again!
This breathing pattern stimulates the body’s “parasympathetic response” – the “calming response” – which is the opposite of the emergency response triggered by a stressful situation. Your breathing will slow, your heart rate and blood pressure will drop, and you will feel calmer and better able to think clearly to solve any problem that might have triggered you in the first place!