I learned in my Open Water Diver certification class that a common reaction to anxiety or fear is a rapid, shallow breathing pattern, which leads to an out-of-breath feeling. I remember we were told to be aware of this symptom and if it occurred, to slow our breathing down and focus on the exhales to return to regular breathing. Good thing we covered that, because it happened to me. And it was terrifying.
It happened during my first open water checkout dive. I was already anxious, as my husband and I had opted to do our checkout dives while on vacation in Florida instead of with our Dolphin Dive instructors. I’ve always regretted that decision. However, DDC referred us to Mike Gomez with the Panama City Dive Center, and we couldn’t have been in better hands. Mike is such a great guy: funny, competent, full of personality and an instructor of the highest caliber.
We headed out with Mike on a dive boat with about 25 other divers. Everyone seemed experienced and excited to get in the water, unlike me who worried about being seasick, worried about how I’d gear up shoulder-to-shoulder with all those divers, worried about diving in sea water, worried, worried, worried.
The boat operator announced we were stopping in the shallows to allow the four divers working on certification, including my husband and I, to drop down with our instructors and demonstrate our skills. It was intimidating to feel like everyone was looking at us as we waddled to the stern. Trying to appear cool and relaxed, I casually looked over the side of the boat. That’s when I saw the jellyfish.
They were rusty orange in color. And they were everywhere.
I’d been stung by a jellyfish the summer before. I was not happy about doing a giant stride entry into jellyfish infested water. Did I mention I was not wearing a wetsuit?
I hit the water and bobbed up to the surface without a sting, but now my head was on a swivel, searching my immediate environment for the jellies. At the same time, I fumbled with my BC deflater, clenched the descent line, and attempted to clear my ears. I didn’t have enough hands. With so much to concentrate on, my off-the-charts anxiety went unnoticed and unchecked. Until I reached the bottom.
Kneeling on the sandy bottom under 25 feet of the Gulf of Mexico, the instructor indicated the first skill and pointed to me. I felt winded from the scary descent through the jellies, so I sucked air in quick, shallow breaths to catch my breath. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get a lung full of air. Two more rapid breaths, and I felt like I was suffocating. I wasn’t getting any air. None. I panicked.
The instructor had his eye on me. He gave me the “Okay?” sign, and I shook my head frantically. I thrust my thumb up, emphatic. I needed to surface, like now.
The instructor wagged his finger at me. No. He flattened his hand, pushing it palm down in a deliberate motion. Calm down. Then he turned his attention away from me and continued with skills with my husband.
In that moment, the coursework came back to me. Severe anxiety can trigger hyperventilation. A little voice whispered, That’s happening to me! The training kicked in: Slow your breathing down and focus on the exhales to return to regular breathing. Within 30 seconds, I was back in control of my respiration, breathing as comfortably as I do on the surface. I gave the “Okay” sign to the instructor and completed all my skills.
Diver stress can happen to anyone, but new divers are especially susceptible. Remember your training whenever a stressful situation arises; it will get you through. And a comfortable, confident diver is one who dives often and who continues his or her diver education by taking specialty courses in a wide variety of subjects. The more you learn, the more equipped you become to handle any situation, any time.
And hey, if you’re ever in Panama City Beach, FL, be sure to stop by Panama City Dive Center and say hello to Mike Gomez!