This article was originally prepared for Hangline Volume 2 Issue 1 (1997) published by IANTD Canada

Panic is the most common single cause of death in scuba diving

When panic strikes


Dr. Gary Ladd, R.Psych.

"My buddy and I were hanging off a wall at 80'. The visibility was awful and it was darker than expected. I was cold and tired. I signaled my buddy to call the dive early. He gave the thumb up sign in agreement. We positioned ourselves so we were face to face, each of us with a shoulder to the wall. It was only a couple of feet away but I couldn't make out any details. I started my ascent. I reached down and clasped my depth gauge, wanting to check my progress. To my horror my depth gauge was showing I was dropping, fast. I was getting sucked down, deeper and deeper into the blackness. Staring at the gauge, a wave of heat rolled over me. Time stopped."

Panic. Its overwhelming by nature. Its scary to think about. Its a surprisingly common occurrence in divers. And its the leading cause of diving fatalities.
A diver can panic in any situation that is seen as threatening or dangerous. 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.
Panic. Its intense, it happens suddenly. You might experience it as difficulty breathing, a choking sensation, nausea, chest pain or a pounding heart. It may show itself as a fear of dying or losing control, going numb, hot or cold flashes. You'll know it when it hits you.
If you are an active diver, expect to experience an episode of panic sometime during your recreational dive career. Diver panic is more common than you probably realize. (No, you aren't the only one who has experienced panic on a dive!) If you have been diving for several years, its likely you have already survived at least one panic episode. A recent survey found that more than half of active divers with an average six years diving experience reported at least one dive panic episode.
Panic is the most common single cause of death in scuba diving fatalities. When a diver's body is recovered, its alarming how often there is air in the tank and there is no sign of equipment malfunction. Divers panic and end up dying of drowning and other pressure related medical complications. When you panic on a dive you can easily fail to manipulate equipment, loose neutral buoyancy ("I can't find my inflate button!"), over breath your regulator ("I'm out of air! My reg has crapped out!"), or attempt a rapid ascent ("I can't breath, I'm going to die!").
This all sounds very glum, to say the least. But think about this: Every one of the divers in that survey that reported having panicked while diving lived to tell the tale. You can make it through a panic episode. Most divers do. In Preparing for dive panic I'll talk about what you can do to decrease the risk of panic and how to maximize your chances of surviving it when it hits you! ©1999-2020 Ladd & Co. Pro Services Corp.