I read somewhere that singing your favorite song (in your head of course!) can help ease feelings of anxiety while scuba diving. Now it’s just become a habit. So if it ever looks like I’m bopping along to music underwater you can be sure I’m singing along to “Build me up Buttercup” in my head.

We’re not designed to breathe underwater, so it can be a lot for our brains to get past to tell us that it’s okay to be doing what we’re doing. With that in mind, a little anxiety in scuba diving is perfectly normal and most divers will experience it at some point in their scuba journey. Whether it’s nervousness whilst completing your mask skills in your Open Water Course, anxiety when diving in a strong current for the first time, or a little discomfort when diving in lower visibility than you’re used to, it’s all perfectly okay. 

How to recognise an anxious buddy

Like any psychological state, every person will respond to anxious feelings in different ways. However, here are some tell-tale signs to look out for which may indicate that a diver is feeling anxious underwater. 

Staying close – If your buddy is feeling uncomfortable, they may want to be a little closer to you than normal, perhaps even looking to hold your hand or hold onto part of your equipment. If this is comfortable for you (and if it’s safe to do so and doesn’t pose a risk of entanglement or damaging anyone’s equipment), this can be a helpful way to ease someone’s discomfort. 

Excessively checking equipment – If you’ve noticed your buddy is checking their gauge or dive computer a little too often, there’s a chance they might be feeling a bit nervous. If you’re diving with a new buddy it can be difficult to tell what’s normal for them, but if they appear to be looking extra closely at their gauges it might be worth checking that they’re okay. 

Heavy breathing – A sudden jacuzzi of bubbles above your buddy’s head could be a warning that they’re not feeling great. Keep an eye out for excessively heavy breathing if you’re noticing lots of excess bubbles and heavy movement in their chest. 

Unusual swimming – Sudden jerky movements, such as turning and looking around a lot or laboured finning, can be an indicator of anxiety. Again, this can be more challenging if you’re with an unfamiliar buddy, but taking a few moments to see what their normal swimming style is like can help you notice when things have changed. 

Facial expressions – The eyes are the window to the soul, after all, and this is a reliable way to tell if your buddy is relaxed or not. A wide-eyed, blank staring look can indicate the early onset of panic, so when you’re checking in on your buddy periodically through the dive make sure you’re making strong eye contact.

How to help an anxious buddy

Stop. Breathe. Think. Act. The mentality you take in reacting to an anxious buddy is just as important as the action you take. It’s important to take a moment to think through how you’re going to respond, rather than just reacting on instinct. Stop to assess the situation. Take a few breaths to steady your own mental state.

Okay? Okay – This is likely the first signal you ever learned when diving, and it’s one of the most powerful in this scenario. Sometimes all it takes is asking if your buddy is okay, and just knowing that you’re there with them can help to calm them down. It also gives them the opportunity to tell you that no, they’re not okay, and explain why.

Take a break – Take the time to stop and breathe together. Signal stop, with an outstretched hand held up, and signal slow, steady breathing by moving an open hand back and forth from your regulator. Encourage your buddy to breathe in time with you until they have calmed down. Remember the importance of maintaining eye contact when assessing how they’re feeling. Once you’ve both given the okay you can continue the dive, but remember that it’s always okay to choose to end the dive for any reason. 

Many of these techniques are simple versions of skills you learn on a rescue diver course. If you want to be prepared for any underwater scenario, from assisting anxious buddies to finding unconscious divers, a rescue course is definitely the best way to prepare yourself. Many divers consider their rescue course to be the most challenging course but also the most fun, and certainly the most educational. I know I did.