Technical Diving and Stress

by David Miner

Stress is a medical term for a wide range of strong external stimuli, both physiological and psychological, which can cause a physiological response called the general adaptation syndrome, first described in 1936 by Hans Selye in the journal Nature. As we all know, stress surfaces in our everyday lives and can affect everyone differently. Being late for a meeting, trying to juggle too many things at once, or dealing with a loved one’s death can all induce different levels of stress. Almost anything in life today can cause some form of stress, whether it’s physical stress or psychological stress. Learning how to deal with stress is something we begin to do very early in life, and everyone’s ability to cope can be different as well as change over time.

Stress is also very alive in diving. Every diver can encounter physical stressors while diving, such as the diving environment, like water temperature, animal life, currents, visibility, and depth, as well as equipment-related stress and fitness level stress. Equipment-related stress is often too common amongst divers who have not adapted well or learned how to use their equipment properly and efficiently or can happen when equipment is poorly maintained and has routine malfunctions or failures. Fitness level stressors can include poor swimming skills, low endurance levels, and equipment carrying problems. All of these elements can increase a divers stress level.

Psychological stressors can be a variety of things, from peer pressure and dive requirements pressure to competency levels and dive expectations. All of these stressors, as well as life stressors can all play a roll and affect a diver’s ability to mentally and physically handle the requirements of a dive.

Technical diving stressors

In technical diving, the “requirements” of a dive increase considerably, and as a result, stressors can increase exponentially and place considerable more pressure on a diver. Technical diving exposes divers to a whole different level of stressors, although the stressors still fall within the physical and psychological categories. Technical divers carry more equipment, dive deeper and longer, and perform staged decompression. Technical diving increases your task loading and thus can increase the amount of actual and perceived stress on a diver. Perception is a powerful weapon and can create panic and hysteria in a diver even if the “actual” stressor or threat is not that bad. Maintaining control of your brain and stress levels is key for a technical diver.

Penetrating a wreck and diving in a cave force a diver into an overhead environment, meaning that there is no direct escape to the surface. When inside a wreck or cave, the conditions are dark, potentially silty, and require competent decision making skills. Depth of a technical dive, decompression requirements, environmental conditions (currents, visibility, water temperature, etc.), bottom time, and the increased requirement of equipment all play a roll in the stress levels of a technical diver. Any one of these by themselves can create stress on a diver, but when technical diving, many of these elements are combined do to the nature of the dives. Being in a silty part of a cave, 1,000 feet from the entrance and 250 feet deep, with a scooter and stage bottle strapped to you with decompression obligations before you can surface and having a regulator failure can place incredible stress on a diver as well as the dive team. You must be able to deal with the situation quickly, while maintaining composure and heading safely for the exit. Panicking can lead to death.

Other stressors on the technical diver or dive team are swimming and exertion demands, egos and peer pressure, disorientation, dependency on another diver in the team, lack of training, poor technique or skill levels, perceived physical threats (shark, etc.), and differences in breathing rates. As a technical diver, you are exposed to many of these potential stressors and you need to be aware of them and know how to deal with them.

Recognizing stressors
Technical divers must be aware of the task loading and potential threats that can lead to excessive stress for every dive. They must be able function adequately under pressure and know how to deal with the stress monster when it leaps on their back. Technical divers must also be able to recognize stress indicators. This is important for your safety and for the safety of a dive team. Some stress indicators are: increased breathing rate, tensing or freezing up, eyes opened wide (big eyes), inability to communicate, fixation on something (i.e. pressure gauge), and flight (bolting for the surface or exit). Knowing these indicators and being able to recognize them early is extremely important for the safety of a dive team. Discussing these elements with every member of the team so that each team member can recognize potential problems can be the difference between having a great dive and having a problem dive. Recognizing stressors early and dealing with them quickly and smartly can create comfort and confidence within a dive team.

There are also important personal stress indicators that technical divers should be aware of and know how to recognize within themselves. These indicators can clue you in on how “you” are feeling about a particular dive and can help to guide you in “your” decision making process, before, during, and after the dive. Elevated anxiety levels, feeling uneasy, nervous, or scared, having irritability, increased heart rate and adrenaline levels, and being apprehensive are all strong indicators of stress. Being self-aware, following your intuition, and acknowledging your stress levels are all important factors in developing your ability to understand and deal with stress.

Ways of controlling diving stress
One of the most important factors in controlling stress is to first recognize that stress exists as we talked about in the previous section. The tools necessary to control stress levels are self and team awareness, proper training, and by applying the new skill sets you’ve learned and practicing them over and over. Skills that have not been practiced and drilled become apparent when a dive takes a turn for the worse. Practiced skills rise to the surface and take over, where as unpracticed skills are quickly forgotten in a time of emergency.

The first step in stress control is focusing on your own personal training in both your physical skill set as well as your mental skill set. Your training should be ongoing and should be routinely evaluated for effectiveness and it should be practiced over and over. If you’re lacking in certain areas, seek help or training.

Other things you can do to control and reduce stress before and during a technical dive are:

  • Locate like-minded dive team members
  • Make a clear dive plan
  • Dive the plan you created
  • Discuss the dive procedures with everyone
  • Make a clear bailout plan if you have to cut the dive short
  • Maintain your equipment
  • Know your equipment
  • Use the appropriate equipment for the dive
  • Practice with your equipment
  • Don’t introduce too much “new to you gear” on any one dive
  • Communicate clearly with everyone on the team
  • Communicate your concerns to the team
  • Make sure the team knows and understands the same hand signals underwater
  • Know the environment you’re diving in (water temp, currents, etc.)
  • Get a good night’s sleep before the dive
  • Hydrate well prior to the dive
  • Intake the proper calories to sustain you through the dive
  • Mark your decompression tanks and place them or carry them so that you know exactly what gasses are in them and at what depth you’re switching to them so that it’s smooth and easy
  • Practice relaxation techniques prior to the dive
  • Go through the dive in your head (visualize the dive)
  • Know each of the skill levels for each member of your dive team
  • Go over emergency skills with everyone on the team prior to the dive
  • Communicate your dive plan to someone on the surface
  • Carry a set of backup tables if you’re diving a computer in case the computer fails
  • Calculate turn around times for the dive based on depth, time, distance, gas consumption, etc.
  • Know “your” abilities, limitation, and training level. This is extremely important. Over-judging your abilities can significantly impair a dive team if you’re called upon to perform during a stressful situation and you’re skills and mindset aren’t up to the task.

Millott, Robert F., Murphy, Milledge, Horodyski, Mary Beth, and Delude, Neil. Article: “Stress and Decompression Illness: Are They Related?”

Mount, Tom and Gilliam, Brett. Mixed Gas Diving. San Diego, CA: Watersport Publishing, Inc., 1993.

Mount, Tom. Technical Diver Encyclopedia. The International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers/IAND, Inc., 2003.