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August 2007    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Survival Psychology of Divers

how do you react when the worst happens?

from the August, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dr. John Leach is an English researcher studying why some people survive while others die in identical life-threatening situations. He theorizes that any emergency situation can be broken down into several phases -- pre-impact, impact, recoil, rescue and post-trauma.

Before a disaster occurs, the most common psychological response is “denial,” and the most common action is “inactivity.” Most of us don’t believe a life-threatening diving emergency will ever happen to us. Therefore, we tend to make no preparations for emergency. How will you react when a disaster does occur? Almost all of us would say something like, “I will evaluate the situation, figure out the best course of action from several choices, and follow it.” But in real-life emergencies, very few people are actually capable of doing this.

During the impact phase of an emergency, when you either live or die in the next few seconds or minutes, only 10 to 20 percent of people will remain relatively calm and be able to “think, make decisions and act.” So up to 90 percent of us will not be able to think, make decisions or act. Approximately 75 percent of people will “be stunned and bewildered,” writes Leach. “They will not be able to think effectively and will act in a semi-automatic, almost mechanical manner.” The remaining 10 to 15 percent will demonstrate “uncontrolled and inappropriate behavior.”

A rare person will be able to function normally. A few more will be able to think, make decisions and act, but they will not be as sharp and clear-headed as normal. Most people won’t be able to think their way through a problem but they will be able to react without really thinking. The remaining small group of people will panic or do things in other ways that actually increase their chances of dying.

As mentioned, a few divers actually panic. A large number of people demonstrate “paralyzing anxiety.” They can be literally “frozen solid” with all of their muscles rigid, or more commonly commonly they will be relaxed but incapable of movement because their thought processes have become “circular” -- they think the same things over and over and cannot move. Most people experience perceptual narrowing or tunnel vision, incapable of considering the entire situation but focusing only on one part of it. They cannot think of several responses, they can only think of one. The most common response, even during the diving emergency, is denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”

Up to 90 percent of us won’t be able to
make decisions, think or act.

Some people will demonstrate “hyperactivity,” appearing to be purposeful and demonstrating leadership so many bewildered survivors will follow them. Unfortunately, they will often not be thinking clearly and the actions they get the group to do are ineffective or inappropriate. They reduce the chance of the group surviving. Many people will demonstrate “stereotypical behavior,” partly denying the situation. They’ll demonstrate will-learned behavior, even if it’s inappropriate to the situation. Others will be irrational, which often reduces chances of survival. Finally, many people will demonstrate anger, some will feel guilt and a few will suffer psychological breakdown during the survival phase. People give up and die or they actively commit suicide.

Therefore, diver training is critical for survival. First, it forces us to think and focus on the various emergency situations we are likely to encounter while diving, and to figure out what we will do. That reduces the chances of us denying the danger and, more importantly, it allows us to do most of the thinking ahead of time so that during the actual life-threatening situation we can simply react. We don’t have to “solve the problem” because we already did that while training. The second main benefit of training is to practice the response. We can learn the response so that we can perform it without thinking. Knowing that most of us won’t be able to problem-solve during the emergency reinforces the importance of practicing emergency drills.

Before the dive, especially a high-risk one, I sit down and think through all the likely emergencies, and plan how I’ll respond to them. This determines what equipment I wear during the dive, and reminds me to keep gear as simple as possible. I plan what I’ll do if any piece of gear fails during the dive. If you dive long enough, virtually every piece of gear you wear will fail during a dive sometime.

At the beginning of the dive, preferably after I’ve entered the water, I touch every piece of equipment I’m wearing and think about what I’ll use it for. This ensures I can actually reach it, and reinforces my memory of what gear I’m wearing and where it’s located on my body. (I wear several completely different gear configurations depending on the dive, ranging from single-tank open circuit, to seven tanks and regulators, to a closed circuit rebreather with up to four emergency bottles. All these may be with or without a scooter, camera, survey gear, line reels, etc.) As much as possible, you want to wear one equipment configuration all the time to simplify your response during an emergency.

Simply based on their psychological response to stress, 10 to 15 percent of the population should not start diving. Most people can take up diving but many will be unable to think at all during an emergency. However, they will be able to react with a previously well-learned behavior. If it is appropriate for the emergency, they’ll survive. If it’s not, they’ll die. These people should restrict their diving to single-tank open circuit, no decompression and shallow water less than 100 feet – “easy” diving. In this scenario, there is really only one emergency response: exhale and make a controlled ascent to the surface.

Some divers will be able to function minimally during an emergency, so it’s reasonable for them to undertake slightly more complex diving. This group includes advanced openwater divers. Obviously, everyone who takes a basic scuba course should not move on to advanced diving, but they should periodically take refresher courses.

As the diving becomes more complex, more complex responses are required during an emergency. Ideally, only the 10 to 20 percent of the population capable of active problemsolving during an emergency should take up cave and technical diving. One of the most dangerous situations I see is divers moving into more advanced diving for all the wrong reasons; they are trying to “keep up with their friends” or they are trying to “prove themselves.” In cave and technical diving, I often see divers who are trying to “prove they aren’t afraid” when in reality they’re terrified. Limit your diving to what is reasonable for you, take more training and practice your emergency drills frequently to stay safe underwater.

David Sawatzky, M.D., is a diving medical specialist and has written a diving medical column in the Canadian magazine Diver for the past 10 years. A version of this article appeared in a recent issue of Diver.

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