How to Get Over Your Fears and Breathe Underwater

About 5 years ago, my husband and I decided to get certified to Scuba Dive.  Hell, we live in Hawaii.  How could we leave here without giving it a try?  I had been snorkeling many times before and I never had any problems breathing through a snorkel, so I did not foresee how terrified I would be.  Before you ever take your course, you have to read through the book they give you.  You learn all about the dangers, including how deep you can safely go, what happens to the air inside of your body as you go deeper, why you need to clear your ears, why you need to ascend so slowly, why you need to wait a certain amount of time in between dives and how long and how deep you can safely dive if you go twice.  You learn about how long you have to wait before you fly in an airplane after you dive, not to hold your breath, to empty all of the air out of your BCD before you start to ascend.  This is, obviously, all very important.

I was very excited about learning to dive until we practiced for the first time.  Your first practice is in shallow water.  You learn how to put all the gear together, you practice putting your mask on and off under water, you practice safety breathing, you practice all of the emergency prep stuff that you might need when you go deep.  You also practice swimming around under water.

This cat breathes underwater better than I do.

In Hawaii we are lucky.  We don’t have to practice this stuff in a pool, we can just go to a shallow, calm section of the ocean, put on the gear on shore and wade right in.  And it was then that I realized how heavy the gear is.  The weight of the air tank did something to me mentally.  And when I waded into the water and put my head in, I panicked.  Something in my head was saying, “you are going to put your head under water and try to breathe and that is seriously stupid.”  I am not one to quit, so I basically forced myself to go through the motions.  I had my husband there and our instructor, so I was able to pack down the terror by basically telling myself that they know I’m new at this, they will watch me closely and they won’t let me drown.

Then, as part of your class, you do a deep dive and a shallow dive.  I didn’t fully admit to myself how terrified I was, I think I told myself it was just because I was a beginner.  But the fear got in my way so much that it was hard to concentrate on what everything did.  I had a really hard time remembering the name of the gear, how much weight I put in my BCD, how to connect the regulator, and kind of let the instructor set everything up for me.  I got through those dives again, by thinking that the instructor was going to keep an eye on me and not let me drown.  Awesome.  

After the class was over it was another year before we dove again.  We went with a dive group and I felt okay knowing that we would have a dive leader who would remind us of what to do and stick around us just in case something went wrong.  My husband and I were buddies, and I knew he would keep an eye on me.  Well, I jumped off the boat for the dive, got to the rope and couldn’t force myself to go down.  I panicked.  I put my head under, started to sink and then started flailing like I was drowning.  The dive leader came back up and told me to breathe out, I did, calmed down enough and went down the rope.  I had an okay time, but I struggled with how much air to keep in my BCD and kept thinking about my breath.  We saw fun stuff, but I spent most of the dive thinking about my breathing.

The second dive was similar, minus the panicking at the top of the rope.  I kind of floated around with the group thinking of all the things that could go wrong, and trying not to move too much.  Then, on the way up, my husband went just a little too fast.  He was having a hard time keeping himself on the rope.  The dive leader grabbed him and pulled him down, but it was a struggle to go slow enough.  When we got to the surface he had a small bloody nose, but everything else seemed to be okay.  The dive leader, who I will not name, did not check on him.  He did not explain to him why he might have been going to fast, or even talk to him at all about it.  We got back to shore and later than night he had pains in his chest.  Yes, we probably should have gone to the doctor and we are idiots that we didn’t immediately head off to the emergency room.  He was okay in the morning, so we just went on about our lives.

So, when we go the opportunity to go scuba diving on Christmas Day this year I had mixed feelings.  I was excited and I was terrified.  I remembered how the last trip went.  I checked the weather and surf- there was supposed to be big waves and very little visibility.  Things weren’t looking great.  But I decided that since the only thing I could control out of the whole situation was myself, that I would do so.

Christmas Eve, before I fell asleep, I did a visualization of myself, with the gear on, breathing fantastically.  I recalled the way it felt breathing out of an air tank, and I reminded myself that it would feel different, but it was safe.  I thought of all of the things I could do to make this trip go better.  And I took charge.

That morning two of the five that were supposed to go diving didn’t go.  So I told my husband and our friend, Brian, that I reserved the right to go on the boat and decide not to go in the water.  Of course, they agreed.  Just that one thing made me feel better already.  They were okay if I decided it was unsafe.  When we got to the group, and the leader asked us if we were comfortable divers, I flat out told him, no, I was kind of terrified and I hadn’t been diving in years.  The truth felt good.  We got on the boat and we started to put our gear together.  I told Brian that I had some dumb questions, including “What the hell do I do now?” and “How do you scuba dive?” and similar questions.  He is experienced, so I let him walk my husband and I through how to put the gear together.  And this time, knowing that I was more in control, I really watched.  I asked questions about how much weight I should wear and how when I should fill my vest and really listened to the answers.  I told the dive leader that I might go really slow, I might decide to turn back.  I also made sure he knew that my husband has tubes in his ears, so there was a possibility that he wouldn’t be able to clear his ears, and in that case, we would both be going back to the surface.  Again, the truth felt really good.  And this time, when I jumped in the water, I felt much better.  I remembered to breathe out, take my time, do a really quick meditation and when I got to the rope, I let all the air out to descend.  I wasn’t heavy enough and couldn’t get under water.  But the leader came over and made sure all the air was out of my vest and helped me go under.  I reminded myself that I was in control.  I knew what my gear was for.  I took my time and went slow.  I made sure to concentrate on all of the cool stuff happening around me, like the bubbles coming from the divers below me.  I made sure to clear my ears and looked at the rope in my hands.  As long as I was concentrating on the good stuff, the fears about my breathing went away.  I made sure, the entire dive, that when I started to feel the panic about my breathing, to breathe out, and to look at my surroundings and pick something to concentrate on.  The only time I allowed myself to think about my breathing was to check my air level periodically and to make sure I wasn’t holding my breath.  As long as I was enjoying the moment, the experience, the fish, the bubbles, the wreck, and the Eagle Rays that we saw, I was totally fine.  We went very slow on the way up, and I appreciated that.  Nathan started to float a bit again, and go fast, but he held on, the leader made sure he didn’t go too fast.


The next thing that happened was the most important for me, and why I was able to do the second dive in utter bliss, and am excited to go diving again someday.  When we got back on the boat and took our gear off our leader came over to check up on us.  He explained why I didn’t get all of the air out of my vest and couldn’t go under at first.  He explained what to do next time.  He explained to my husband why he was going up so fast last time, and what to do next time.  We talked about the dive, the cool stuff we saw and problem solved a few things so that the next one would be even better.

I set up my own gear for the second dive, and when I descended the rope, it was such a joy.  We went very, very slowly, because my husband was having difficulty clearing his ears.  At one point I thought we might have to go back up, but it would have been okay.  It was that feeling of accomplishment, that I had overcome complete panic and terror to be able to breathe underwater with such ease.  And that dive was amazing.  I was able to swim a tiny bit farther away and look at things on my own.  The dive went great and we went slowly to the top.

Taking the time to overcome of of my fears was one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever received.  Is there anything that you were able to overcome in 2013?  Celebrate it with us below in the comments!


Author: Mary Preston, LMFT

I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Life Coach. Through dealing with my own anxiety and attention difficulties over the years I have discovered many useful practices and tools to help regain focus, shift my attention to what’s important and to stay organized enough to get the life that I want. In my practice I work primarily with women and children with Anxiety, ADHD and Depression and I share what I’ve learned to get them back on track to living a full, purpose filled life.

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