Scuba diving can be an experience that opens up a new world of exploration, but many people approach it with anxiety, and for good reason. Being underwater can be disorienting, and after all, we are hard-wired to avoid breathing under water. This was the case for me when my husband, Bill, wanted to learn to dive and wanted me to do it with him. It was a journey of almost 20 years, but I finally overcame my fear and was able to enjoy diving with my husband and our two sons. Here’s how I overcame bad training and learned to love scuba.
The Beginning: The Worst Scuba Training
It started in 2000, when Bill wanted to learn to dive and convinced me to join him. I was relatively comfortable in the water, having been a casual swimmer since I was a child, but the idea of not having easy access to the surface and all the air I could breathe was daunting. Somehow, he managed to talk me into it, but unfortunately, our training was less than ideal. We had at least 12 students to one instructor, whom I’ll call Bob, and his wife, “Melinda,” who was the assistant instructor. The initial instruction was given in the pool where we were loaded down with weight, kneeling on the bottom, and learning skills such as how to breathe through the regulator.
One of the skills was mask removal and replacement, which made me incredibly uncomfortable. I struggled many times with this skill, and instead of working with me patiently, Bob singled me out and said, “Go over there and work with Melinda. She works with our problem students.” Melinda was kind and tried to work with me patiently, but now it seemed like all eyes were on me, the “problem student,” which didn’t help my anxiety one bit. With that said, I somehow passed the skills in the pool portion of the course.
The Weekend of Diving: Overweighted and Uncomfortable
The pool portion of the training was over, and it was time for our weekend of diving at the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, NM. The Blue Hole is a constant 62° F (17° C), so it was COLD, especially since we had signed up for certification in November. (What were we thinking?) Unfortunately, we were completely overweighted, which neither of us realized at the time. At the time, I weighed about 145 pounds, and wearing just a 7mm wetsuit, Bob put 28 pounds of weight on me! I guess he didn’t want to teach proper descent techniques – too much wasted time.
I got into the Blue Hole, shivering before I’d even begun, and then, along with my fellow students, sunk like a lead weight. I somehow got through all the skills, including mask removal (while holding my nose) in that frigid water, but I didn’t feel comfortable, nor did I think it was fun. I had no real idea what I was doing, and frankly, I thought the whole experience sucked.
Somehow, we both passed and got our certification cards, though especially in my case, I probably shouldn’t have. After we were certified, we did try to do a couple of shore dives because Bill wanted to, but every attempt was disastrous, and I swore off diving for many years.
Overcoming the Fear: A Journey 20 Years Later
Fast forward nearly 20 years, and Bill had not only gone back to diving, but had become a master scuba instructor. However, I still remembered how awful I had felt all those years before and didn’t want to try again. Nevertheless, when we planned a trip to Cancun in 2019 and our teenage sons had gotten certified, I didn’t want to be left out. Before going, Bill worked with me in the pool, and I learned how to dive while properly weighted. It feels strikingly different to dive when neutrally buoyant – it turns out I only need about 10 pounds of weight in fresh water.
Even though I felt much more comfortable, I still had a LOT of anxiety from those terrible first dives. So I used visualization, calming self-talk, and breathing techniques to help myself cope. I had learned these techniques through many years of practicing yoga. I consciously breathed in slowly for the count of four and exhaled slowly for the count of four, and when necessary, told myself “Relax. This is okay.” This helped me stay calm and focused, and I was able to enjoy diving for the first time, ever! I also worked on my fear of mask removal and was even able to tolerate it without panicking when our son kicked my mask half off my face in Cancun. The techniques helped me feel comfortable in the water, and I actually enjoyed seeing the fish, sea turtles, and rays in Cancun, and later, when we went to Jamaica in 2021.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to remember that the fear of diving is a natural response, and it’s okay to feel that way. However, there are ways to overcome it. The first, and most important thing, is to find the right instructor. Too many dive shops want to turn out many students as fast as they can and don’t really care that much about teaching you real skills that will keep you safe. Find an instructor who will work with students who are properly weighted from the beginning. Here at Viking Dives, the instructors teach small classes (never more than 3 students). Our instructors prioritize student comfort and safety, and students are never overweighted. And, Bill actually learned something from me – his instructors teach the breathing and visualization techniques I use. If you’re not local to Albuquerque, ask questions of your local dive shops to find out their methods and find the right instructor for you. We cover more on this topic here.
To sum up, if you’re feeling nervous about diving, don’t give up! Keep trying, and you may be surprised at how much you end up enjoying it. My experience with scuba diving shows that with the right training and mindset, the fear of diving can be overcome. With the right approach and techniques, you can learn to feel comfortable in the water and enjoy the underwater world. Don’t let fear hold you back from experiencing the thrill and adventure of scuba diving!