Managing Stress – The stress response in diving

Before we can talk about how to manage stress, we must first understand what stress is and how it arises, specifically in a diving context. Stress has become a very negative word, I’m stressed, he stresses out…. but in fact stress can be positive, eu-stress and negative, dis-stress. In diving a little stress can be quite useful in focussing the mind and offsetting the complacency that very experienced divers can allow to settle in.

Stress itself refers to the degree (Intensity of reaction) and direction (eu stress or distress) of our response to a stimulus or stressor. The reaction can be mental, emotional or physical and is generally a combination of all three. This results in an emotional outburst / reaction, a mental (thought process) reaction and some sort of behaviour. At best this is a mild emotional response, a quick decision on the problem identification and a behavioural response to fix the issue. Eg. Balls I’ve a free flow, best close right post, close and reopen right post, free flow sorted. At worst the emotion takes over, clouds judgement and irrational behaviour results. Eg. Oh shit a free flow, I’m losing gas, bolt for the surface!

What is dangerous to assume though is that for a given stressor, we will have a consistent reaction. Even if the circumstances and the environment are exactly the same, there’s a whole host of factors that will influence our stress response. In no particular order these include….
Fatigue – the more tired we are the stronger the emotional response will be. The emotional response is the last one we really want to have as it uses up the resources we have to think and do our way out of the situation.
Dehydration – restricts our ability to think and adds to fatigue
Emotional state – even a bit of bad news before the dive, an argument with the spouse, an incident of road rage, increases emotional activation And makes it more likely our response will be emotional in nature, more bad news.
Poor nutrition – low blood sugar / glycogen levels can decrease our ability to cope with the stress hormonal response, as well as contribute to fatigue.
No recent experience – our trained or experienced reactions to situations fade over time into memory. The longer we have not been in a situation, the longer it will take to recall the past experiences and an appropriate response.
Consequence – it’s obvious really, a stressor in a cave or at 100m Is going to have far greater consequences than on a 10m scenic dive. The greater the perceived consequence, and the key word here is perceived, the more severe the stress reaction will be.

Let’s focus on the distress part, as for stress management in diving this is clearly of the most importance. Most of us, at one point or another on a dive have been a little stressed. Swimming in a current, a gear failure, put under pressure by an instructor on a drill, etc. we’ve taken this as a normal reaction and hopefully learned from it and coped with it. How did we do that?

Well, moderated by the factors above as soon as we identified the stressor, we first decided If it was relevant to us (there’s a bull shark, is it interested in me? Yes or no) we then tried to match that to previous experiences…. I’ve dived with sharks before, no problems, threat appraisal is minimal, Have I resources to cope with this, then we decide on an action or behaviour – keep an eye out.

The key to this is whether we believe we have enough resources (previous experience, equipment, training, skills, recent practice, help from team mates etc) to cope. This perceived coping potential is far more important that the reality of whether we can cope or not. If we believe we can cope this is where sometimes we can “survive the unsurvivable” and where we perceive we can’t cope this is generally where we end up as a victim or casualty.

Stress management then is about handling the stress reaction appropriately by controlling the factors we can control that exacerbate the response, and by increasing our perceived coping potential. This usually means increasing our actual coping potential as well. How we can do this will follow in part 2.

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