'The times when I have been diving regularly have been my happiest,' says scuba diver and instructor Imogen Gray, long-time sufferer of generalised anxiety disorder and depression.
Scuba diving and mental health have a contentious history. As mental health is something that is still not widely understood, it is difficult for medical professionals to advise on our safety during what can be a dangerous sport. Ultimately, when diving we are in an environment which does not naturally support human life, and therefore we must ensure that we are as safe as possible while doing it.
However, it has been proven that diving does have a positive impact on mood, promotes mindfulness and from a study by the University of Sheffield’s Medical School we can now say that it also improves levels of anxiety, depression and social functioning as well as a reduction in insomnia.
As someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression for over a third of my life, I can say with complete confidence that diving has undoubtedly had a positive effect on my mental health, and times when I have been diving regularly have been my happiest.
So how does this work? What is it about scuba diving that can improve mental wellbeing?
Anyone who has been to see a counsellor or therapist has been told to be more active. Common recommendations are running, joining a local sports team or a Zumba class, but that’s beside the point. It has been proven time and time again that being more active is one of the most successful ways to improve your mood. But for lots of people (and especially for me), running is boring, sports teams are hard to find and the social aspect terrifying, and Zumba classes are way too high energy. Scuba diving? Perfect.
Whilst diving, you’re being a lot more active than it seems. Despite often moving slowly underwater, you’re constantly swimming and using core muscles to keep trim (horizontal and streamlined). Turns out, you’re actually doing a lot more than you thought you were doing!
Department of Health's 2011 report Start Active, Stay Active claims that there is clear evidence that regular physical activity can reduce levels of depression, stress and anxiety in adults by 20-30%.
Deep breathing and mindfulness
The number one rule of scuba diving is to breathe. It sounds like an obvious thing, but you’d be amazed how many instinctively hold their breath when their heads dip beneath the surface. Because breathing is so core to the world of diving, along with it comes a focus on breath. If you have ever taken a yoga class, tried meditation or even listened to a sleep podcast, you’ll know the importance of focussed breathing. As soon as your attention is drawn to the way you breathe, how long each inhale and exhale is, there is an almost instantaneous calm which falls over you. This calm, meditative state can do wonders for the mind.
While underwater, we also have the privilege of being in a sound vacuum. This, combined with the deep breathing, the peaceful setting and the mindfulness which comes with diving can create a safe space to escape your worries and let them go. Let them drift away on the current. Your worries can’t find you when you’re underwater.
Social without being overwhelming
This is one of my personal favourites. As someone who suffers from social anxiety, I find it very hard to talk to people I don’t know. Networking is a nightmare and being left alone with people I don’t know is basically my version of a living hell. So yes, when I was 18 I thought it would be a great idea to travel to the other side of the world on my own to become a diving instructor. I cannot tell you how awful that first day was. After the excitement had worn off and I realised I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t make myself talk to people, I wanted to go home. I am so glad I didn’t give up.
Diving brings people together. No matter where you are in the world, no matter what language you speak, all divers speak the language of the sea. We have all had magnificent experiences underwater to bond over, we all love the sport and want to gush over it so there’s always common ground. More than that, while underwater you don’t say a single word! Diving hand signals are universal, but it also (for me, at least) removes some of the anxiety of having to speak to people. Every diver must have a buddy, so even if you travel somewhere alone, you will have to dive with someone else. The buddy check before diving is almost a script to follow which can also ease the anxiety of speaking, and then once the dive is over, you may have gained some confidence to discuss the dive and then ease into general conversation.
I find that diving has stepping stones to help with social interaction and conversation. There are set talking points and common ground that make things easier. But more than that, with a dive club you can build a group of friends and a community to share your love of diving with.
Is club life for me?
We believe scuba divers get much more out of the sport as part of a club. BSAC club diving offers the most thrilling, challenging and rewarding diving you are ever likely to do. It offers adventure, opportunity, friendship and fun.
However, mental health conditions are very personal and are very different from person to person. Something which helps me may not help you, and as with anything, you shouldn’t become dependent on something. While diving may improve your mental health, it should not be used to improve mental health.
Always declare mental health conditions in self-certification diving medical forms. It’s very easy to miss this off and say you don’t have a diagnosis, or even worse, deny your diagnosis. Saying yes on a self-certification medical form does not mean that you cannot dive, it just means that you need to consult a medical referee recommended by the UK Diving Medical Committee. It is important to discuss your mental health with a medical professional before diving, to ensure you are safe whilst underwater.
I have been out of the water for two years due to my medication, but I know that my need for medication is greater than my need to dive.
Find out more:
- Mental Health, Sport and BSAC
- UK Diving Medical Committee
- Eugene Farrell's BSAC Conference 2019 talk - Mental health: the conversation continues
About the author
Imi is BSAC's Marketing Assistant but has been a scuba diver since the age of 10, before becoming an instructor at 18 while travelling Indonesia. Despite being a diver for 14 years, she is yet to dive in UK waters and is anxious to jump back in as soon as possible. Watch this space for updates! Imi is the person behind BSAC's social media and you can often find her posting on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.