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Scuba Diving While Being Claustrophobic: How I overcame my fear to dive

I have one phobia, and that is claustrophobia. I can jump off from high places, go on any ride at the amusement park, and am completely free to roam how I choose. Put me in a trapped location and I’ll freak out. My claustrophobia gives me problems every time I need an MRI, have traffic gridlock inside a tunnel, or stand in a crowded entryway of a building. When I get an MRI, I need something to know me out to get through it. For the others, I usually look up at the ceiling and breath slowly.

I’ve been snorkeling now for about 20 years, and still, claustrophobia sneaks up on an occasional dive. The first time I put the mask on, I have a bit of a freakout. I take about 10 minutes to get comfortable with the mask on before I dive. Once I’m comfortable, I’m good to dive and spend the rest of the trip feeling comfortable in the water.

On my most recent trip to Cozumel, my wife and I gave scuba diving a try. Cozumel, Mexico is known for its gorgeous reef and I’ve spent a lot of time snorkeling there. I have always wanted to try scuba diving, and it seemed like the perfect time to try. When I agreed to scuba diving, I was at a good point. Later, the creeping feeling of “You can’t do this” gnawed its way into my head. Slowly, the doubt crawled from my head into the deepest part of my chest, causing my insides to close in. People who are claustrophobic know that feeling.

The night before the scuba diving trip, I googled as many scuba diving stories as I could and looked up how people with claustrophobia got through tight spots. My doom scrolling didn’t help as later on that night, I tossed and turned, thinking about how stupid I was going to look during a panic attack.

When met our diving guide at the boat and she asked if we were excited and ready. I flat out told her “no,” that I wasn’t excited nor ready. I let the instructor know of my fears and issues. She was sympathetic and told me I had nothing to worry about.

As the boat took off, she went through what all the equipment did and how to use it. She also assured me she was going to be right there with me if I needed anything. After we ran through what everything did, she handed me the tube to my oxygen tank and told me to practice while pinching my nose. For the rest of the boat ride to our first diving spot, I held my nose tightly as I breathed through my nose. At first, I thought, “I cannot do this.” Minutes after breathing with my nose pinched shut, my breathing slowed down as I got used to breathing without my nose.

Our first stop was at a shallow beach where we jumped out of the boat and floated. With my mask on and feeling nervous, we slowly descended underwater. The guide kept her eyes on me and floated down with me, making eye contact the whole way. With her hands mimicking flowing air in and out, we sank down to our knees. She pointed out fish while continuing to remind me to breathe at a normal pace.

While underwater and on our knees, we went through a series of drills, such as if your tube falls out of your mouth, what happens if water leaks into your mask, and moving up slowly to the surface. I felt the need to panic as I lifted the tube from my mouth but went through the drill as they instructed me, and everything was fine. After a couple of practices, I was a pro. The same goes for blowing water out of the mask. (You pinch the top of the mask and do a farmer’s blow out your nose.)

We stopped at two more locations where we dived 50 feet down. All the stress that I had vanished. The dive was peaceful, and I was so thankful to have gone through the experience. We saw a wide variety of ocean life and I was amazed at the colors at the bottom of the sea. At no time did I feel claustrophobic and felt free to swim and look around. I loved it so much I’m hoping to get certified over the next year to go deeper and more often.

Don’t let being claustrophobic stop you from experiencing something great. Here are 5 things that helped me and maybe they’ll help you.

  1. Buy a mask and wear it around. Yes, that sounds stupid and you’ll look stupid, but comfort is a big deal when overcoming claustrophobia. I highly recommend getting used to a snorkel mask before you go scuba diving.
  2. Practice breathing with the oxygen tank. This was the biggest help. As you read above, I pinched my nose and breathed through the oxygen tube until I was comfortable. If I had jumped into the water without that practice, I doubt I could’ve had a successful dive.
  3. Find a good dive instructor. The dive instructor was patient and kind and at no time made me feel silly about my feelings. Most dive instructors want a good Yelp review, so they probably will be.
  4. Keep moving. As I swam around at the bottom of the ocean, I couldn’t help but get hypnotized by the beautiful marine life. There are so many things to see and explore that if you stay active in looking, you’ll forget momentarily about all the things that scare you.
  5. And last, breathe. You’ve probably been told to breathe slowly in all your claustrophobic moments. The same goes for scuba diving. But, try to breathe normally. Breath like you would at any other time in your life, just through a tube. Remind yourself that you’ve got plenty of air and nothing is going to happen to you.

Have fun diving.

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