Derek Sivers

scuba, panic, empathy


I thought panic attacks were for fragile hysterical people that can’t deal with life. I had never had one.

I was visiting Iceland when I looked into a lake and saw how incredibly clear the water was. I thought, “Oooooh. I want to scuba dive in there!”

I had never been scuba diving, so I found a place where I could take a week of lessons, get certified, then dive in that spot.

The lessons were great. You learn hand signals to communicate underwater. The main two signals are the classic “OK” hand, and wobbling your flat hand to say “SOMETHING WRONG”.

The first time we went underwater, in a swimming pool, I found it so tranquil and relaxing.

But when you go into the icy ocean, you have to wear a dry suit over the wetsuit. The wetsuit is hard to get on, pulling with all your strength to get that thick neoprene foam over you. Then with that restricted mobility, you have to put on the dry suit, which is like an astronaut’s space suit. It was really uncomfortable and claustrophobic.

We got into the ocean, and started diving down. But when the water got darker, I was overcome with an urge to get out of there. I just wanted to be on the phone with my friend Meredith. I wanted to have my laptop on my lap, with a cup of tea, and answer emails. I wanted to be back at my hotel. More than anything, I wanted to talk with a friend. Right now! That’s it! I’m leaving!

I knocked on the teacher’s tank, pointed up, and went to the surface. Once above water, I ripped off my mask.

The teacher came up and said, “What’s wrong?”

I frantically said, “I don’t like this. I don’t want to do this. I don’t like it. I’m going home. I’ll see you later.”

The teacher, Tobi, was so calm and peaceful. I’ll never forget this moment. He looked at me carefully for a few seconds then slowly said, “Look around. It’s a nice day. See those mountains over there? It’s beautiful here. Let’s just relax for a few minutes.”

I inflated my BCD and just floated for a while, looking around.

He also appealed to my logic by explaining that if I were to leave now, on the last day of lessons, I wouldn’t get certified before leaving Iceland, wouldn’t see that crystal-clear lake, and my lessons would be wasted.

He was right, so I just relaxed, and kept looking at the mountains in the distance, appreciating the day.

After a minute or two, I wondered why I was so scared earlier. The terror was mostly gone. I still felt it a bit, but let reason take control. We went back underwater and finished the lesson.

That night, I looked back and figured I probably had a panic attack. How strange. I didn’t think I was that kind of person.

OK, so the next day, it was time for my first official dive, in that crystal-clear lake.

A German couple was there, talking about how many dives they had done around the world, but this was their first time in Iceland.

I put on my wetsuit and dry suit, still hating that suiting-up process, but I was so excited to get in the water. I got in, and it was so wonderful! So gorgeous! Look at the videos on the website. It really looks like that. So unbelievably beautiful. I was so happy. No fear at all. Just joy.

But down at 20 meters, I saw the German girl, all alone, looking confused.

I gave her the “OK?” hand signal, and she replied with the “SOMETHING WRONG” hand.

Thinking I had miscommunicated, I did it again clearer. “OK?” She replied again, “SOMETHING WRONG!”

Whoa. Wow. Umm.... I remembered what I had learned in my lessons. I held on to her BCD, and inflated hers and mine, keeping eye contact, staying with her as we rose slowly to the surface.

Once above water, she ripped off her mask. She frantically said, “I don’t like this! Too dark! Too cold! Too many clothes! It’s too much!”

Ah! Yeah. I recognize this now!

So I imitated my teacher. I calmly said, “Look around. It’s a nice day. See those mountains over there? It’s beautiful here. Let’s just relax for a few minutes.”

She calmed down, and her boyfriend arrived. I left and went back to enjoying my dive.

I learned a few lessons from this experience.

There are things in life we think won’t apply to us: Panic. Addiction. Depression.

I thought that was for other people. I thought I wasn’t that type. Why is this happening to me?

But I learned so much empathy that day. These things that only seem to happen to other people can happen to me. We’re not so different. It helps me recognize it in others, and be most helpful by remembering that feeling.

I imagine this is why people, who have been through really hard times, become counselors.

That day also reinforced the power of imitation. My teacher calmed me down so well that it was best to just imitate him.

I did my next scuba dive in Dominica, and once again started to feel panic when I got down to 40 meters. But this time I knew how to take care of myself. I went back up to a sunny spot at 30 meters, and sat there for a few minutes, doing what my Iceland teacher taught me. I looked around, enjoyed the scene, and relaxed until the feeling passed.

There are roles in life we think won’t be us: Teacher. Rescuer.

I thought those roles were for other people. But sometimes life puts you into that role.

Iceland Silfra underwater