A fear of water is also known as aquaphobia, and it is a very common phobia. The good news, however, is that it is possible to overcome this fear by working through a structured approach and certain exercises. Overcoming a fear of water is essential, as water safety is one of the most basic life skills. Additionally, being able to swim is a huge source of fun and fitness.
We will cover this topic in two blog posts. The first looks at the causes of this fear and at some basic exercises that can be used as a starting point to grow confidence. These exercises are suitable for all ages and abilities and can – and should – be done entirely at your own pace.
The Causes of Aquaphobia
Aquaphobia is one of the most common fears amongst non-swimmers. A fear of water can lead to a terrible feeling of being paralysed when off dry land, and it has a number of underlying potential causes. One typical one is an instinctive fear that exists on a very primal level: the fear of actually drowning. There is also a subconscious fear of the unknown and uncertainty about what is below the water, particularly in muddy, cloudy or deep waters.
Sometimes the phobia is linked to a traumatic earlier experience in life, often in childhood, or sometimes children develop a fear of water through their parents’ own phobias. Another common cause is an ingrained fear that has grown through stressful teaching methods from teachers who used inadequate training techniques in earlier years. The causes are complex, but they all lead to a very real fear that limits the individual in their life to some extent.
If you do suffer from aquaphobia, it’s important not to beat yourself up or believe that you are alone. Every individual will have a different level of confidence in the water, and this will adjust according to the context. Even experienced indoor swimmers will experience anxiety to a certain degree when they swim outdoors or in an unfamiliar location. This is perfectly normal. So the first point to remember is that you are not alone by any means and that you needn’t worry about ‘standing out’ for all the wrong reasons.
The trick to overcoming your fear is to practise a few simple exercises in the water. Go to your local leisure centre at a quiet time. If necessary, do a practice run first so that you see the changing rooms and swimming pool itself before you plan to go in. This will give you a degree of comfort beforehand and allow you to tackle one new thing at a time. Head straight to the shallow end of the pool, where the water is not above chest height. This means that your feet can remain on the floor, and you will feel secure.
A swimming pool is the best environment to start with because the water is clear. Wear swimming goggles so that you don’t need to worry about water getting into your eyes. With goggles you can relax because your eyes will be open and you will be able to see around you freely.
If you can, bring a friend with you who can stand next to you whilst you do the exercises. Ideally, pick a good swimmer so that you will have confidence about their ability to help. If you can’t find a suitable individual, ask the pool manager in advance if a lifeguard can watch you so that you have that extra support.
Just take everything slowly and focus on staying calm and comfortable. There is no rush. In some sessions you might just do one exercise, and in others you may have a rush of confidence and do a couple. Just follow your own pace, and if you start to feel that you are getting stressed or anxious, then slow down. Take baby steps and don’t put yourself under pressure.
Acclimatise to Your Surroundings
The first exercises focus on gaining a degree of comfort in the water. Start by sitting on the pool edge at the shallow end and let your feet and legs dangle into the pool. Sweep them over the water and enjoy the sensation. Scoop up water and splash your face with it so you become comfortable with the sensation of contact. Try splashing your face while you hold your breath, and keep your eyes open if you are wearing goggles. Notice that the water doesn’t go into your mouth or nose and that it feels refreshing.
If you are ready to enter the pool, use the ladder or steps in the shallow end and don’t go deep. Simply enjoy walking around and experience the sensation of the flowing water around you.
If you are feeling happy, then the following stages will help you to slowly put your head under the water comfortably in the shallow part of the pool.
To do this, hold your breath and then slowly bend your knees until your mouth is just floating above water level. Test how you feel at this point. Stand up if you start to feel shaky. As you practise this and notice your reactions, see if you get comfortable enough to put your mouth just under the water. Notice what is happening to your body and the fact that no water is getting into your mouth. If the water is still, then see if you can breathe through your nose while your mouth is under the water. Experiment with your nostrils touching the water – standing up between each ‘experiment’. As you do this, you’ll be learning that as long as you hold your breath, the water can touch your nose or go into your nostrils without any discomfort.
The next step is to bend your knees and crouch again, holding your breath, so that your nose also goes under the water, and the surface of the water stops just under your eyes. Your ears will be submerged at this point – just tip your head forward a little. You’ll notice that although some water will go into your nostrils, it will never go up very far, and it won’t hurt. Hold the position if you can and count to three before you stand up again.
Try it again, and move your head backwards slightly with a tilt. Gently move downwards until both your ears and nose are under the water but your eyes are above. Again, you are holding your breath so that no water will go into your mouth and just a little will go into your nostrils. Notice how the world sounds muffled when your ears are submerged.
The last stage is to move your eyes under the water too with your swimming goggles on. This will keep the water out of your eyes. Make sure you are still standing up to relax between each set, and take everything slowly. Once you are happy to gently put your face in the water, you can look at the strange underworld around you.
As you get more confident, bob up and down gently so that you experience the sensation of your head quickly dipping in and then back out of the water. This is the feeling you will have as you learn to swim the main strokes.
Learning to Blow Bubbles
Once you are at a stage where you can comfortably put your head underwater, you should congratulate yourself for achieving a significant milestone. The next step to tackling your fear is to learn how you can exhale comfortably in the water without any risk of water entering your mouth or nose. The best way to learn this is to blow bubbles.
To do this, simply remain in the shallow end, breathe in and hold your breath. Again, bend your knees and crouch so that your mouth goes under the surface of the water, but keep your nose above it. Slowly breathe out and blow a stream of bubbles. As long as you breathe out, no water can enter your mouth – in the same way that it can’t when you are holding your breath. To breathe in, stand back up again. Repeat the exercise but go a little deeper each time until you are happy to get your head entirely under the water.
At this point, you will have achieved two significant milestones. You will have learned to be comfortable in the water, and you will have put your head under the water and learned how to exhale. These are crucial steps in learning how to swim and achieve water confidence, so you should be very pleased.
You may want to get out of the pool at this point, or you may just want to remain in the water for a while and keep enjoying the sensations but without the pressure of needing to do more development exercises. Simply being in the water and experiencing what is happening to your body is a powerful route to learning confidence in the pool, so don’t rush anything.
In the next blog, we will look at another area of swimming preparation that looks frightening but is actually a lot of fun and involves minimal effort – floating