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How to overcome a fear of deep water

Swimmer and sport psychology consultant Helen Davis suggests some psychological techniques to help you to overcome your fear of deep water.

Fear. It is a common emotion experienced by many swimmers – particularly in the ever-changing environment of open water. Not being able to see the bottom in the sea, lake or river can throw even the most experienced swimmer. Symptoms can vary depending on the level of fear, but can typically include extreme anxiety, dread and feelings of panic such as shortness of breath, rapid breathing, sweating and nausea. But working on your mind-set can help you overcome your fear of depth.

Prepare yourself physically and mentally

By approaching the depth of open water in the right mental state, it can help you cope with fears and hopefully enable you to feel more relaxed as you swim and enjoy the experience.

Alongside some physical preparation (eg, regular practise in greater depth water etc), also take the time to prepare mentally. The approach that you take when thinking about the depth is key to being successful. Make a mental preparation plan to work on and view your next swim in deep water as a challenge that you can meet. Consider the following mental strategies to help:

  • Acknowledge your fear of not being able to see the bottom and know that it is something that you find difficult, but you are going to work on changing it.
  • Keep perspective; many people fear deep water, and everyone has a different degree of discomfort with very deep water.
  • Tell yourself what you can do, eg, “I am an able swimmer and I know I can swim this distance”; “I can enjoy the environment around me while I am swimming”.
  • Practise positive self-talk, eg, “When I am swimming I am going to focus on my technique and the feeling of the water against my skin”.
  • Make an ‘if…then’ plan; “if… I start feeling anxious when I can’t see the bottom, then… I will…count upwards to 20 in my head or focus on my hand entry into the water”.
  • Boost your self confidence – choose phrases to give you a boost; “I can do this” attitude.
  • Focus on what you can control, eg, your swim speed or your technique.
  • Remind yourself that you are focusing on what you need to do in order to be successful at swimming in deep water.

It is easy to magnify the demands of swimming in deep water, but thinking about the right things at the right time will help you keep perspective.

Remember, how you think, will affect how you feel, which in turn affects your behaviour. So, thinking positively about swimming in deep water will help you to feel more confident about doing it, which in turn will lead to desired behaviour. This could just mean giving it a go.

As always with swimming in open water, and particularly deep water, make sure you follow our safety advice to ensure you stay safe when swimming outdoors.

Safety guidance specific to the COVID-19 crisis from Swim England, the RLSS UK and British Triathlon is available here.

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