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Overcoming Fear of Water and Swimming

Fear of water (thalassophobia) is the fear of being in or near large bodies of water.

This is a common fear in the population, especially among people who cannot swim.

This article discusses this fear and proposes a few basic exercises in the water to help you overcome this fear.

A man afraid of entering the water at a lake

Fear of Water – Causes

Fear of water can have lots of different causes:

  • It often exists as an instinctive fear related to the fear of drowning.
  • It can be caused by the fear of the unknown, of what might be lurking below the water surface in deep, cloudy or muddy waters.
  • It may be related to a bad experience that occurred in childhood.
  • It may have been transmitted to a child by parents that were themselves afraid of water.
  • It may have been ingrained by swim instructors that used inadequate or stressful methods to teach swimming.

Putting Things Into Perspective

You don’t need to feel bad if you are subject to fear of water because everyone has a different level of water confidence and this level of water confidence can change depending on circumstances.

For example, I acquired basic swimming skills as a child, and those skills have evolved with practice over the last few years since I took up swimming again.

Nowadays I’m not afraid of swimming in a pool or in small to medium ponds.

However, if I do swim in a lake or the ocean, I still have a certain level of anxiety before starting, and especially so if it’s in an unfamiliar location.

The point I want to make is that even experienced swimmers can sometimes experience fear of water or at least have a certain level of anxiety.

Basic Exercises – Instructions

Let’s now try to address your fear of water by doing a few basic exercises in the water.

To give you the maximum level of comfort while doing these exercises, I suggest the following:

1) All the exercises can and should be done in shallow water. There is no need for the water to go higher than your chest, so you can always feel safe.

2) Doing the exercises in a swimming pool with clear water is best because you can see what is (or more precisely isn’t) in the water and so you will be more relaxed than if you did the exercises in opaque water.

3) For the same reason, it’s advisable to wear swimming goggles while doing the exercises.

This way water won’t get into your eyes, and you will be able to keep them open all the time, which will help you to relax.

4) A supportive person being at your side while doing the exercises can be of great help, and especially so if he/she is an experienced swimmer that is comfortable in the water.

5) If you can’t get the help of a supportive person, I recommend that you do the exercises in a swimming pool supervised by a lifeguard which knows what you are trying to accomplish and can keep an eye on you.

6) Ideally, you should do the exercises when the swimming pool isn’t crowded, to avoid getting stressed out by people that splash or trash water around you.

There is no need to rush through the exercises. The primary goal is always to stay comfortable.

Even if you only manage to do one exercise per session at the pool, it doesn’t matter as long as you are comfortable. Slow down if you start feeling stressed out.

Even if it takes several weeks or months for you to complete all the exercises and overcome your fear of water, so be it. Think baby steps.

Acclimating To Water

To get started, we will do a few exercises for you to get comfortable being in contact with water and then to enter the water:

1) At the shallow end of the pool, sit across the pool edge and let your legs dangle in the water, sweeping back and forth. Take your time to enjoy the sensation of the water flowing around your legs.

2) Scoop up water with your hands and apply it to your face, as if to wash it. This is to get used to having your face being in contact with water.

3) Scoop up water with your hands again, hold your breath and then splash the water into your face. As you are wearing swim goggles, your eyes are protected, and you can try to keep them open.

As you are holding your breath and sitting upright, you should notice that the water can’t get into your nose and mouth. Enjoy the refreshing sensation of the water on your face.

4) Slowly get into the water via the steps or ladder in the shallow area of the pool. Make sure that the water doesn’t get above your chest.

Walk around for some time, staying in the shallow area of the pool. Enjoy the sensation of the water flowing around your body.

Submerging Your Head

The next few exercises will let you progressively lower your head into the water until you are comfortable having your head under water. For this exercise, we will stay in shallow water.

1) Hold your breath. Slowly crouch down until your lips are just above the water surface. How does it feel? See if you can get comfortable with having the water so close to your lips. Then stand up.

2) Hold your breath. Slowly crouch down (with mouth closed) and see if you can get your mouth underwater, having the water surface being between your mouth and your nose. Notice that water can’t get into your mouth.

3) After a while, notice that your nose is still above the water surface. If the water is calm and there are no waves, try to breathe through your nose while still having your mouth under water.

Notice that you can breathe through your nose even though your mouth is under water. Then stand up. Repeat this often to get comfortable breathing with your nose being so close to the water surface.

4) Hold your breath. Slowly crouch down until your mouth touches the water surface, then goes under water.

Crouch some more until your nostrils touch the water surface. If possible, hold this position for a few seconds, then stand up to breathe.

What you need to know at this point is that it is entirely ok to have water touching your nostrils or even having some water getting into your nostrils, as long as you are holding your breath and your head is upright.

Because of the way the nose connects with the head, water can’t rise high enough in your nose to get into sinuses in that position. It’s only when the water gets into the sinuses that it becomes unpleasant.

In fact, once you’ll have become an experienced swimmer, you will have water flowing into and out of your nostrils each stroke cycle, without ever having water getting into your sinuses and with you barely noticing.

A schema of the head and nose that demonstrates that having some water up the nostrils while being under water and holding one's breath is not a problem.
Having some water up your nostrils is OK

Now let’s get back to our exercises:

1) Again hold your breath, then crouch down until your nose is under water, the water surface being between your nose and your eyes. Your ears should not be underwater, so slightly tilt your head forward.

Again, notice how some water gets into your nostrils, but at the same time notice that it doesn’t rise very high in your nose and that because of this it doesn’t hurt.

Try to hold this position a few seconds, then stand up to breathe.

2) Hold your breath. Slowly crouch down as before. Now tilt your head slightly backward.

Slowly move down until your nose, and your ears are below the water surface, but your eyes are still above the water surface.

Because you are holding your breath no water can get into your mouth and only a little bit of water gets into your nose. Notice how water gets into your ears, and sounds become muffled.

Again try to hold this position a few seconds before standing up.

3) Now what you need to know at this point is that some water will get into your ears.

But this is also ok because the water will be prevented from going further by the eardrum and will flow out of the ear as soon as you leave the water. So you can’t get hurt.

4) Hold your breath. Now slowly crouch down and let the water cover your mouth, nose, ears and move further down up to the point where your eyes move below the water surface.

As you are wearing swim goggles (hopefully good ones), water can’t get into your eyes. Try to hold this position a few seconds, then stand up again and breathe.

Once you are comfortable with your eyes below the water surface and can keep your eyes open, take the time to observe this strange world below the water surface that opens up to you.

5) Once you are comfortable doing the previous exercise, you can add up the ante a little bit and make a bobbing motion, where you rhythmically submerge and emerge your head.

This will get you used to have your head being regularly submerged, which will be useful later on when learning how to swim the popular swimming strokes.

Blowing Bubbles

Once you are comfortable having your head under water, the next step to overcome your fear of water is to learn that it is possible to exhale in the water without getting water into your nose and mouth.

The best exercise for this is to learn how to blow bubbles.

1) Breathe in while standing in the shallow area of the pool and hold your breath. Then crouch down so that your mouth is below the water surface, but your nose is still above the water surface. Slowly exhale through your mouth, blowing bubbles in the water.

You will realize that as long as you do exhale, water can’t get into your mouth. The same is true if you do hold your breath. Stand up again to breathe in.

2) Repeat the previous exercise but now crouch down so far that only your eyes are above the water surface while your nose and mouth are below the water surface. Keep your mouth shut and now slowly blow bubbles through your nose.

Again you will notice that water can’t get into your nose as long as you hold your breath or exhale. Stand up to breathe.

3) Repeat the previous exercise but now blow bubbles in the water through both your nose and mouth.

4) Finally, repeat the previous exercise but with your head completely under water.

The Human Body Floats Well

So far, we have practiced a few basic exercises to overcome the fear of water and to get used to being in the water.

Now we will see that it is, in fact, easy to float in the water without much effort.

If you get anxious around bodies of water, you may believe that in the water you would sink to the ground like a stone.

If this is the case, it may come as a surprise to you that water, in fact, supports the human body very well. In most cases, people can float effortlessly without using their limbs as long as their lungs are filled with air.

This is because your body, being made of 60% of water, is slightly less dense than water provided that your lungs are filled with air.

Additionally, you may (or may not) remember Archimedes’ Principle from school:

Any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.

This means that water will tend to push you up to the surface because your body is less dense than water!

Mushroom Float

Mushroom float is a simple exercise you can do that demonstrates the human body’s natural tendency to float:

Here’s how to do Mushroom Float:

1) Stand in the shallow area of the pool.

2) Take a deep breath and then hold your breath.

3) Curl up into a ball by drawing your legs against your chest, and brace your legs with your arms.

4) Your feet lose contact with the ground, and you can float freely for a few seconds.

5) When you need to breathe, unroll, put your feet on the ground, and stand up to get your head above the water.

While you do this exercise, you will see that your head submerges but that you nevertheless float close to the water surface.

As an additional experiment, you can try to exhale while being curled up. You will see that your body starts to sink as your lungs get empty.

This demonstrates that your lungs help your body to float for as long as they are filled with air.

At the start of the video above, I hold my breath, and you can see that the water pushes me up to the surface.

Then, while I slowly exhale, my body starts to sink as it becomes less buoyant.

Once you have done this exercise a few times and feel how easy it is to be supported by the water, it should become easier for you to relax in the water and this should help reduce your fear of water.

A small minority of people still sink when their lungs are filled with air. These often are very skinny people or people with a very low body fat percentage, for example, bodybuilders. They might need to scull a little bit with their hands or tread water with their feet to float.

The Horizontal Position

In the next step to overcome the fear of water, you will practice getting comfortable in a horizontal position.

The horizontal position is an important prerequisite to learn swimming because most swim strokes spend most of their time in this horizontal position. So do the following:

1) Go to the shallow area of the pool.

2) Crouch down until the water is at the level of your chest.

3) Extend your arms forward.

4) Take a deep breath and then hold your breath.

5) Slowly glide forward in the water, as if sliding forward on a bed made of water.

6) Try to keep your head in a neutral position, in line with your spine.

Because your body assumes a horizontal position, your face will be put underwater.

But because you are holding your breath, the water can’t go up in your nostrils, and you are perfectly safe (this principle was explained above).

7) Slide forward until your body is completely extended.

8) Now try to get comfortable in that position and to hold it for a few moments, until you need to breathe.

9) Your position can be completely horizontal, floating freely and close to the water surface.

Or maybe your position is tilted, with your upper body being supported by the water but your feet still touching the ground. Or somewhere in between.

This depends on your body composition. Either position is fine as long as you can relax and feel supported by the water for a few moments.

10) To stand up, tuck your knees up while moving your arms down. Your body will roll into an upright position. Then extend your legs, touch the ground and stand up.

As explained above, some people (called sinkers) will completely sink to the ground because of their low body fat percentage. If this is your case, your goal is to try to relax for a few seconds while lying flat on your stomach on the bottom of the pool (in the shallow area of the pool).

Gliding In a Horizontal Position

As the last exercise to overcome the fear of water, you will learn to glide in a horizontal position on your stomach and still feel supported by the water. So do the following:

1) In the shallow area of the pool, turn your back towards the pool wall.

2) Inhale, hold your breath, then draw your legs up towards your chest as you did in Mushroom Float.

3) Don’t brace your legs with your arms, however. Extend your arms forward instead, and extend your legs backward at the same time to quickly push against the vertical wall of the pool.

4) Extend your body and try to get as horizontal as possible. Keep your head in line with your trunk and try to glide as far as possible.

5) Eventually, the forward momentum will stop. Your legs may also drop at the end of the glide.

6) To stand up and the end of the glide, do as before: tuck your knees up, roll up, extend your legs and stand up.

7) Repeat this exercise a few times, until you feel well balanced and horizontal during the glide.

Notice that no water gets into your nose as long as you hold your breath even though you are floating in a horizontal position.

To up the ante a little bit, you can try to slowly exhale during the glide or to flutter kick to extend the glide.

Towing

As an alternative you can try out the following with a friend:

1) Get into the horizontal position with your arms extended forward but don’t push off the wall.

2) Let your friend grab one of your hands and gently tow you forward.

3) Notice that it doesn’t take much forward movement for you to float in a horizontal position, as long as you keep your body straight and stay relaxed at the same time.

4) Your friend can even release your hand once you have gained some forward momentum. You should still float and move forward a few moments until the momentum stops.

Conclusion

We have covered quite a bit of ground in this article. We discussed possible causes for fear of water, then practiced putting the head under water and exhaling in the water.

After that, we learned that most people float rather well, and demonstrated this with the mushroom float.

Finally, we practiced getting in a horizontal position and then gliding a bit in that position.

While you did these exercises, I hope you discovered that being in the water doesn’t have to be intimidating, but can be quite enjoyable once you can relax and feel comfortable.

Hopefully, with time and practice, you will be able to overcome your fear of water. Don’t rush it, take your time working on those exercises, even if it takes a few weeks or longer. It is worth it!

And once you are comfortable in the water, the next logical step is to start learning a few basic swimming techniques, and then to learn how to swim.

Going Further

If you still struggle with your fear even after doing all the exercises described in this article, Conquer Your Fear of Water: An Innovative Self-Discovery Course in Swimming by Melon Dash might be a good resource for you.

The book aims to get you over your fear of water in 104 detailed steps. Each step is a mini-chapter in the book and can cover various things, such as relaxation strategies, writing about your beliefs or fears, floating exercises in the water, and so on.

The book goes deeply into the psychological and physical aspects of going into the water, getting used to it and being able to relax. Highly recommended.

There’s also a companion DVD available, called The Miracle Swimmer: Learn to Be in Control in Water, Shallow and Deep and Prevent Panic.

Related Pages

You may also be interested in the following articles that cover basic swimming techniques:

How to Wear a Swimming Nose Clip
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Pull Buoys: Designs, Shapes, How to Use Them
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candy

Wednesday 23rd of October 2019

Hi Christopher,

Thank you so much, this helped me a lot. I am a new swimmer but am too scared of getting water in my ears even with the earplugs, it didn't help. What can I do to get over my fear?

I really need help.

Thanks

Christophe

Monday 28th of October 2019

Hi Candy,

The book and DVD I have referenced at the end of the article are good resources to work on your fear of water.

Also, individual lessons with a good local instructor who has previously worked with people who are afraid of water can also help.

Edit: I saw in another one of your comments that you are 13 years old and just had your first swimming lesson a few days ago.

If this is correct, I think you need to trust your swim instructor and have a little patience, as over time your confidence will increase and your fears should subside.

bubbles

Sunday 20th of October 2019

Thanks this really helped. I am a new swimmer (13 years old) and today was my first day.

My friend was there but I was too scared of getting water in my ears. I can't stand it, I even had earplugs but they didn't work.

What should I do to get over my fear?

Someone help please..

Shweta

Tuesday 23rd of July 2019

Hi Christophe, thank you for writing this blog. Very helpful!

I tried to learn swimming in April this year... Had 2-3 incidents when someone had to help me as I couldn't stand up properly in the shallow water in the pool after holding my breath...

I can exhale in the water and have done a small laps using a floatie with exhaling in water and inhaling outside... But just not able to stand firmly if I try to float.

Any guidance on this?

Christophe

Wednesday 24th of July 2019

Hi Shweta,

Could you elaborate on why you can't stand firmly after trying to float? Are you dizzy? Disoriented? Don't know how to move from the floating position into standing up?

Thanks,

Ammu

Monday 10th of June 2019

Hi,

I am having trouble even to submerge my head in water.

I am trying to learn swimming in a swimming pool where water is just on my chest level.

I can't get over the fear of submerging my head. I tried taking a deep breath and putting my head in water but the thought of looking into the water itself gives me chills.

Could you please suggest a solution?

Thanks & Regards

Christophe

Monday 10th of June 2019

Hi Ammu,

One-on-one lessons with a qualified instructor specialized in overcoming fear of water is best.

Also, the book and DVD I recommend in the "Going Further" section of the article are worth considering.

Best,

Christophe

Ali Mahir

Wednesday 18th of July 2018

This helps a lot, thanks.