I believe that only those who have experienced a fear of deep water truly understand the difficult mental challenges that must be overcome when either learning to swim, or progressing their swimming.
To overcome a fear of deep water, you must take time to understand your fear. There are many things you can try to help you overcome your fear of deep water, from building water confidence skills to exposure therapy.
For years, I have struggled with a fear of deep water. After vast amounts of effort, I have finally reached a happy place where I am in control of the fear.
Although I can swim well, I have found that the fear never seems to go away. It is a case of working with the fear for me and that is how I can train to swim a marathon, despite fear of deep water.
In this article, I want to share everything that I believe can help others who love the water but dread the deep.
What Does Thalassophobia Mean?
Thalassophobia is a fear of deep bodies of water, such as the sea and open water. [source]
Millions of people have a fear of deep water and somehow, I feel happier knowing that this is a recognised phobia with its own name.
It is an important distinction to make between being afraid of water and being afraid of deep water.
There are lots of really excellent swimmers who have a genuine fear of deep water. Many can train in a single depth pool, swimming miles every day, but once they are asked to swim in the deep end or over a deeper body of water, something happens.
Fear and panic kick in.
Logically these swimmers can swim, and swimming in shallow water is the same as swimming in deeper water, but once a view or feeling of deep water comes into the equation, then they can become panicked.
Like all fears, there are methods to deal with and cope with the fear.
Why Do I Have A Fear Of Deep Water?
A common first step when learning to deal with your fear of deep water is to answer the following:
- What exactly are you fearful of?
- Where did this fear come from?
What Exactly Are You Fearful Of With Deep Water?
I have found it really useful to take some time and identify what exactly I am afraid of.
Some common reasons people are afraid of deep water include:
- The fear of not being able to breathe
- The fear of not being able to see the bottom
- The fear of sharks or other sea creatures
- The fear of drowning
- The feeling of being trapped underwater
For me, I have identified that I have a fear of deep water because:
- I am afraid of a lack of control. You have to work with water and cannot control all external factors. Deep water is unpredictable.
- I don’t always trust myself. Despite being able to swim and train for difficult water situations, I am worried that my swimming skills are not enough or somehow, they will magically disappear when I need them the most.
When I think about why I am afraid of water, my fear does not make logical sense. I can swim for miles, I can float and I can tread water for long periods. But that is the problem with fear. It is not rational.
Identifying exactly what you are afraid of can help you address the aspect of deep water that makes you fearful and you can devise strategies to cope.
Where Did Your Fear Of Deep Water Come From?
The fear of deep water can come from a variety of different places.
It could be something that happened to you when you were swimming as a child, or it could be something that you saw on TV or in a movie.
It’s also possible that you learned the fear from your parents or another close relative.
Whatever the case may be, it’s important to identify the source of your fear in order to overcome it.
For me, I believe some of my fear came from my childhood. I was not a child swimmer and saw other people jumping into the water and having fun, with no understanding of how they were doing it.
I also lived next to a deep lake, and not being a swimmer was constantly told to “stay away from the water”. Over time, I think this constant “water is dangerous” mantra took hold.
Whatever your reason, it can help to identify where your fear comes from, as this can help you unpick what is at the root of your fear.
How Do I Overcome My Fear Of Deep Water?
There is no shortcut to overcoming a fear of deep water, but with time and support, it can be dealt with.
From my experience, I would say that you never overcome fear, but you can learn to cope with it.
You can shift your fear of deep water from something that is stopping you from progressing in the water to a “healthy fear”. Water is dangerous, after all, so having a natural fear and respecting the water is a good thing.
Here are some methods I have used to help me cope with my fear of deep water:
1. Prepare Yourself Mentally
There is a lot of work that you can do before getting into a deeper pool.
Our imaginations are powerful things. You can think through what lies ahead and what could happen.
From this, you can plan an exit strategy or what you will do if you panic.
Is there a safe place where you can doggy paddle too? Can you easily exit the water? Who will be around in your area? Will you turn onto your back and float? Will you do a gentle breaststroke until you can control your breathing and your thoughts?
Simply picturing yourself in deep water can raise your anxiety. When you’re sitting comfortably in a chair, this is not a problem, but in the water, it’s very dangerous.
When I swim in deeper pools, I will only go into the deep end if I know I have a clear exit.
First, if my old fear kicks in, I will do a gentle breaststroke to calm my mind.
I will take a few moments to rest at the wall, usually in the deep end, so I can regain my breathing and relax in the deeper water.
Usually, this is enough time for me to regain my confidence, and I can continue doing lengths.
There is a lot of self-talk happening in my head at this point. I reassure myself that I have swum many, many miles in deep water and I just need to control my thoughts and allow my buoyant body to enjoy the water.
You need to place yourself in the water mentally, think through any situation and create a clear plan on how you will cope in deeper water if your fear becomes strong.
2. Learn How To Float
Learning to float is an essential skill for any swimmer. Floating is the number one skill that can help someone to survive a tricky water situation.
If you are in a deep body of water and get panicked, if you know how to float, you can lie back in the water and try to relax.
This will give you time to control your breathing and relax.
By floating, you can reassure yourself that you are in control and you can navigate deep water.
Once you have controlled your breathing and have relaxed, you can handle any water situation.
To learn to overcome my fear of deep water, in a swimming pool, I would stop mid stoke and practice floating.
This switching from swimming to treading water to floating helps to build important swimming skills and confidence in the water.
Remember, always swim with a buddy or have someone to help you out when trying new skills in deep water. Safety first.
3. Learn How To Submerge
This has been one of the key things that has helped me overcome my fear of deep water.
As a swimmer, if you take a breath and bob underneath the water, you find it is very difficult to stay submerged.
When our lungs are filled with air, it is like holding a balloon underneath the water – that is not easy!
When my old fear of deep water creeps back in, I make my way to the pool edge and practice bobbing up and down in the water.
Next to the pool ladder so I have something to grab if needed. I will take a deep breath, relax, and bob down under the water.
Practising submerging and coming back up helps me control my body in the deep water and gives me confidence.
Instead of fighting to stay on top of the water, bobbing down and up again can help you understand how water works and build water confidence.
Here is an excellent example of how to do this:
4. Play In The Water
Many swimmers who have a fear of deep water may never have learned to play in the water as a child.
Playing in water, such as diving to retrieve a block, blowing bubble rings, or just chatting and hanging out in deep water, can help you build water confidence.
By becoming more and more comfortable in the deep water, you will become more relaxed.
If you can find a friend that can help you relax and have fun in deep water, you can learn to control your fear.
5. Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is a technique used by psychologists to help patients overcome a phobia. It involves confronting your fear and physically facing it. [source]
Unlike some other fears, water can drown a person and so exposure therapy, where water is concerned, must be done carefully with 100% supervision.
The idea is that the brain is exposed to the feared situation safely, so much that you learn to cope with it.
Exposure therapy is hard, as you must interact with your fear.
I used exposure therapy to a certain degree by sitting safely in the shallow end of the pool, dipping my head under the water with my goggles on, and simply looking at the deep end.
Sitting there (in a safe place), looking at the deep water and marvelling at it helped my brain to reframe the deep water and how I felt about it in my mind.
Then I would carefully swim along the pool wall into the deep end and come back again.
This gradual exposure to deep water helped me to face my fear and cope with it.
Exposure therapy is worth investigating if you have a fear of deep water.
Again, safety first and only ever try exposure therapy full supervised with the right help.
How To Build Water Confidence?
Working on your water confidence is a keep step in overcoming a fear of deep water.
Just like building your social confidence or public speaking confidence, you can increase your skill and confidence in the water.
For years, I envied those who had great water confidence. However, once I realised it was a skill I too could work on and improve, it changed my attitude to how I felt about deep water.
There are many steps you can take to improve your water confidence. I have covered this in greater detail in this article, How Do You Build Water Confidence? (For Adults)
Getting over a fear of deep water is a long path, but completely worth the journey.
If you can learn to enjoy your time while facing your fear, you can see your goal as one of fun and adventure.
Having a clear plan for overcoming your fear of deep water, I believe, is important. It helps to try a range of things from joining swimming groups to investigating help through exposure therapy.
Before I go, I just want to share this really excellent video from Justin Patrick. It is interesting to watch how Justin moves in the water and how he copes with a fear of deep water.