How Do I Get Over My Fear of Swimming?

scared of swimming image

There’s no denying that water can be scary stuff to us, land-dwelling creatures.

Immersing ourselves in an unfamiliar environment, where most of our natural instincts are reactions are of no use, is bound to set off the alarm bells in our brains.

In the UK, around one in three adults can’t swim, and as a coach, the most frequent reason I see for avoiding swimming is an underlying fear of the water.

And that’s a shame because if you can overcome that fear, swimming could actually help save your life.

Quite literally, in the short term, knowing how to swim will massively reduce your risk of drowning – if not eliminate it completely.

But in the long-term, regular swimming offers a multitude of health benefits that’ll keep you firing on all cylinders at every stage of your life too.

So, no matter if you want to be able to cool off in the pool on your holidays or have ambitions to swim a triathlon, the first step is to overcome your swimming anxiety.

In this post, I’ll share the most effective methods to help you kick your fear of water once and for all. But first, let’s begin by talking about why you’re afraid to swim in the first place.

Why Am I Afraid To Swim?

If you’re afraid to swim the first thing to know is this: your fear is a completely rational reaction.

In fact, you could argue that not having a fear of water is actually much more unnatural!

Think about it, for about six million years, our ancestors have been walking around on firm ground.

Our sensory system simply hasn’t evolved to naturally function in aquatic environments. We feel out of control and reactions that would normally re-center us on land, don’t work in water.

So, if an instructor or friend ever says “Don’t be silly – there’s nothing to be afraid about” – tell them they’re completely wrong.

The reality is that for new swimmers, there are some things to worry about. But the problem is when these things spiral develop into an irrational fear of water – a condition known as aquaphobia.

Typically, this is the case because you had a previously distressing experience with water.

Near-drowning experiences can be incredibly traumatic. They etch deep scars into our nervous system that compel us to avoid anything related to the experience again.

So, no matter if it’s been two months or twenty years after the experience, the sensations of the water act as a trigger to reignite the slew of negative emotions you felt at the time.

However, it’s not always a defining negative experience that brings about a fear of water. Other root causes could be:

  • Fear of the unknown, like what might be lurking underneath the surface
  • Fear of losing control
  • A history of inadequate or unqualified swimming instructors
  • Transmission of the fear from your parents

Whatever the reason for your fear, it’s important to clarify it for yourself. Knowing why you’re feeling anxious is the first step to being able to tackle it.

Here’s a quick CBT-inspired exercise to help you work through your feelings

Get out a piece of paper and write ‘Why am I scared of the water?” at the top.

Spend 10-15 minutes jotting down any reasons that come to mind.

Then, going through each point you wrote, ask yourself “Is this fear rational, and if so, what evidence exists to support it?”

Finally ask “Is there evidence that contradicts this fear?”

Hopefully this quick exercise will give you some distance between you and your fear of water. To see it just as it is – a completely normal reaction to a somewhat abnormal activity.

This in mind, rational thinking might be powerful enough to get you down to your local pool, but it’s not much use when you’re in the pool and those nasty feelings start to rear their heads.

To overcome such uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, you’ll gradually need to ease yourself into the water through what psychologists call ‘exposure therapy’.

Let’s unpack how to do that step-by-step now.

How to Overcome My Fear of Swimming

When we talk about ‘overcoming’ your fear of water, I want you to realise that fear exists on a spectrum.

For example, as an avid swimmer for the last twenty plus years, I can still feel mild anxiety if I’m swimming in a new open water location, where I’m unfamiliar with the currents, tides, bathymetry and so forth.

Therefore, overcoming your fear of water will be a gradual process. How long it takes will depend on how much fear you have and how often you’re willing to get in the water.

At first submerging into a pool may feel awful. But over repeated exposures, you’ll start to feel more and more confident and relaxed.

Eventually your fear will subside so much, that you don’t even consider it anymore. That’s when you’ll start to really enjoy your swimming.

So, to get you to that point, let’s look at some of the best exercises I’ve used with my swimmers.

General Guidelines for Overcoming a Fear of Water

Having a fear of the water is hard enough without making things more difficult for yourself. The following are guidelines to help make things more comfortable.

  • Start in a pool: It’s possible to overcome your fear of water in a lake or ocean, but a pool offers consistent, controlled conditions which will help settle your nerves.
  • Go to the pool when it’s not busy: other swimmers can take up space and make you more nervous than you need to be. Opt for “off-peak” hours whenever you can.
  • Stay in the shallow end: Practicing in water that’s not higher than your chest will ensure you always feel safe.
  • Invest in a pair of swimming goggles: Chlorine in your eyes adds to your stress, plus seeing underwater is relaxing for many folks too.
  • Don’t go alone: Bring a supportive friend or instructor with you to always be on hand if you need help. If you can’t bring anyone, having a lifeguard on deck can help settle your nerves too.

Step-by-Step Exercises to Get Over Your Fear of Swimming

Let’s talk about how to actually get in the water and start breaking down your swimming fears piece by piece.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to rush through these exercises.

The most important thing is that you stay comfortable. Even if it takes you weeks or months to complete them all. Pushing too hard too fast will only create panic and put you back where you started.

Wist that said, let’s get to it:

Getting Used to the Water

The first step to overcoming your fear of water is to get used to how it feels on your skin. For that there’s a few baby steps you can do – at each stage, check into your body and mind to see how you’re feeling:

  • Sit on the edge of the shallow end and dangle your feet and ankles into the water. Move them from side-to-side feeling the resistance and flow of the water against your skin.
  • Reach down and touch the water with your hands. Now move them from side to side too. Cup a handful of water and pour it on your face (remember those goggles!)
  • Go to the ladder (or steps if your pool has them) at the shallow end and slowly climb down into the shallow end of the pool. Relax here a while feeling the water on your skin.
  • If you’re still feeling comfortable, let go of the ladder and walk a few steps. If you’d prefer to just hold onto the ladder or the wall, that’s still excellent progress.

Submerging your Head & Blowing Bubbles

Once you feel comfortable moving around the shallow end, it’s time to kick things up a notch and practise getting your head under the water.

  • Holding onto the wall, crouch down so that the water rises to your collar bones. Notice how you feel here. It’s normal for anxiety levels to rise. Then stand up. Repeat five to ten more times.
  • Next, hold onto the wall with your goggles on, slowly lower until your chin submerged. Relax in the position
  • Okay, it’s time to blow bubbles – learning to blow bubbles out of your mouth and nose teaches you that water can’t get in your mouth and nose as long as you’re blowing out!
  • Lower in the same position as step one, crouch further so that the water level rises to cover your mouth – practise blowing bubbles evenly and slowly out of your mouth and nose.
  • Next, stand up, take a big breath and this time submerge your face until both your nose and mouth are covered. Try holding this position for a couple of seconds, blowing bubbles all the time.
  • If you’re still comfortable, try to completely submerge your head under the surface of the water – remember to take a big breath first and keep blowing those bubbles!
  • Finally, if you want to take things to the next level, you can alternate bobbing your head above and below the surface of the water – but always remember to take it easy. You’re making brilliant progress.

Master the Mushroom Float

When you’ve got a handle on getting into the water, moving about and submerging your head, the next step to overcoming your fear is to practice floating.

Thankfully, most people float quite well! Discovering this for yourself can relieve a great deal of stress around water.

The first float to master is the mushroom float – here’s what it looks like:

  • Begin by standing in the shallow end and getting comfortable submerging your head
  • Take a deep breath, lower down to the surface of the water and then bring your legs up to your chest and grasp them with your arms. Lean forward and relax.
  • Now you’re floating freely! Your back will rise to the water’s surface – when you need to breathe, release your legs and lift your face.

Once you’re comfortable with the mushroom float, try experimenting with blowing bubbles while holding the float position. As you exhale air from your lungs, you’ll start to sink.

Getting comfortable with sinking under the water while still holding the float position will add serious power to your water confidence once you master it.

Dead Man Float

The dead man float is a poorly named drill for people with aquaphobia, but it’s nonetheless effective at teaching you how to float in the horizontal position.

Mastering the horizontal position is an essential swimming skill that’ll allow you progress to learning how to swim front crawl.

Here’s a good video overview of how to perform the dead man float:

  • Standing in the shallow end, extend both arms forward in a ‘Y’ shape until they’re on the surface of the water. Lower your hips so that the water reaches your chin.
  • Take a big breath and drop your face into the water.
  • Gently push off the bottom of the pool and slide your body forward, keeping your head in line with your spine.
  • If your legs won’t rise, try pressing your collar bones down towards the bottom of the pool to redistribute your weight. Hold this position for a couple of seconds until you need to take a breath.

The horizontal float can take some time to master – so don’t worry if your first few attempts don’t work out.

Some people (more often men) may find it tricky to get their legs to float due to their greater bone mass.

So, if you can’t get completely horizontal, don’t worry. Even if you can’t get your feet off the floor it’s not a problem. Once you learn how to flutter kick, achieving a flat body position will be a lot easier.

Gliding & The Next Steps

When you’re confident floating horizontally, it’s time to add some movement. Gliding on your front is essential for mastering freestyle and ultimately becoming a confident swimmer.

  • Stand in the shallow end with your back to the wall. Just like before, crouch down so that your chin is on top of the water.
  • Then using the same motion as the mushroom float, draw your legs up towards your chest, but this time extend your arms out in front of you (put one hand on top of the other if possible and squeeze your ears with your elbows).
  • Gently push your legs backwards until they reach the wall, extend your legs into the wall to drive yourself forward.
  • Once you’re gliding forwards, make your body as long as you can- stretching your fingers as far away from your feet as possible – try to hold this position until you come to a stop.
  • If gliding seems too tricky, try working with a swimming instructor or trusted friend who can help tow you around the shallow end to give you a feel for what it should feel like.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! By now you should have reasonable confidence in the water and are ready to start taking intensive swimming lessons to help skyrocket your abilities and water confidence.

That said, all of our practice so far has been in the shallow end. What if your fear of water isn’t so much about waist-high pools and is more about deep water.

Let’s talk more about that now.

How to Get Over My Fear of Deep Water

If you’re able to swim, it shouldn’t make a difference whether you’re swimming in water that’s one meter deep or one hundred meters deep.

But, in reality, it does. Not being able to see the bottom can give even the most experienced swimmers the willies. Fear of the ocean, lakes and deep pools are all extremely common.

For new swimmers, progressing from the shallow end of the pool to the deeper end can elicit the same feelings.

One of the fundamental skills to boost your confidence in deep water is learning how to tread water. Here’s a helpful tutorial to master this skill:

Once you’ve got a handle on treading your phobia of deep water should lessen. However the mental side of things is also huge.

Here’s how to deal with it:

  • Begin by recognising your fear as legitimate. It’s perfectly ok to feel uncomfortable in deep water – just acknowledge that it’s something you’re going to change.
  • Know you’re not alone – lots and lots of swimmers are afraid of deep water or not being able to see the bottom – the fear of deep water varies from swimmer to swimmer.
  • Go with a friend – swimming in deep water alone can exacerbate feelings of worry. Bring a friend, preferably one who’s a lifeguard or strong swimmer for extra peace of mind.
  • Use positive self-talk – remind yourself how capable you are in shallower water – ask yourself, since you started swimming, when have you ever sank to the bottom in a pool without trying? Hint: Probably Never
  • Feel the fear – instead of fighting your fear (which will only stress you out and make it worse) try welcoming it into your body – use self talk like “Oh hello fear again, thanks for showing up and trying to keep me safe”.
  • Keep breathing regular – no matter whether you’re swimming or treading, keep your breathing pattern steady and relaxed.

The key to getting comfortable in deep water is to slowly and progressively expose yourself to it over time. Whatever you do, do not jump into deep water in an attempt to shock the fear from your system.

Little by little as you venture into deep water, you’ll feel your fears start to melt away and as your confidence grows, so too will your love of swimming.

Overcoming Swimming Anxiety Doesn’t Need to Be Complicated

Getting over your fear of the water isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be complicated.

One of the best ways to gain confidence quicker, and improve your overall swimming ability is to take aquaphobia swimming lessons.

With the guidance and experience of qualified swimming instructors you can address your swimming anxiety in a structured, progressive and safe environment.

If you’re interested in swimming lessons for people afraid of water, get in touch with us here at Swim Now to see how we can help you overcome your fears and enjoy your swimming.

For more inspiration, check out Swim Now student Simon’s story here:

Alistair Mills
by Alistair Mills

In 2016 I saw an opportunity for a new swimming company that did things a little bit differently and here we are almost 4 years later, having built a family of teachers and clients that we are all really proud of.

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