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Aquatic Anxiety

Managing feelings of anxiety and panic in open water

Elaine Howley | July 9, 2014

Although open water swimming can be one of the most calming, cathartic, and tranquil sports you can take part in, not everyone feels comfortable in the open water. Even experienced pool swimmers sometimes find they experience panic while swimming in open water. Not being able to see the bottom and the feeling of being far from the safety of land can contribute to the anxiety some swimmers feel when swimming in open water.

Rest assured that this is a normal response to a perceived danger, and many of the world’s top open water swimmers have also experienced sensations of fear while out in the open. The key is to keep the panic from getting the better of you. Easier said than done, perhaps, but regular exposure to open water—particularly when done safely in a group context—should help. Over time, you’ll become accustomed to the quirks of open water.

So what do you do if you start to feel panic in the open water?

  • Roll on your back. Sometimes just flipping on your back and floating for a moment, where you can breathe as much as you want, can help you overcome the beginnings of a panic attack. One of the first symptoms of a panic attack is hyperventilation, so allowing yourself access to unrestricted breathing may help subdue your fear. Watch the clouds flitting by overhead, or just shut your eyes and focus on relaxing. This may be enough to get your head back into the “now” so you can continue swimming along.
  • Call for help. If you’re swimming with a group, even just having a buddy come alongside to swim with you may make a big difference. Ask that person to stay with you as you head back to shore. If you have a kayaker shadowing you, even better. Wave them over and hang onto the kayak for a moment. See if you can calm yourself down and catch your breath. Just having a quick chat with someone may help bring you back from the brink. Once you’re feeling calmer, you can resume swimming.
  • Head to shore. It’s OK to say you’re scared and get out. Especially if this is your first time in open water, getting out before you get into trouble is infinitely wise. Just remember, the best way to beat a fear is to face it head-on. If you have a difficult outing, don’t be scared to try again. Stay close in to shore where you can stand up if you need to, and just keep trying. Eventually, you can get used to it.
  • Talk to someone. If your panic attacks are particularly scary, you might want to talk to a mental health professional. There could be an underlying issue contributing to the way you’re feeling, and exploring those concerns may help you learn to enjoy open water more with the added benefit of releasing whatever root problem could be at work.
  • If it’s really bad, head back to the pool. It’s OK to say, “I tried it and it’s just not for me.” Not everyone is cut out to be an open water swimmer, and knowing yourself is important. There’s no shame in trying open water and deciding that you just prefer pool swimming.


Open Water 101 Article Series

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About the Author—Elaine Howley

Elaine K. Howley is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in sports, health, and history topics. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including AARP.orgAtlas ObscuraespnW, and U.S. News & World Report. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she has contributed to SWIMMER magazine since 2009 and USMS.org since 2012. Contact her via her website: elainekhowley.com

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