Anxiety in open water swimming is something that most everyone encounters at some point, even the elites. The three most common reasons for the anxiety include cold-water exposure, water conditions, and competitor contact. While it may not be something that you can completely eliminate, you can learn to manage it. Here are a few tips:
The shock of cold water can cause an extreme headache, shortness of breath, and tense muscles. Gradual exposure, taking time to acclimate to the temperature, is preferred over sudden immersion. So if a zero-point entry is not possible, find a ladder or some other method that allows you to go feet first. Start out by swimming for a few strokes with your head up, so if you do start to gasp for air, you will not choke on water.
Waves, chop, swells, and low visibility are conditions inherent to open water swimming, so you must learn to become comfortable with them. By practicing in open water, especially in groups, you will learn how to adjust your tempo and technique to fit the conditions, and become more comfortable with low visibility.
Open water racing is a full contact sport. While bumping, pulling, kicking, and scratching may be against the rules, inadvertent and illegal contact still happens. Prepare yourself mentally for this by swimming three to a lane and side-by-side with your swim teammates and training partners. Whenever possible get a larger group together and practice mass starts, even in the pool! The most important thing to remember is to keep yourself mentally together, and do not take anything personally.
If you begin to feel panicky or anxious, do not go vertical! Roll over and swim backstroke or kick until you feel as though you can roll over and start swimming again.