How to Handle Fear of the Water

You may have aquaphobia if you find that any bodies of water cause an excessive amount of anxiety, but the fear of water or the fear of drowning shouldn't stop you from learning how to be safe in or around water. After all, water covers 71% of the planet.

If you are afraid of the water or have an irrational fear of swimming, you are not alone. According to a past Gallup Poll, 46% of American adults are afraid to be in deep water over their head with 64% being afraid of deep, open water. And not all fears are created equal. There can be three fears students may experience when learning to swim:

  1. Fear of the unknown
  2. Natural fears
  3. Learned fears

With the fear of the unknown, it can be the new environment, new noises, new sounds, new sensations that can create fear in a new swimmer. 

Natural fears come from a fear of falling, losing balance, or even the fear of not being able to breathe. 

Learned fears come from scary experiences, a scary movie, or maybe even scary stories passed down that involve water, drowning, or near-drowning situations.

So how can you help prepare for swimming lessons if you or your young swimmer have a fear of water? 

Before going to a swimming pool, research and talk about the experience of a swim lesson. What might you feel, hear or see? Learn about water buoyancy and if explaining to a young child, do so in an age-appropriate way. For example, young children can blow bubbles in the bath to get comfortable putting their face in the water. 

It is also important to show young children which area of the pool is the deep end and how to identify a lifeguard.

Practice relaxation or teach your young swimmer some ways to relax. It is much harder to learn when you are experiencing a flight or fight response so practice ahead of time. Use breathing and visualization to get more relaxed before or during the lesson. 

Remember to go slow and keep the end goal in mind. You CAN learn to swim. Your swim instructor should take your concerns seriously and work with you to build trust. If you don’t feel you have found the right fit for a high-quality instructor, find a new one, either at the same facility or at another one. It will take some dedication, but with persistence, you CAN learn to swim.


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Written by Lisa Zarda, executive director, United States Swim School Association

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