Aquaphobia is quite a common phobia. When we're living with a phobia of water typically this prevents us from swimming and for some people it prevents them going on boats and ferries. If we have children it also prevents us from teaching them how to swim and enjoying those moments, whether it's in the swimming pool or on holiday at the beach.
Consequences of a fear of water
A fear of water can cause us to miss out on a lot of experiences in life. We avoid certain activities and joining in the fun because the fear prevents us from just being free.
The fear of water ranges in different intensities. Some people can't even step foot in a swimming pool in the shallow end. Other people can walk in the water up to maybe their legs or their hips or a little higher, but they don't want to venture in too deep.
Then there are others that can swim in the swimming pool, but they just can't swim in the ocean or in the reverse.
It's always important to mention that a natural level of caution is perfectly healthy. Whether swimming in the sea or in the ocean, or in the deep end of a pool. If you’re not a confident swimmer, or you can’t swim, it's perfectly natural to be hesitant and even somewhat avoiding. But fear goes beyond that. Aquaphobia goes beyond that in the sense that it actually prevents us from learning the skill and developing our natural confidence as a person.
What is a water phobia?
It's always good to narrow this down to the specifics. What are we really afraid of here? Are we phobic of all water? How much water does there need to be for us to be scared?
For example, maybe you're ok drinking a glass of water in the morning? You're ok drinking wine, beer or orange juice? You're ok maybe filling up a bucket of water or sitting in a paddling pool with the kids. Perhaps you’re perfectly relaxed when sitting in the bathtub but you're not ok going in the swimming pool or you're not ok going in the ocean or the rivers. It is important to define exactly what we mean by the fear of water.
For some people, it's the fear of drowning, sharks or the unknown, whilst for other people it's the fear of not being in control. Or it might be that it's just an unexplainable feeling of tension, paralysis, fear and/or anxiousness which comes over you.
So what is the most common cause of aquaphobia?
The most common cause of fear of water
The most common cause of this kind of phobia is typically some kind of unpleasant or even traumatic experience in our past. It's not uncommon for children when they're learning to swim to maybe have a scary moment at the deep end or a feeling of possibly feeling like they're drowning or out of control. That moment they can't put their feet on the bottom or grab hold of the edge of the pool.
Experiences like this can be very overwhelming and intimidating for a young child, or any human being for that matter. This often leads us to conclude two things. The first of these things is, oh my goodness, I never want to feel like this again. The second conclusion is more of an association where we associate that horrible feeling that we never want to feel again with water. The context might be swimming; swimming made me feel like this, the deep water made me feel like this.
The second most common cause is what's known as an indirect cause. To give you one example, there was a huge spike in swimming and water phobias after the movies Jaws and the Titanic were released (think The Poseidon Adventure for our older readers). This creates ideas in our mind, the lack of safety, risk and trepidation, danger. It's very easy for these thoughts to play on our mind when we're swimming or when we're in the swimming pool.
My phobia of water
I want to share my experience of living with a phobia of water and swimming. You see, when I was a child learning to swim, like most children do, I remember playing in the swimming pool with my dad. He had this foam raft my brother was sitting on; he couldn't really swim like me.
So, I'm in the water and decided to swim under the water towards them and for some unknown reason at the time, I couldn’t get my head up because the foam raft was above my head pushing down and immediately I started panicking and gasping for air. However, in literally a couple of seconds it was all over, I was ok, and this was nothing life-threatening at all. It just felt very horrible and startling, my head rose above the water, but it left a feeling of “I don't like this”. Feeling out of control like that left an impact on me.
A couple of years later, I felt very rebellious and I borrowed the video Jaws from the video shop. I rented it for the weekend and watched this film, sharks eating people in the ocean, da…de, da..de, da.de, da de, da de – you know the sound!
I was on a roll with the videos because a couple of weeks later, I ended up watching the Titanic. There was a particular scene in the Titanic that just left a very eerie, strange, mysterious sense of what it's like to be underwater. When the ship was sinking, the furniture was underwater. It was just very strange to consider and all of this played in my head.
Association is a powerful feeling!
So next time I was in the swimming pool with my goggles on under the water, all I could think of was the Titanic. Over time this played on my mind and then I started to avoid swimming - I stopped going to lessons. It was just something that I found creepy, disturbing and not a nice feeling.
Then later in life, when my friends were enjoying the summer months swimming in the river, I had an absolute reluctance to go into the water. I didn't like the idea of it, and I was the young teenager at the side who just didn't join in the fun.
I missed out on so many experiences until I decided to confront my fear at 17 years old. I was on a family holiday in France. We were staying in a caravan park that was filled with a wide range of European families and located just a walk away from the beach and I had made friends with a group of Dutch boys.
My nautical adventure
There were about 10 of them; they were playing with a frisbee and a football. Looking out to the ocean, there was a sand bank roughly 70 meters out from the coast and one of the boys had the idea for us all to go over there. He explained that we would be able to stand on it, where the sand is gathered out there in the ocean.
All these boys confidently jumped into the water. At the time I perceived them like Olympic swimmers. Me and my younger brother were there and I said, “ let's do this. It's time for me to face this fear.”
So we courageously got into the water with them and started to swim behind them. By now my brother was a better swimmer than me. We began to swim and literally within a couple of moments the waves were lashing up against my face.
I was feeling tight-chested and out of breath. My doggy paddle was not keeping up with the momentum of the group or the waves in my face. Then I started to panic. Oh my goodness, I can't swim. I'm not very good and I got it in my head that I was out of control again. I actually grabbed onto my brother and he helped me get to the sandbank. So there we are, about 70 meters to 100 meters out at sea, standing on a sandbank with just water around us. You can guess what was going through my mind!
I was looking at the coast thinking oh my goodness, what have I done here? Then I just had to get a grip and in my mind, I thought to myself… right, I'm just going to have to do this, and I started to swim back towards the coast. In no time, although it felt like ages, I reached the safety of the coast. I really had this belief in my mind that I was never going to do that again.
Years later, I remember being on a fishing boat and all the people I was with were jumping in the water, playing, and having fun. I was filled with anxiety; I just couldn't bring myself to go in there. A real fear took over me, again
It wasn't until I started doing my phobia therapy training that I finally got the insight that I was looking for. I started to realise that it was less about the actual event of swimming and it was more about the thoughts in my mind, the associations from past negative experiences. These had built up and were now preventing me from enjoying the water and feeling confident in myself again.
That's the thing. If you have a phobia of swimming or of water this is likely caused by negative associations that you've picked up. The best thing to do now is to have a think about what may have caused this.
There is good news
This can all be resolved with the correct approach. You will be relieved to know that we don't require exposure therapy to overcome a swimming phobia! No. Whilst experience is important, the problem with exposure therapy is that it relies on you having positive external experience to change a negative internal feeling.
Well, our approach is very different. We know very clearly that it's possible to change the internal feeling first so that you can then naturally have a positive external experience - like everyone else.
We will achieve this together by releasing the negative associations and any negative emotional charge associated with the idea of swimming or being in water.
Once that's been resolved, you will naturally have a peaceful calmness, a sense of stability, composure and confidence when it comes to swimming. You can enjoy water again.
If you'd like more specialist support with this or some advice from a phobia specialist, you can connect with the writer of this post, Lewis McDonnell.
Lewis, who has been treating phobias for many, many years now, can help you get the clarity and confidence you need again.