She came, she swam and she conquered.
South Korean star Bae Suzy left fans impressed after she shared a video of herself in a swimming pool, with full gear including goggles and a snorkel. The Start Up actor was thrilled with this achievement and captioned her video, “First time swimming in my entire life... I've gotten over my fear of water!" Keeping the post light-hearted, Suzy added quotes and lyrics from popular songs, including The Little Mermaid’s song Under The Sea.
Awestruck fans sent hearts her way and congratulated her on overcoming her anxiety regarding water. “So proud of you,” one follower wrote, accompanied by several clapping emoticons.
Suzy is just one of the many who have harboured a fear regarding water. What is this anxiety exactly? “People have a physiological response to fear of water and fear of height,” explains clinical psychologist Tulika Shukla, who is based in Dubai's Millenium Medical Center. “We know that we can’t breathe under water and we know it is difficult to survive if we fall from a height. It’s usually a natural response to have a fear of water,” adds Shukla. These kind of fears can normally be overcome, with gradual exposure, and if the person has reassurance that there are safety measures in place.
However, sometimes the fear of water is a lot more complicated than we know.
Rational vs irrational fears
If a person doesn’t know how to swim, and they are asked to go into the deep water, that’s a rational fear. However, if the person refuses to go towards the edge of the swimming pool, it’s an ‘irrational’ fear that needs to be treated, explains Shukla. “If they are comfortable with the shallow end and are scared of the deep end, then they just need more help with swimming and training. That’s not a disorder,” she adds. In the case of irrational fears, just the sight of a water body instills panic in a person. This is mostly aquaphobia.
For 34-year-year old Sherry Gupta, an Indian PR consultant based in Dubai, the fear of the watery unknown took hold of her for several years. Owing to her anxieties, she wasn’t able to swim till she was 24. “I had been trying since I was ten. Once I got into the pool, I automatically closed my eyes. This would trigger my fear, and I couldn’t see anything.” The thought of not knowing and not being able to see induced much fear in her.
If a person doesn’t know how to swim, and they are asked to go into the deep water, that’s a rational fear. However, if the person refuses to go towards the edge of the swimming pool, it’s an ‘irrational’ fear that needs to be treated.
“I was going to a place to swim, where there were too many kids, and no one told us about goggles. Moreover, no one understood that there was such a thing as fear of water.” However, finally at the age of 24, she found a helpful swimming instructor. “I told him that I was scared of not being able to breathe in water and why I can’t swim. So he gave goggles, and he told me to keep my eyes open.”
Gradually, Gupta overcame her “mind fear”, as she could finally see more clearly underwater. “Earlier, it was because it felt like an unknown territory and worse, your eyes are closed,” said Gupta, explaining what had increased her fear. She tried helping her other friends who had such fears. “I just told them to wear their goggles and to keep your eyes open. You can see everything. It really helps you overcome your fear,” she says.
The difference between hydrophobia and aquaphobia
People often confuse the two.
“Hydrophobia is a fear of drinking water,” explains Shukla. “That is seen in the rabies disease. Due to the viral infection, their laryngeal muscles goes into a state of contraction, whenever water touches their throat. So they develop a fear of even drinking water, as it leads to a feeling of suffocation. It’s a fear of drinking water.” On the other hand, aquaphobia is the fear of being around or in water, and it can have varying levels of intensity.
What are the possible reasons for aquaphobia?
There could be several reasons for a person’s fear of water, which includes childhood trauma, lack of swimming skills, and even underlying anxiety disorders. The symptoms range from dizziness, rapid heartbeat, panic attacks, intense sweating, nausea, and a vivid feeling of terror along with sleeplessness.
Dubai-based psychologist Jana Habson from My Conscious Mind Mental Health Center breaks down the reasons:
• Traumatic experience: People can develop a fear of water due to a past traumatic experience involving water. This could include incidents such as near-drowning, witnessing a drowning, or being involved in a water-related accident. The fear may persist even when the person is in a safe environment.
• Conditioning and learned behaviour: Fear of water can also result from conditioning or learned behaviour. For example, if someone grew up around individuals who expressed fear or anxiety about water, they might internalise those fears and develop their own aversion to it.
Water bodies like oceans, deep pools, or lakes can evoke a fear of the unknown. The inability to see what lies beneath the surface or the feeling of losing control in deep water can trigger anxiety in some people.
• Media influence: If a person keeps watching water-related accidents, disasters and similar negative experiences, it can contribute to the development of aquaphobia. The frequent consumption of movies, personal accounts that show water as dangerous or threatening can influence an individual's perception and increase their fear.
• Fear of the unknown: Like Gupta’s case, water bodies like oceans, deep pools, or lakes can evoke a fear of the unknown. The inability to see what lies beneath the surface or the feeling of losing control in deep water can trigger anxiety in some people.
• Lack of swimming Skills: A lack of swimming skills or inadequate water safety education can contribute to a fear of water. Without proper knowledge or confidence in their ability to navigate or manage water-related situations, people have a tendency to feel vulnerable and anxious.
• Underlying anxiety disorders: Aquaphobia can be associated with underlying anxiety disorders, such as generalised anxiety disorder or specific phobias. These conditions can cause people to experience heightened anxiety in various situations, including those involving water.
There are numerous therapy techniques involved with treating aquaphobia, including dialectic behaviour therapy (DBT), which teaches people how to live in the moment. It helps you cope with stress, maintain relationships with others and keep emotions in check. People also opt for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which helps you see and understand how to respond to situations and objects that trigger symptoms. Another practice is regular yoga and meditation, which helps you reduce your stress. Meditation helps you to focus on breathing to prevent panic attacks.
The fear of drowning
Aquaphobia is deeply linked with the fear of drowning.
If you’ve almost drowned, you would know the deep impact it can lead on your psyche. The fear itself is so overwhelming, that it prevents people from wanting to go anywhere near water. But, some can have a similar reaction, even if they have never faced a traumatic episode in water. The very idea of drowning is scary for people. The thought of being unable to breathe, water entering the lungs and gasping for air is anxiety-inducing for them. Apart from psychological effects, an almost-drowning episode can result in impaired cognitive functioning and chronic respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis. People see drowning as a particularly painful way to die. The fear of drowning can become so intense that it develops into a fear of water. In that state of panic when they’re in the water, they lose all rationality and get frantic.
While aquaphobia is the general fear of water, thalassophobia is the intense fear of large bodies of water, such as lakes and oceans. It is considered a specific phobia, which means that it is triggered by certain stimuli. People experience it differently. Some might fear not being able to touch the bottom of a pool, others worry while swimming in the deep end, according to the US-based medical site National Institute of Health. It is considered far more dangerous, and in a state of panic, the person can experience drowning.
Fighting childhood trauma
It felt like a battle with death.
Natalia Wiechowski, an author and Dubai-based wellness expert finally resolved a childhood trauma that involved water. In a 2022 LinkedIn post shared by Habson who had worked with her to resolve this fear, she recalled that rather scarring experience. “I decided to go for a situation during one of my swimming lessons when I was a child. An older kid kept on pushing me under water and I felt like I was drowning. Although I was screaming and asking him to stop whenever he allowed me a few seconds above water, neither him, nor the other kids, nor the adults standing close to the pool, did anything,” wrote Wiechowski.
Working on this trauma in intense EMDR therapy was far from easy and brought out a wide range of emotions, including fear, terror and finally gratitude with forgiveness.
The core premise of EMDR is that distressing experiences, particularly traumatic ones, can become "stuck" in the brain's information processing system, causing ongoing emotional and psychological difficulties. EMDR aims to help individuals process and resolve these unresolved memories or experiences to alleviate their negative impact.
Moreover, she had to work hard to manifest the belief that indeed, she was safe. Soon, she was finally able to stand near a waterfall without tensing up, or her heart beating faster.
Coping with the fear of water
In the case of rational fears, people can slowly ease themselves into deep waters with the help of trainers or family members, explains Shukla. “Gradually, they will learn the techniques of how to swim.” It’s not genetic, she emphasises, “It’s a learned behaviour,” she adds. She cites an example, if a two-year-old child is terrified of water, it’s because they haven’t learned to swim yet. “When you put someone that young in water, they will have a natural reflex of trying to breathe.”
Once the child knows that they can drown in water, they will be scared. “So that’s why you have paddle boats for them and ease the child into it,” she says. However, if a child is not even willing to come near water, they would need to seek professional help with a therapist.
For those with less intense fears of water that don’t require a therapist, there are a few techniques to try. For starters, begin slowly in shallow water. Start with a small pool, and dip your feet slowly into it, say the experts. Once you feel comfortable enough, start walking around in the water. Work with a trained swimming coach, who is able to understand your fear of water. As they understand your fears, they’ll take it rather slow. Once you feel better about your swimming skills, you can start practising in a controlled environment.
Inconsistent swim training has a cascading effect on your physical, technical, psychological and emotional readiness to race. If swimming is your worst discipline, and you have a time constraint, head to the pool.
Ensure a lifeguard is nearby. Moreover, remind yourself that you aren’t sinking, so that you won’t panic. Once you relax your legs, you float to the top. If you keep practising this, it can help you overcome your fears of drowning. Focus on training. "Inconsistent swim training has a cascading effect on your physical, technical, psychological and emotional readiness to race. If swimming is your worst discipline, and you have a time constraint, head to the pool," says Sara Harris, swimming coach based in Dubai. More importantly, tell yourself that you did not fail, she says.
For those ready for a challenge, you can be more aggressive with confronting your fear first, say Harris. "If you don’t practice enough in open water, in rough water, even if you stay in the shallows and practice entry and exit, then facing the sea on race day will be even more daunting. Challenge yourself in training, and feel ready to take it on at the race start," she says.