Dealing with anxiety in the water

It's normal to feel apprehensive when open water swimming - it's how you deal with it that counts

Swimmers preparing to begin last year's Dart 10k. Photo: Dominick Tyler.

Nerves kick in for a lot of swimmers before an event. You might be swimming a longer distance than you’ve taken on before – and with far more people. The forecast conditions may not be in your favour. You may have seen one too many photos of jellyfish blooms on Instagram. When you step into the water, you may not be your usual, relaxed self.  SwimTrek‘s Olivia Weatherill gives some tips for calming down

Even for the most competent of swimmers, the unpredictability of the open water can surprise and frighten us. It could be the sight of a jellyfish in the water, being spooked by the lack of visibility, or the height of the waves growing and becoming increasingly intimidating. The feeling of anxiousness can be debilitating but it can also be calmed with the right techniques.

Identify triggers

Recognising what is likely to make you feel anxious is the first step to dealing with the feelings of anxiety. What is it about this situation that frightens me? Is it something else in the water with me, such as other swimmers, fish or plants? Is it some unexpected swell? Is it nerves about performing well in an event? Try and prepare for this in advance, and answer these questions to repeat back to yourself when the anxious feelings creep in. If a panic attack does strike when you are in the water, there are several additional techniques that can be used to help ease your worries:

Rationalise your fear

Is the thing that is causing your anxiety likely to cause you harm? If you consider lots of the usual offenders of causes of anxiety, such as fellow swimmers, bad weather and animals in the water with you, the chances of them actually hurting you is very slim. For races or organised swims in particular, it is helpful to think of the measures in place and pre-event checks that will have been carried out beforehand to ensure your safety at all times. 

Remind yourself why you swim

Swimming can often be a way to help relieve anxiety, so try to remind yourself of all the good reasons why you get in the water. Think of good times you’ve experienced when swimming and channel these into keeping going. Even having a smile on your face through the water can help trick your brain into feeling happier – another tool at your disposal to help focus your efforts.

Regulate your breathing

Having a tightness in your chest and difficulty breathing is a common effect of an anxiety attack. Not only is this unpleasant to experience but can also make swimming significantly harder. If you’re struggling with your breathing, try a different pattern to help get your rhythm back. This could be switching from bilateral to single-sided breathing or even a switch to head-up breaststroke until you feel comfortable again. You could also lie on your back for a few minutes to take the time to fully stabilise your breathing before recovering and carrying on. 

Know your exit points

If the extent of your anxiety or panic attack is severe enough that you cannot carry on swimming, you should leave the water as quickly as you can. If this is during a race, call for the safety escort and float until assistance reaches you. If you are swimming outside of an organised event, whether alone or with friends, remove yourself from the water the safest and quickest way possible, letting others know that you need to get out along the way. Always bear a possible exit point in mind every time you do enter the water, as you never know when you will need to exit quickly. 

If you find that anxiety may be affecting you in more aspects of your life than just in the water, it may be worth speaking to your doctor, or speak to a mental health charity such as Mind.


Olivia Weatherill