Defining the fear of water
by Jeff Krieger
As the aquatic community begins to address new ways to generate income and the needs of widely diverse population of people, by adding new programming and technology, there still seems to be a resistance to bring a very large population of people of all different ages, fitness levels and life experiences into the fold. That group are those considered “fearful swimmers” or “non-swimmers” . This group includes many individuals who as a result of varying degrees of fear of being in and around water, have either tried to learn to swim from well meaning family and friends or traditional swim lessons at Community Centers, Schools, Camps, Health and Fitness Clubs and Swim Schools and unfortunately, that experience increased their avoidance behavior to trying to both overcoming their fear and learning how to swim properly. Unfortunately, all too often this fear, and the path to take in order to overcome this fear, is all to often misunderstood and misguided.
Fear is an extremely valuable mechanism, provided by our brain, that helps to try and keep us safe and out of harm’s way. Without it, we probably would make many more poor choices that we might already do, like jumping off high places without safety gear, or playing with fire carelessly. Fear becomes an unwanted deterrent when it becomes exaggerated, such as when standing in two feet of water in a supervised indoor pool, an individual might feel like they will drown, among other powerfully negative feelings and actions .
This exaggerated fear of water can cause people to suffer the extremely and uncontrollable loss of their ability to process, see, hear, feel, think, act and perceive rationally and logically, cause increased heart rate, excessive sweating and dry mouth, trembling, nausea, fainting, severe headaches, difficulty in breathing, fear of driving or flying over water, even bathing and ultimately fear of dying is referred to as Aquaphobia, or if you want to avoid semantical debates, the fear of actually drowning.
Many people believe that the only way to help a person overcome their extreme fear of water is to teach them how to swim. Actually, this thought process does make some sort of sense, but I don’t see many people who have a fear of flying signing up for flying lessons. The truth of the matter is that a vast majority of people, who fit any of the following criteria, will probably never be able to learn, or even want to try to learn how to swim, until they have successfully managed to understand, identify, manage and overcome their fear of drowning;
1) Unable to place their face in water
2) Unable to stand unsupported in shallow water, below their knees/waists depending on height and age
3) Unable to float supported, front or back
4) Unable to put their head underwater in shallow water
5) Unable to float with support from a flotation device or hold onto the side of the pool in water over their head
6) Unable to fly or drive over water
7) Unable to bathe
*Please note all these criteria apply to pools, not open water such as oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds, which present additional fears, challenges and skill sets.
This can be accomplished in a pool by a qualified and experienced Aquatic Therapist or Swim Instructor, who knows how to address the cognitive, emotional and physical challenges that this fear provides. Even the most experienced swim instructor may not have the specific skills that will help “fearful swimmers” overcome all the obstacles they will face.