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Home » Columns » 'Conquering Your Fears' by Jeff Krieger » Overcoming a fear of water differs from learning how to swim

Overcoming a fear of water differs from learning how to swim

"Image courtesy of num_skyman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net"
“Image courtesy of num_skyman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net”

by Jeff Krieger

Quite often a mistake is made by both aquatic professionals and people who are looking to achieve specific aquatic goals. In this case, such as overcoming a fear of water differs from learning how to swim. There is a significant difference between helping a person, regardless of their age, fitness level or life experience, overcome varying degrees of fear surrounding water, which is actually a fear of drowning, and teaching any person who is not suffering from that same fear, how to swim. The process and skill sets that are required to meet the needs of both populations are vastly different.

Many people assume that an “experienced” swim instructor should be able to help a person overcome their fear of water, by teaching them the “nuts and bolts” of floating, gliding, treading and stroke development. After all, it does make some sense that once a person learns how to swim, that they should no longer remain fearful in water. The problem with that logic is twofold; first, is that many learn to swim instructors will never even get the opportunity to meet and help those fearful of water, because many in that diverse population will never participate in their traditional swim programs as a result of their fears. Secondly, most often, if and when they do find the courage as adults or are forced to by well meaning parents to take swim lessons, quit because they begin to feel more fearful, angry, frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed and isolated than they did prior to the lessons. It is unrealistic and counterproductive to believe people can learn to swim in an effort to overcome their fear of drowning. Quite to the contrary, one must be able to learn how to overcome that fear so that they will be successful in learning how to swim. The only variable that is constant in both processes is that they can both be accomplished in water.

As in any effort to help people overcome unique challenges that prevent learning using normal/traditional resources, identifying and assessing the behavior is a critical step in setting up a strategy to change that behavior. It is important to remember that individuals fearful of water are responding to internal messages from their brain telling them that they are in imminent danger, despite the obvious fact that they are not. Their view of the aquatic scene is far, far different than others who do not share their fear, yet their fear and the consequences of that fear are both very real and innate to them. As a result of that uncontrollable fear, they find it extremely difficult and painful to learn, process and perform traditional learning to swim skills. Here is a list of behaviors that help identify a person who is abnormally fearful of water/drowning and probably will not benefit from traditional swim lessons:

1) Unable to stand, unassisted, in shallow water.
2) Unable to submerge face in shallow water.
3) Unable to perform an assisted front and/or back float in shallow water.
4) Unable to enter deep water with flotation device.

Without addressing the emotional component attached to these fears and learning specific and unique coping and aquatic skills that will allow them to understand, manage and eventually to overcome their fear of water, they stand little chance of learning how to swim competently and comfortably. Aquatic Therapists, stand the best chance of providing the type of emotional and physical support necessary to allow those individuals to gradually wade into an aquatic environment and to learn to overcome their fear and then be able to learn to swim.

Jeff is a Youth, Teen and Adult Counseling and Program Development Professional with expertise in stress and phobias management.

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About Jeff Krieger

Jeff is a Youth, Teen and Adult Counseling and Program Development Professional with expertise in stress and phobias management.
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