By Dr Jodie Lowinger; Professional Speaker, Media Commentator, Clinical Psychologist, Performance Coach.
DClin Psych MSc (USyd) BSc Psych Hons 1 (University Medal) UNSW.
While swimming helps some people soothe and wash away their anxiety, others may find that being submerged in water is a source of anxiety in and of itself. Taking the plunge, whether it be in a swimming pool, lake or the ocean, is one of the most natural, enjoyable activities we can do and the most uncomfortable all at once. If you experience anxiety when swimming you are not alone, it’s not uncommon for competitive swimmers and triathletes alike to experience swimming related anxiety. Fortunately, there are some strategies to help reduce and eliminate it. Here are some tips to reduce swimming anxiety:
Change Our Relationship With The Anxiety
The first step of overcoming any phobia or anxiety trigger is to understand anxiety. The experience of anxiety is our body and brain going into ‘fight or flight’ mode. In the body this can present itself in many ways such as a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, tension and nausea. This can then trigger an unhelpful spiral where we can get anxious about being anxious. It can be helpful to recognise that anxiety is actually adrenaline in our bloodstream designed to make us perform with greater speed and agility. When we no longer struggle with the feelings of anxiety but rather understand that they are not dangerous and can, in fact, help us, we end up reducing the anxiety.
Prior to getting into the water, whether it be the weeks leading up to a triathlon or just hours before, practice visualisation. Visualise yourself getting into the water and imagine the feelings you may experience. This can mentally prepare you for the actual event. You can even combine breathing exercises or any other strategies that help you remain calm during the visualisation process to make these strategies more accessible when you are in the water.
If you have a fear of being in deep or open water try going slowly. Even if you are training for a triathlon where speed will be paramount there is no need to train at a rapid pace until you have become more comfortable with your environment. Perhaps do your training in shallower water or the swimming pool until you feel confident and competent.
While you may have been fine practicing in a swimming pool the ocean can be an entirely different story. Swimming in open water introduces elements that can increase anxiety such as dealing with other competitors, sighting/course naviagtion, currents, waves and water dwelling creatures. Being in open water can make you feel like you don’t have control over your environment and lead to panic. The more exposure you have to anxiety triggering stimuli the more opportunities you will have to manage it and get used to it.
Recognise Performance Anxiety
Sometimes it is not getting into the water we are afraid of but rather how we will perform in the water. The problem lies in listening to what worry is telling us, such as “What if you’re not good enough? What if something bad happens?”. We want to get some distance from our thoughts, recognise that worry is just words in our head and we have a choice whether or not to listen to these words. Worry can try to boss us around, but like with a bully we can stand up to it and refocus on our surroundings.
Do Something Relaxing Prior to the Race
The pressure of a race or triathlon environment can change a once serene swimming practice into a splashing competitive sea of limbs. In order to mentally prepare yourself and stop anxiety from snowballing leading up to the race, try relaxing or doing something else entirely in the hours prior. Be aware of your self-talk and surround yourself with positive, supportive people. Once the event has begun it is important to focus on yourself when you are in the water, not your competitors or teammates.
No matter what the extent of your swimming anxiety rest assured that many successful swimmers have overcome theirs and you can too.