Overcoming Fear in Open Water Swimming

Part 3 of 8 – Removing Irrational Fears

There’s an internet world of advice out there for all sorts of mental ailments and fear. I will simply present some ideas that may appeal to those who don’t feel they need professional help to deal with their irrational fears in open-water. I’ll take a little more length to do that in this essay just to give better explanation.

Here is our strategy: Let’s remove the power of irrational fears by removing the “Unknowns” of your open water environment with knowledge, and take little steps to replace the triggers of our fear with positive experiences where we are in control of what we are exposed to. Those triggers of fear are wired into our neurological system. The bad news is that they are strong. The good news is that the brain can be re-wired. It takes some some patience and persistence, but the path to being healed is available to us.

Get Knowledge

Get to know all the useful and interesting facts you can that surround the body of water you want to swim in. Look up all the things you think you could be afraid of and get some real data to give you something to objectively deal with, or to diminish the false sense of threat.

Your mind needs something productive to do while you swim in wild water- so fill it with understanding of the environment so you can enjoy it and admire it for all its wildness, admiring the science and spirit of the waterway and how the ecosystem works. These will also become points of meditation when you do feel some irrational anxiety being triggered mid-swim.

Anxiety is a belief. Start replacing false fearful beliefs with positive truth and you will get a better response in your body.

Replace The Triggers

Our fear is ‘triggered’ by certain sights or impressions we receive from our environment. We are sometimes not even conscious of what it is that triggered the fear, just that we feel it. Something deep in us detected something ‘dangerous’ and immediately reacted to it. When we trace the fear down into the mind, we can usually find out what triggered it, but sometimes it’s harder than that, and it may take a careful process or a professional guide to go there.

We want to reduce the power of the negative triggers by replacing an old fearful association with a new, positive one.  We can expose ourselves to it little by little. By this we’re calling the bluff of the phantoms, but on our terms, and at our pace. We want to prove to our deepest heart that these false things that we are wired to fear don’t exist, and instead begin to have positive associations with the open-water features and characteristics.

  • Expose yourself to these intimidating features incrementally, and gradually. Don’t launch a full-assault on your phantoms at once, but pick them off one-by-one, like a gang of thugs. Don’t tackle “Locheness Monster”, Dark Murky Water, and Agoraphobia all at one time!
  • Pick one fearful element and make gradual journeys to the edge of that zone, and explore it. You are not there to get through it as fast as you can, but to examine it, to get familiar with what actually is real and prove what is not real.
  • If you’re not ready to face something directly explore the zone through others- through their stories, their videos, go in a boat, or watch as a spectator from shore. You are on a quest to overcome, not a single assualt or die. Enjoy being in control of the process of discovery. Take time over the year to step out bit by bit.
  • Take a friend along to explore and swim with. This will often reduce the sense of isolation and vulnerability in anxiety-inducing environments.

Origins Of The Fear

Yes, let’s replace the negative triggers with positive ones. But where did those irrational fears come from in the first place? Underneath an irrational fear like that of ‘Deep Water’ is something else- something deep within us that believes we are not safe, yet we may not be conscious of why we feel that way.

There is a spiritual component to this- our heart (or subconscious mind, if you’d like a more scientific word for it) is reacting. The understanding that I go by is that it is not what we know in our conscious mind that drives our behavior and triggers our emotional reactions, but what we believe deep in our heart). And, the human heart is truly Deep Water!

For example, what’s behind my irrational fear of Deep Water below me? I think it is related to fearing being surprised and overtaken by some large vessel- collision or entanglement- a sense of doom and powerlessness to avoid it in the moment of surprise. But I never THINK this when the anxiety comes. I just FEEL it. I get triggered by having some large rock feature suddenly loom out of the deep or in front of me. And I can’t stand swimming over tall underwater vegetation though my conscious mind knows there is no danger. There are no nuclear submarines or giant-rock-monsters in my waters and no sea-weed waving around in my favorite open water spots thankfully.

What I suspect has happened is that I’ve had a morbid curiosity about extreme survival (and non-survival) situations, especially shipwrecks so I have a few too many impressions of what disaster underwater must have been like for the doomed. Memories in the imagination aren’t just visual- they can also be purely emotional.

My anxiety is not a directly a visual image, but an emotional memory. I have emotional memories from the stories of terrible underwater disasters and it is triggered sometimes. What we feed on, is what we absorb into our subconscious and it affects our deepest beliefs. Contrary to common sense, feeding on fear-as-entertainment (dramatized news, horror movies, books, etc) does not desensitize us but make us more vulnerable to it. Watch what you eat. I won’t go into much about a method for exploring those deepest fearful beliefs of the heart at this time, though I have some training and experience in an effective method for helping people uncover the roots of fear and receive healing. For now I simply want to encourage you to explore them.

There is something down there and if you keep asking “Why?” to each answer your mind gives you, eventually you’ll start knocking on the door of the heart- sometimes you can find the root yourself by a persistent self-examination, and sometimes it helps to have a skillful person guide you in asking your heart the questions that will reveal what lays behind that irrational fear. My training and experience makes me feel confident that we can find healing for our deepest fears.

One tip I will give you though- the best time to be asking the “Why?” is when you are in the middle of being triggered by fear because the door to the heart is often wide open in those moments. So you might even consider an exploratory swim just for the sole purpose of swimming up to the edge of one of your irrational fears and then taking the time while it is fresh to look deep inside for some answers to what and how this fear got lodged in your heart. Once you discover the root, it is much easier to get specific help in rooting it out.

I wish there could be an ‘easy’ answer for irrational fears. There likely is not. But it is certainly worth the effort to root them out. When a fear in one area in life is defeated it often gives us momentum to face others, to make bigger ones seem less intimidating. And the result of removing a few, and then a few more is very satisfying.

Here are the topics covered in this series:

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