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Overcoming Open Water Anxiety: A Guide for Nervous Swimmers

The vast expanse of open water can be simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating, especially for those who grapple with open water anxiety. If the thought of swimming in the open water sends shivers down your spine, don't worry – you're not alone. In this blog post, we'll explore the common fears associated with open water swimming and provide a comprehensive guide on overcoming anxiety to embrace the freedom and joy that open water swimming can bring.

Understanding Open Water Anxiety:

Before diving into strategies to overcome open water anxiety, let's acknowledge that fear is a natural response. Common concerns include the fear of the unknown depths, unseen creatures, and the lack of clear boundaries. Recognizing these fears is the first step towards conquering them.

Education and Familiarization:

Knowledge is a powerful antidote to fear. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the open water environment. Learn about the local marine life, water conditions, and any potential hazards. Understanding the elements around you can demystify the unknown, making the open water less intimidating.

Gradual Exposure:

Overcoming open water anxiety is a gradual process. Start by exposing yourself to the open water in controlled environments. Begin with shallow areas where you can comfortably touch the bottom. As your confidence grows, gradually move to deeper waters.

You can also work with a coach or fellow swimmer to feel more confident heading into deeper areas. Using a float, you can walk to where you can no longer touch, but know you have a floatation device (like a Quackpacker or other tow float) tethered to you that you can use at any time.

Breathing Techniques:

Controlled breathing is a powerful tool to manage anxiety. Practice rhythmic breathing exercises both in and out of the water. Inhale deeply, hold your breath for a moment, and exhale slowly. Incorporate these techniques into your pre-swim routine to create a sense of calm and focus.

Also, remember that it's okay to scream underwater. I've swam over creepy tree limbs covered in moss that terrify me just enough that I scream underwater, amp up my kick, and sprint past the creepy spot. Tons of swimmers use underwater screaming to relieve some of the adrenaline that kicks in when you're scared. Pro tip: screaming above the water leads people to think you need to be saved. Screaming under the water leads to your abs using up the energy from a fight or flight response and letting your nervous system calm down a little quicker.

Visualization and Positive Affirmations:

Envision success by using visualization techniques. Picture yourself gliding through the open water with ease and enjoyment. Combine this with positive affirmations to reinforce a mindset of capability and courage. The power of positive thinking can significantly impact your experience in the open water.

When you're in the water, be kind to yourself and recognize that anxious feelings may be causing a higher respiration rate, leaving you more tired than if you swam the same distance in the pool. Artificially increasing your heart rate due to fear can leave you so tired and out of breath. It's totally okay to flip onto your back or do some breaststroke to catch your breath and "reset" so you can continue swimming.

Seek Support and Swim Buddies:

Swimming with a buddy or joining a local open water swimming group can provide a sense of security. Share your concerns with others who may have experienced similar fears, and draw strength from their stories and camaraderie. Having a supportive network can turn a potentially anxiety-inducing experience into a positive and shared adventure.

Around the Portland, Oregon area, there are several groups that meet regularly during the warm months: the Merfolk and the RiverHuggers.

Celebrate Small Victories:

Every step forward is a victory. Celebrate the progress you make, no matter how small. Recognizing and acknowledging your achievements will reinforce a positive association with open water swimming, gradually eroding the anxiety that once held you back.

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