Fear of the water is more common — and more deadly — than you think

| March 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

Carmen Electra. Richard Branson. Sandra Bullock. Snoop Dog. Eva Mendes. What do all these celebrities have in common? They’re adults who can’t swim — a life-threatening problem that’s about more than just being unable to compete in the Olympics. Chances are, these celebrities, and adults like them who can’t swim, are afraid of the water. In fact more than 60 percent of Americans are afraid of deep water and more than 45 percent are afraid of water over their heads, according to a Gallup poll.

adult in swimming pool

For 45% of Americans, this is what a nightmare looks like. From Hector Alejandro.

The fear is so prevalent, it has its own definition: “Aquaphobia is a specific phobia that involves a level of fear that is beyond the patient’s control or that may interfere with daily life. People suffer aquaphobia in many ways and may experience it even though they realize the water in an ocean, a river, or even a bathtub poses no imminent threat. They may avoid such activities as boating and swimming, or they may avoid swimming in the deep ocean despite having mastered basic swimming skills. This anxiety commonly extends to getting wet or splashed with water when it is unexpected, or being pushed or thrown into a body of water.”

More than a slight embarrassment, this fear inevitably leads to drownings every year. The reason is simple: Those who are afraid of the water don’t learn to swim; those who can’t swim are susceptible to drowning. That’s especially true if they become unexpectedly immersed in water. When that happens, fear turns to panic, which often leads to drowning.

Most research focuses on preventing child drownings — the second leading cause of unintentional death in children age 0-4. But of the more than 3,400 annual drownings in the U.S., as many as 70 percent are adults. Experts agree: an inability to swim increases the risk of drowning. That’s especially true among African American males. Often adults who grow up with a fear of the water, pass on that fear to their children, which perpetuates the cycle, which partially explains why African Americans are three times more likely to drown than others.

Regardless of race, for those who suffer from fear of water, it’s more complicated than just saying, “Get over it.” An increasing number of experts are recognizing that this deeply entrenched fear needs to be treated like any other phobia before a person can learn to swim. Often this treatment involves getting into shallow water and slowly addressing the person’s fear. While this can be done on your own (or with a friend), many aquaphobics find it helpful to work with a professional who specializes in helping adults overcome their water fears.

Wondering if you or someone you know suffers from aquaphobia? Take this quiz. If the answer is, “yes,” make this the year you overcome your fear of water. It just might save your life.

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Category: Pools, Safety

About the Author

Gary Thill is the former editor of Aquatics International, an award-winning magazine for the commercial pool and waterpark markets. He is a nationally recognized writer and editor with an extensive communications background that includes print, online and social media.