Open Water: Panic Attacks (Preview)

If you have concerns about swimming in open water - dark, cold, deep open water - you're not alone

Posted: 9 May 2011
by Jacqueline Wood

Credit: Floresco Productions

Five years ago I was excitedly planning my first middle-distance triathlon. Training was going well but then an incident in a deep lake left me in such a state that I was unable to race.

The event involved a sea swim at Weymouth, Dorset, in the early summer, so in spring I decided to test my new wetsuit at the Cotswold Water Park. It had been a bitter winter and the water was still very cold, but I was unaware of that because my wetsuit insulated me so well, at least in the shallow parts of the lake.

Panic attacks

That morning there were lots of triathletes out training and the water was beautifully clear. To warm up I had an easy swim to the middle of the lake, nothing too fast.

At first I felt fine but when I reached the deep, colder water I noticed my breathing was fast and shallow and my heart rate had quickened. I couldn't understand what was happening; I certainly shouldn't have been out of breath.

I thought my new wetsuit was too tight and started trying to unzip it while treading water. I was aware that I was out of my depth and I began to panic.  My arms were tingling: was I having a heart attack? By the time another swimmer asked if I was all right, I was feeling lightheaded. He got a safety boat, which took me ashore. Apart from being very cold, I was fine.

It didn't take long to realise that my body had simply been reacting to the extremely cold water, and that I'd made things much worse by panicking.

Fear breeds fear

Once I understood this I tried to shake off my mid-lake crisis; I returned the following weekend to try again. Ignoring my nerves I swam to the middle, but the rot had set in. My pulse started racing, my arms went numb and I felt hot and faint. "Not you again!" said a voice behind me. "D'you want the safety boat?" I retained some pride. "No", I said, "I'll swim to the shore behind you."

I had not been in danger, so there was no reason I should have reacted as I did, but that's the thing with panicking; the fear of it brings on an attack.

Losing control

Despite these unnerving experiences I entered the Weymouth Triathlon. If the tide was out, the water would be shallow and I'd have no problem. No such luck: it was deep and cold and while others were spotting buoys, I had my eyes glued to the safety canoes. But as the field spread out, so did the canoes.

"If I panic now, I'll sink without trace," said a voice in my head. My body hung in the water, numbness crept down my arms, my heart started pounding and my breathing was out of control. I gave up and hailed a canoe.

Domino effect

That was by no means the end of it. Feelings of panic began to seep into other areas of my life. A few weeks after Weymouth, I entered a pool-based event at Taunton. I set off down the motorway early in the morning.

Then, out of the blue, came the inner voice: "Don't panic, not on the motorway." Within a minute or two I could barely grip the wheel and I was close to fainting. I managed to hang on until I could pull off at a service station.

When I'd recovered I phoned home, and drove back with my daughter in the passenger seat. If someone else was there, it seemed, I could find the strength not to panic.

Things I had taken for granted were suddenly out of the question. Entering a shop through revolving doors? Easy, you might think but what if they jammed with me inside? And there was an incident in a car wash. When the huge, floppy rollers thundered towards the windscreen, my courage deserted me. I leapt out and left my car to be washed unaccompanied.

Even a trip to the shopping centre was a problem. I'd think: will anyone notice or bother to help, or find out who I am, if I panic? And then, of course, that thought would set off a panic attack. All this from someone who'd travelled the world in her 20s with just a backpack for company. I wanted to be in charge of my life again and I wanted to get back in the water.

Open water; a common fear

Open-water swimming is a concern for many triathletes: fear can be triggered by anything from the depth and darkness of the water to terror or encountering a big fish, or becoming tangled up with weeds.

But when these things come up in conversation, they're often treated in a lighthearted manner; it's natural that people are reluctant to show fear and so there's a tendency to say nothing or to make a joke.

But the best way to deal with fear is, of course, to confront it, and to do this we must understand what's going on, says cognitive psychologist Dr Eamon Fulcher, of the University of the West of England in Bristol. "Panic attacks are surprisingly common and can often be mistaken for a physical illness or disease," he says. 

"To understand a panic attack it is useful to know about anxiety. When we detect a threat, anxiety spurs us into action. A racing heart and rapid breathing help blood to flow to the limbs so that if we choose to run away or to fight we can do so more effectively than if we remain calm. We have inherited this through evolution."

This is all sound, sensible stuff but there is a downside. "A problem arises when anxiety appears at inappropriate moments or when it gets out of hand. First, an event causes unpleasant physical symptoms. This is interpreted as a threat that triggers fear and anxiety, which amplifies the sense of threat."

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Discuss this article

 help....i have considered myself a strong swimmer up until May 2011. I have been racing in multisport now for 4 years...a competitive age grouper! Trained hard in the winter months of 2010 through March 2011 preparing myself for 70.3 Gulf coast Triathlon in Panama City Fl. Yeah! talk about a open water 1.2 mile problems what so ever, had a swim time of 36 mins. I signed up for a Olympic race 2 weeks following my 70.3....Memphis in May, the swim leg was just under a sweat. Me and my 2 training partners arrived a day early and planned to do a practice swim in the man made lake. There were quite a few other racers in the water as well. I felt very comfortable and set out for a quick out and back with my training partner at my side. About 400 yard out we decided to head back in....I turned to take a breath and gulped in water, no problem right! It's happened numerous times before...WRONG, for some reason I couldnt catch my breath, I went into a a slow breast stroke, which didnt help. I began to yell to my partner...he was a few yards ahead of me, he couldnt hear my shouting! Panic set in even more...i could not control my breathing, and as i was looking around and saw that there was no one around...I began to panic even more! I began to yell frantically to shore, hoping someone would come to my rescue! Honestly I thought I was goin' to drown...2 Triatheletes on shore saw my distress and rushed out to the time they got out to me, I had calmed myself down. I was sooo embarrassed, and ashamed. i was able to swim to shore following the 2 guys that came to my rescue! I did complete the Olypic distance the very next day.....breast stroke the whole way....Long story short....I have raced in 4 Tri's since the episode, Lake swims and Gulf swim times have been greatly affected by this and I can't seem to get passed it or overcome the panic now. I was a strong swimmer and now i'm struggling to get through my races...please any advice will be taken!

Posted: 22/08/2011 at 22:58

My first OW swim was part of an oly tri. I'd just read an article about panic in the water, and was trying to both remember and forget it! I was looking forward to the bouyancy of the wetsuit and figured this would make it 'easy'.... but I hadn't banked on the way I would react to cold water splashing in my face the whole time.

I went to go swimming, and found myself panicking. I paused and took deep breaths, but just couldn't get over the cold water in my face. Then water sloshed into my goggles and it was too deep to stand, so I couldn't sort those out, and when I was moving (breast stroke or back stroke) I was worried about over using my legs! I had two or three good efforts, and I noticed the difference in distance covered, but could not keep it up the whole way around. I got paranoid that I was going too slowly and would miss the cut off, I was convinced I would have to stop after the first lap (2 lap course), I hadn't ever really 'seen' the distance before and that was contributing to the whole overwhelming ridiculousness.....

I finished in 50mins though, which was within my 'acceptable' range prior to the event. And I got through everything else ok too. The swim was the worst bit though.... so I got myself into open water the following weekend.

My second swim in an OW centre was brilliant. I covered more than the race distance of the previous weekend and I felt very confident. 

My third OW swim was a month later and I paniced again. I could feel my heart pounding and was nervous of the cold water again. I couldn't do more than 400m in that instance.

Then I went to an OW training session the following week where you don't do more than about 100m and have others around you in a similar situation, and it was a big confidence building. Advice about climatising to the water and gradually putting your face into the water was all invaluable. My HIM swim went without a hitch 10 days later.

It was another month before I got into the water and felt I would panic and I was slow and worried, but I take the approach now to swim with my head out of water for a bit, then grandually introduce my face to the cold and after 15-20 minutes I'm swimming as if in a pool.  I still struggle a bit with bilateral breathing in OW but seem to get there occasionally. 

But I agree with KK - OW exposure is the only thing to do, and get a routine that gets you used to the cold in your face. I don't have any more events planned for this year, and probably won't get the chance to go into the water again this year, but come next Spring I'm hoping to be up and down the river every week

Posted: 23/08/2011 at 12:58

Practice, practice, practice. Try to find somewhere to swim regularly, don't stray too far out at first. Remember many people have a battle with it, it is quite normal.
Posted: 23/08/2011 at 13:22

Ive been there, struggled with OW swimming since my very first attempt - and I dont really know why. Think its the cold and (this sounds strange) the fact that I am out of my depth in a lake, makes me panic.
I am far worse in the early part of a season when the water is cold and I havent done any OW swimming for a while - after that it is always to a degree in the back of my mind
As exiled claret says, its practise, and if you panic, you stop, breathe and take your time to get the composure. My first OW swim I didnt get to the first buoy 50M away...with practise, focus, gritting of teeth, and coaching I managed to do the Ironman swim this year.
Cant say Im ever going to be a fan of OW swim, its a means to an end for me (sooner I get the wetsuit off and on the bike the better), I swam last night and was awful again, I just am more at ease in the water and know I can do it.
Posted: 23/08/2011 at 22:15

I've been there too, my first 200 meters of my very first open water Triathlon was spent hypo-ventilating - I panicked and couldn't get my breath. I had a word with myself, told myself "look there are another 200 people in this water doing exactly the same thing, I am not alone and if worst come to worst I could turn on my back and the buoyancy of my wetsuit would keep me afloat." I started to count my strokes and focused on a rhythm (not the one I planned in training, but one that felt comfortable at the time), I counted each stroke and tried to focus on each target individually rather than thinking about the whole lake. It got me through and I went on to do the same in my next Triathlon - same rhythm, same count and I felt far more comfortable and I haven't had a panic attack since.
Choose your comfort zone, stick to it or even try and focus on something else other than the fear. If you have an affirmation say it to yourself over and over again, then by the time you have said it a few times its time to get out the water and focus on the next challenge.

Good Luck

Posted: 19/01/2012 at 13:47

and me too ...

I still struggle in open water and I am always much slower than the pool. I've tried constant exposure but it doesn't seem to get any better.

I struggle with the cold and that I think its that that effects my breathing.

I'd love to find a solution because its a constant source of frustration for me.

Posted: 10/02/2012 at 11:46

I have been swimming across the same lake for about 11 years that has 6 bouys strectched across it until July 2011 when I swam straight out across this lake and was parellal to the 5th bouy when I kept swimming and swimming but was not getting any closer to the other side of the lake when a little voice in my head first quietly and then quicky shouted "SOMETHING IS REALLY WRONG HERE" and that statement kept being repeated in my head and my legs felt like lead, I started to panic and hyperventilate, and felt like I was starting to sink and felt surrounded by quicksand instead of feeling the bliss that comes with the freedom by being in clean, open water.

I do not know if I almost drowned but if I did not get on my back and float then yes I could have drowned. I floated on my back in a horizontal direction to the 5th bouy since I wanted to be able to hold onto something and then floated vertically all the way back between the bouys to the shore where I came from. Cold water may have caused me to panic but it did not cause hyperthermia because it took me well over an hour to float back to shore.

When I tried to swim back to the shore on that day I would get another panic attack. When I floated to the 2nd bouy on the way back a boat came by and asked if I wanted help but I was really embarassed and said no. Once the boat left I got another panic attack. I got to the 1st bouy and then was able to swim to shore normally.

I had been swimming long distances for about 13 years and this never happend and I think I swam too far in water too cold after eating at a buffet and having a threatening emotional disturbance with another person a few hours before this happened. Regardless, now that it happened I can't shake it off.  

About 2 weeks later I went swimming again and got a panic attack a mere 10 feet from a log boom that marks the end of the designated swim area. I now carry a little foam kickboard with me even though I seldom use it. Having that foam kickboard slows my swim down as I toss it about 20 feet in front of me and then swim to it until I cross the lake. I do not want to get a panic attack mostly because I know if I faint I will definitely drown since I do not use a wetsuit and there are no other swimmers or boaters in this part of the lake.

If I do start to feel dizzy or afraid, sticking the foam kickboard in between my thighs props up my chest out of the water and will stop a panic attack from developing.  This was a very frightening expericence that made me feel demoralized because long distance swimming was one sport I could beat almost all people at. Shortly after this happened I almost felt like I might have a panic attack driving in the car but it never happend.

I have returned to the water but with a foam kickboard because the result of getting a panic attack and feeling dizzy or fainting is not just an unpleasant, defeated feeling but something that could actually cause a drowning when not wearing a wetsuit where there are no other swimmers or boats in the water. When I read that these types of panic attacks can cause fainting I knew the risk of swimming without a flotation aid was not worth it.

Posted: 26/02/2012 at 14:15

I can't believe how hard open water swimming can be when the panic settles in, it is ridiculous.  I think mine comes from the first ows I did when the water temp was about 12 deg C.  I had assumed that because I was quite good in the pool I was going to find it easy and fun.  I found it horrible, cold, and I felt dizzy for most of the swim (approx 1500m because that is what the swim director told us we had to do!)

 I try to warm up before a swim to acclimatise well before the race but that doesn't seem to work very well.  My best swim came from a race last year where I had to jump off a pontoon into a dock and start swimming straight away.  Within a few seconds I realised the dock was full of jelly fish but for some reason that did not worry me at all and I had a fantastic swim - 5 mins off my pool time for a 1,500m!  This year I am going to try getting in quickly and just going for it!

However, since it is now May and the lake is still only 8 deg, I don't think I will be going anywhere near it for a while!

Good luck all you that also panic.  You and I know it doesn't make sense but it is still better than doing a duathlon - far too much running!


Posted: 07/05/2012 at 01:31

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