Open Water: Panic Attacks

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."

On the next page: Strategies for facing your open water fears and keeping calm tips from performance coach Kim Ingleby.


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