My Phobia: What Does Drowning Feel Like?

By Marie Miguel

Updated January 31, 2019

Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Do you ever get curious to know what does drowning feel like? When you have a phobia, it can become very consuming and debilitating, whether you've had to face your fear in the past or not.

Your fear of drowning may be keeping you from learning to swim or going near large bodies of water. The ironic thing is that not learning to swim because of a fear of drowning is more likely to lead to drowning in an emergency.


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Are you ready to put this fear behind you so you can enjoy a day at the beach or the waterpark? Are you ready to not live in fear of drowning anymore? Here are some ways to get over your phobia:

What Does Drowning Feel Like?

Unfortunately, we can never know what death by drowning truly feels like. We can get an idea from people who were saved from drowning, though. Sometimes, knowing more about your fear can help you make sense of it all.

There are different accounts of what it feels like to start drowning. There is a fear that overtakes your body and mind because you know that you cannot breathe underwater and you don't know how long you will be able to hold your breath. You may start to try to physically stay above the water until you become too tired and then slow down to conserve your breath, slowly accepting that you have done all you could do. People generally describe the first few seconds as panicky and painful as water starts to rush you and you run out of oxygen. After that initial stage, people say that your body gets relaxed and enter a euphoric state that is common in many near-death experiences. You stop struggling and things get fuzzy.


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How to Get Over My Fear of Drowning

Now that you have an idea what a drowning scenario might feel like, you probably want to know how you can get over your fear and avoid it. The best way to get over your phobia, especially if it is very intense, is through counseling and exposure.

In counseling, you will have an opportunity to talk about your fear and what you might think to lead to the fear. The counselor will ask you several questions to help discover your reasoning unless you already know why you have a phobia of drowning. A common reason for a drowning phobia is an event in your past that caused you to fear the water and drowning. This could have been while learning to swim or other time you spent in the water. Other less common causes of a drowning phobia are seeing someone else drown or almost drown, being in a boating accident, or by watching a movie where a character drowns. There could be many causes and the therapist will help you work through those fears and causes.

One way the therapist may help you work through your fear is with cognitive behavioral therapy. In CBT, you will learn how to challenge the thoughts you have surrounding drowning and how you can start to change them to affect you less. This might involve you doing homework assignments, learning coping techniques, and creating positive messages for yourself, as well as attending weekly sessions with your counselor to talk through your fears. Counselors cannot prescribe medication, so if your phobia is causing panic attacks or anxiety that is not controlled by coping techniques, a visit to a doctor may be in order.

Another treatment is exposure therapy; exposure work should take place with the direction of a therapist and should not be attempted without prior consultation. Your therapist can work with you to create a plan for increased exposure as you gain successful experiences. By exposure, I mean exposure to swim, not drowning.

Exposure for the fear of drowning can start in small increments and work-up to going into a body of water that is most feared, such as the ocean or a lake. The counselor may suggest that you find a lifeguard or swim instructor to accompany you while you become accustomed to being in a body of water. This may look like you going to a community pool and wading in the most shallow body of water available. Or it may start even slower by sitting poolside and watching others swim in the water until you are ready to go into the shallow water. At no time should you feel pressured to do something you do not want to do, while your therapist will encourage you to grow through the experience, you should never be put in a position to do something you are not okay with.

Getting swimming lessons and starting small - in a pool where the water only goes up to your chest, perhaps - would be another way to start. This way, you can start to get comfortable around water and create positive experiences with it. As you build up strength and technique, you can slowly move your way up to bigger pools. Although your counselor will more than likely not be with you during your swimming lessons, you will have trained professionals with you to ensure your safety. You will not be alone.

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A counselor, either in-person or online via a service like BetterHelp, can assist you in getting to the root of your phobia and helping you to change any thought patterns that might be making it worse. For instance, was your phobia something you have always had or was it a result of a bad experience? When you're near water does it trigger thoughts like, "I'm going to die," that put you in a state of fight or flight?

As you work through these feelings, eventually you might be able to reduce the intensity of your phobia and even go on to do other things like going on a boat in open water. The important thing is to trust yourself and take it slow. Too much too fast might discourage you from wanting to keep trying.

Conclusion

Your fear of drowning is a rational thing; no one wants to drown. The problem is that a phobia is more intense than most people's fears and can start to really impact your life if it goes on untreated. Luckily, there are ways to treat phobias so that they are less intense and don't affect your life as much.

In the case of drowning, seeing a counsellor and learning to swim can help you start to trust that you can survive around water. Knowing what to expect can help. Remember to take things slow and celebrate small wins like swimming in the deep end for the first time, if you're ready to go that far.


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