Helping Adults Overcome Their Fear of Water
By Jeff Krieger
When helping adults overcome their fear of water, one of the most overlooked components of that process is something that can be subtle, even unrecognizable, yet plays an unmistakably significant role in a positive outcome. By the time most adults come to me for help, they bring with them all the emotional baggage that they have developed and dragged along with them all those years as a result of that fear.
The further along these feelings of frustration, disappointment, anger, isolation, lower self-esteem and hopelessness continue, the further away the idea of ever feeling safe and having fun in water becomes. That is truly the bad news and quite understandably so, as we all have experienced similar situations throughout our childhoods. However, there is one part of adults' efforts to overcome their fear of water that is extremely important and quite obvious to me, yet often remains completely unnoticed by many clients. I usually do not bring this point to their attention during the assessment and initial phase of my program because I want to give the client the opportunity to first experience some level of understanding, success and belief that they will achieve their aquatic goals.
Even as late as adolescence, children come across many learning and developmental experiences that can create varying levels of fear and anxiety along the way. The cause of those uncomfortable feelings may be the result of different reasons, most commonly fear of failure and danger, which in many cases is completely understandable, and part of the learning curve. Some of the more common examples of these situations are children learning to play sports, especially navigating how to ride a bicycle, with or without training wheels, and developing skills that will allow their parents to entrust them with more difficult responsibilities, both physically and intellectually, such as driving. Even despite the occasional setbacks, bumps and bruises, even some embarrassment and disappointments, children generally demonstrate a tremendous amount of resiliency, along with the all-important sense of "youthful enthusiasm"—perhaps the one factor that provides the greatest amount of recovery, motivation and determination, even during the most painful of moments.
The older we become, the opportunities to generate and use the powerful feelings of "youthful enthusiasm" seem to decline, being replaced with the needs and responsibilities to accomplish goals, such as careers, beginning families and working to improve the quality of life. One of those rare exceptions is when an adult who has suffered from a lifelong fear of water is finally able to find specific professional assistance that will help them to overcome that fear, which will allow them to proceed to learning how to swim and ultimately, be able to enjoy the many emotional, physical, recreational and professional benefits that result from feeling comfortable, confident, independent and safe in water.
As I watch my adult clients make progress, the most satisfying reactions that I see are their ear-to-ear smiles and the type of joy that one associates with the gratification and thrill that results from "youthful enthusiasm." It is at this point in the process that I point this out to my clients and ask them, "How often as adults do we get the chance to enjoy and benefit from that wonderful feeling known as 'youthful enthusiasm'?" The response to that question is overwhelmingly one of surprise and complete agreement. I then encourage my clients to use those wonderful memories and the life skills that they learned along the way that helped them earlier in their lives to be successful. At that point I see quite clearly a different look in their eyes, along with measurably more patience, confidence and excitement. "Youthful Enthusiasm" may be difficult to measure scientifically, but I can assure both aquatic professionals and current and potential clients, it can produce very measurable results when working to overcome their fear of water.
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