Stupid phobia
March 31, 2013 3:22 PM   Subscribe

I have an embarassing phobia which I'd like to get rid of.

This question is terribly timed, but it's unfortunately real.

When I'm swimming in a pool, my head fills with thoughts about encountering a shark or occasionally an alligator. It's so bad when I swim alone that I get out of the pool. If someone else is in the pool I'm pretty much okay, the more people the better. In fact I'm completely fine when others are swimming with me, whether they know me or not.

If I close my eyes for the part of the stroke that is under the water things are better. I am never worried about the shark being in an area I can see, it's always behind me or to the side where I can't see.

I know that this makes no sense. I have an engineering brain and there is no way the animal could get into the pool, and checking beforehand doesn't help either. It's an irrational phobia that needs to be dealt with.

So therapy would probably be good. Before I do this, I'd like to try a bit more on my own. So AskMeFi: what do you suggest?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Can you pinpoint any childhood memory that might have set this up?

Can you go somewhere and swim with actual sharks?
posted by cmoj at 3:24 PM on March 31, 2013

I would suggest swimming with other people around as much as possible and look into hypnosis.
posted by heyjude at 3:34 PM on March 31, 2013

posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:45 PM on March 31, 2013

I was on the swim team in High School and had the same phobia. Thinking back on it, I believe it stemmed from my understanding of how aquatic predators work. Humans are comparatively awkward in the water and easy targets, especially for creature that blend perfectly in with their surroundings and specialize in sneak attacks. Yes, I knew that it was a pool with chlorine and that no creature could get to it let alone survive in the tainted water, but my instinct didn’t know that. It just understood "awkward in water" and "easy target for predators".

What helped me was to start off each training day by putting my back against the pool wall and going underwater to have a look around (with team issued goggles). Once I actively saw that there was nothing in the pool that day, I was usually okay for the rest of the session.

I did this with the diving well too. I'm sure that people thought I was nuts, but it really helped remove the "diving into an unknown body of water" feel that irrationally bothered me.

Note: this assumes that by "checking beforehand" you meant "looking in from above." That didn't help me either. I had to look around in the water. I don't know why that made a difference to my mind, but it did.
posted by Shouraku at 3:47 PM on March 31, 2013 [8 favorites]

Phobias don't have to make sense. Thanks to the Twilight Zone I have a lifelong fear of masks that disfigure people and give them horrible caricature faces, and that is highly unlikely to happen in real life. This stuff usually has its origins in childhood. Could there be some movie you saw when you were a kid, where a gator got into a swimming pool? Or maybe this is basic Jaws trauma? It's possible that going back to watch the old movie as an adult could make it seem less scary, especially if it's some campy thing with cheap special effects. (Don't watch Jaws, though. That thing is still terrifying.)

Shouraku's underwater peek idea is a good one. I also wonder if it could help to try swimming with one of those shark-shaped pool toys. If you splashed around with it for a while and saw that it was just a harmless rubber thing, maybe it'd break the fear cycle in your brain.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:50 PM on March 31, 2013

When I was a kid -- a frequently-swimming kid -- I called this flavour of fear the 'pool monster,' and decided it couldn't get me so long as I was going quickly. I did very well in swimming lessons for many years. Any chance of using your phobia to your advantage, fitness-wise?
posted by kmennie at 3:55 PM on March 31, 2013

Oh my God, I have this as well, and I know right where it came from.

It was going to Sea World, at the Shamu show, sitting right next to the glass wall of the tank, and seeing Shamu rise up from bottom right towards me. Tie in seeing part of Orca around the same time, and oh yeah. Something is coming after me in the pool, Jesus Christ, get out of the water.

I managed to get past it by not swimming in very deep water. Like, I'd do laps in the shallow end. Or in lap pools where it doesn't get particularly deep. Where I knew I could touch the bottom, and therefore, nothing could get me because it would be too big.

I still do that. It's easier over here, because most pools aren't designed for anything more than laps and playing around (at least, hotel pools, gyms and leisure centres), and I don't know if I'll ever go back to diving (which I learned as a kid and...god, yeah, okay, that is too deep just thinking about it. Fucking Shamu is totally at the bottom.)

Maybe also switch to something where you're in the water but you're not swimming under the water? Like aqua aerobics or something? That also helped, because if I wasn't underwater, then it couldn't grab me.
posted by Katemonkey at 4:00 PM on March 31, 2013

All phobias are nonsensical. That's the nature of a phobia. I've had this exact same irrational fear, and also only when alone in the water. For me, it's just like fear of the dark and I second Shouraku's peeking. (Also for me it came out of nowhere. One day I was in the pool alone and thought of an alligator, and that's all it took.)

I have had luck with thinking through the fear before intentionally putting myself in the feared situation. What are the thoughts that run through your head when you're in the water? Can you come up with some short answers to give yourself about why you are safe? Can you give yourself a time to beat and build up from there? "OK, I'm afraid but I am going to stay 30 seconds before getting out, 1... 2... 3..." and so forth.
posted by zennie at 4:04 PM on March 31, 2013

When I was a kid and swimming lots of laps, I always imagined that there was a sea creature chasing me. It made my swim a lot faster. YMMV.
posted by charmcityblues at 4:11 PM on March 31, 2013

I used to have a really bad phobia of spiders and I've managed to mostly get over it and actually find some spiders cute. Over time, what helped was a few things. First, exposure...looking at spider pictures (this was actually the hardest step). Second, reading statistics on spider bites and consequences (death from spider bites is so abysmally low that it's laughable). Third, being around them. You can apply these to yourself but the third step would probably be the hardest to actually get a chance to do. Even if there actually was a shark in a swimming pool, chances are it still wouldn't attack you anyway. Sharks get a really bad rap.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 4:39 PM on March 31, 2013

It's not the shark in the pool that's scaring you. It's the shark in your mind.

Do you really have a shark in your mind? No - it's a thought, a thought which is made of words and pictures.

Our minds function such that mere thoughts can activate our fight and flight responses.

If you are willing, try inviting the thought shark in. Do it on dry land even. Go looking for it in your mind. If you can find it, look to see if it has teeth, a fin, what color is it? Maybe try petting it, to see what it feels like. That's pretty cool, to pet a shark!

Stick out your arm and ask it to bite your arm. If you look at your arm, I think you'll find that it has no bite marks on it at all.
posted by jasper411 at 4:50 PM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

I had a pool in my backyard as a kid. The day after I saw the movie Jaws (I was eight years old), I couldn't go into the pool. I can remember envisioning the shark magically shrinking down to the size where it could swim through the filter, and after which magically resuming it's normal, kid-eating size.

The next day, I was fine. But it sounds like, for you, this stuck.

The first thing (and really, the only thing AskMe is really, really good at) is recognizing that you're not alone, you're not crazy, it's just a thing, other people have them, and you can get over it with some work.

Try some therapy, try some CBT, etc. But you have no need to be embarrassed.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:14 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just adding to the chorus of people who have this phobia. I know exactly why I have it: my parents took me to Martha's Vineyard as a young child for many years during the summer. At some point, they had the brilliant idea to watch JAWS before we went. You know, cause you can see all the landmarks and stuff!

We repeated this "tradition" for years afterwards. I used to be afraid of sharks in my carpet at night.

And I really never liked to swim after that, in open water or in pools.

EMDR or exposure therapy might be helpful.
posted by k8lin at 6:59 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

We should form a club. Or a swim team.

I was a competitive swimmer through high school and now I race in open water. That shark/gator thing pops up when I'm bored in the middle of a swim. Mostly, I just remind myself over and over that my fear isn't rational.
posted by 26.2 at 9:18 PM on March 31, 2013

As part of exposure therapy, why not spend a long time turning-golden brown on a poolfloat?

Or go hot tubbing.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:34 AM on April 1, 2013

Just wanted to offer my support as someone with a similar fear.
My workouts mostly consist of swimming but I never swim alone in the pool; not even in the 4 ft deep lap pool. I'm not afraid of sharks or alligators... I'm afraid of seeing a dead body.
As long as there's at least one other person in the pool with me the thought doesn't even cross my mind but the minute I realize I'm alone I hightail it out of the water until another person comes to swim.
posted by simplethings at 10:47 AM on April 1, 2013

--> I used to be afraid of sharks in my carpet at night.

For me, it was snakes. At 13 or so I visited friends in Amelia Island, FL who made a big point to tell me that their property had been snake-infested swampland before they macheted and bulldozed it. I lay awake on their couch all night imagining a coral snake had somehow crawled into the house, up through the couch cushions, venom dripping from its fangs...

I wouldn't even touch a picture of a snake in a book. That's how frightened I was. I grew up in the Ozarks, and loved the outdoors, so run-ins with all sorts of snakes occurred with disturbing frequency.

Exposure (reptile house at the zoo; Discovery and NatGeo documentaries; wikipedia) really helped me but I had to start super-slow. Once I got past terror, I could start to appreciate how remarkable snakes were as animals. This worked for me. Learning more, sometimes obsessively, has helped me get over several big fears (flying!).

However you have to be mindful of your reading material, else you'll spend an unhappy hour or two calculating the exact odds you'll die on any plane trip (by mile, by aircraft type, by departure, by destination... you get the idea).
posted by honkeoki at 1:42 PM on April 1, 2013

Well, I think all phobias are irrational, really, until you dig down and figure out what's at the heart of them... So don't feel too silly. I've had my own stupid phobia to cope with.

so, for the 2nd time tonight on MeFi I'll recommend the excellent Anxiety & Phobia Workbook. It'll take you through step-by-step exercises to try and get to the bottom of the problem. I used it in conjunction w/therapy, it really worked. Worth a try, anyway.
posted by hms71 at 9:50 PM on April 1, 2013

Oh my god I think you just implanted a new phobia in my mind!

I used to have a completely different silly and irrational phobia. For me, the key was figuring out how it started. When I was somewhere totally safe (and nowhere near the phobia-inducing environment), and feeling relaxed, I spent some time thinking about the phobia and how it might have started. Once I managed to pinpoint the beginnings, and thought at great length at about that, it slowly went away.
posted by Joh at 10:53 PM on April 1, 2013

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