Saturday, February 24, 2018

Panic at the Water’s Edge – Overcoming Hydrophobia

February 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 


When someone in the family suffers from a lifelong fear of water (hydrophobia), or suddenly develops it after years of boating, it can be disruptive and often disabling.  The fear may be passed along by parents or arise from a sudden trauma, but however it arrives, the phobia can be effectively diminished or eliminated.

Martin Rosolinsky, a clinical social worker with a private practice in Bayport, says that hydrophobia may become apparent in certain social situations, when a friend or family member makes excuses to avoid going boating. Rosolinsky warns against saying, “Oh, get over it,” and trying to force participation. “In extreme situations a person may exhibit physical symptoms of panic, and end up in a fight or flight reaction when their adrenalin kicks in. They will feel very uncomfortable, which is the wrong way to handle the person with the fear.”

Just because you regularly dive off your boat and swim 100 yards under water before coming up for breath doesn’t mean that your friend can’t be afraid of drowning in ankle deep water! Rosolinsky advises that “we should listen to someone express their fears by not offering advice. Validate their thoughts – don’t judge them. Ask them if talking about it helps.”

Perhaps the phobic may well have suffered some trauma at some point in his or her life. Perhaps the person was on a boat when an incident occurred, and he or she felt extremely fearful.  If you want to help him or her overcome such a terror, and the person is open to it, Rosolinsky says it’s best to asks questions about the episode that made such an impression. “Is there a past history of something that went awry? Did their boat capsize?”

Social support is an often helpful way to deal with someone’s panic. “Enlist the help of others,” counsels Rosolinsky. “Perhaps a friend who is a trained lifeguard can establish a comfort zone and teach that water isn’t as dangerous as it appears.”

Though people can learn to get over fears without professional intervention, be cautious when engaging in amateur probing about a person’s phobia.  Anxiety or apprehension may be pronounced in individuals with traumatic upbringings, such as an abusive or alcoholic parent, warns Rosolinsky.

Even well-meaning parents can pass phobias along to their children. Rosolinsky advises that children are very sensitive to the way their parents behave –both verbally and nonverbally. He cites fear of dogs as an example: “Perhaps you have been pulling your child away from a family dog to protect your child (in your eyes), but you are teaching the child that all dogs are dangerous.” While children should be afraid of a stranger’s snarling German Shepherd, your actions teach them that Grandma’s yappy Chihuahua is equally scary.

If your partner has a fear of the water, it is possible to prevent your child from developing it, too?  Even if the adult is not seeking to overcome his or her dread, Rosolinsky says that you should focus on the child, suggesting that you “take the child out, showing them that nothing will happen to the fearful parent if they leave their side to do it.” If Dad takes son boating though Mom is fearful, Rosolinsky urges the whole family to have dinner together that evening.  That reassures the child that nothing bad happened to Mom, even though they went out on the water.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often used by mental health professionals to desensitize sufferers and alleviate their fears. Unlike those burdened by certain mental disorders, phobics are often very aware that something is wrong (this helps make treatment easier for the therapist to pinpoint). In the case of hydrophobia, the therapist may persuade the person to first get onto a boat in a marina without leaving the dock. “After that experience, we will analyze the feelings and emotions the person felt getting on the boat,” says Rosolinsky. The next step would be to take a trip around the harbor on a calm day, gradually easing and erasing anxiety on the water.

The key to seeing those with a phobia recover is to never laugh, never judge, and go gently. Though someone with hydrophobia may never want to go boating in less-than-ideal conditions, they will be able to read Moby Dick without having nightmares!

By Richard Shrubb

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