Maybe an especially slimy piece of seaweed catches your ankle, or a wave whacks into you a little too hard. You might not know how to swim or, for whatever reason, you've always had a bad feeling about the water. Where a fear of the ocean exactly comes from can be difficult to pin down, and it can easily feel all-consuming, but it doesn't have to ruin your trip to the beach.
If the ocean is a source of anxiety or fear for you, keep in mind that you're not alone. Franklin Schneier, MD, co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and special lecturer in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, tells Refinery29 that excessive fears of the unknown, injury, or death (all of which the ocean can bring, in spades) don't just occur randomly. Fear of the ocean is actually one of several "prepared" fears, which are grounded in our survival instincts. Or, as he puts it: "The ocean’s a dangerous place."
It's pretty justifiable to find the ocean scary because of rip currents, sharks, or the possibility of drowning. Dr. Schneier says that your brain picks up on these harmful, even deadly, factors because it's valuable to your survival to do so. That said, there are still ways to curb even these deeply instinctive types of fears.
Dr. Schneier says to spend time reflecting on your fear, and breaking it down to something clear-cut and easy to define. Whether you realize that you're actually afraid of open water because you aren't a strong swimmer — or sharks because, well, they're sharks — you can start to combat your anxieties with information. Take the latter example: You might avoid the ocean because you don't want to get attacked by a shark. After reading up on how unlikely a shark attack actually is, you'll probably find you have much less to worry about. Dr. Schneier calls this a "misunderstood risk," wherein someone overestimates the danger of a situation and develops a fear of it based on that misinformation.
Beyond researching the true risks of your fears, learning to swim (or improving your skills) and practicing relaxation techniques (like this stress-combating breathing exercise) should help you feel more confident around the ocean. Dr. Schenier says the most important step to tackling any fear is to "do the thing you're avoiding doing," but only once you've mentally and physically prepared yourself.
So, that brings us to your first day at the beach since beginning the process of thwarting your fears. You have a few calming tricks and reassuring facts up your sleeve and, ideally, you've made the trip with a group of supportive friends. From there, Dr. Schneier says to take it slowly. Ease into the water gradually, going bit by bit until you feel your stress start to slip away. Even if you only get your toes wet, just letting yourself be near the ocean without feeling like panicking is a sign of progress.
Overcoming any excessive fear is a very personal process, so it may take you a long time before you feel totally comfortable at the beach. Dr. Schneier says to keep listening to yourself, avoid people who'd tell you to just get over it and dunk your head in the surf, and, most importantly, don't allow any feelings of shame to keep you from working on your fears. Like we said before, the ocean does pose some real-life risks — you're not wrong for being aware of them, but with the right approach, you'll be able to live it up at the beach, anyway.