Not many people are afraid of putting their feet, hands body in water, everywhere else but the face! What is it about the face that makes it seem so vulnerable? Answer: nose, ears, and mouth! The nose is a particularly sensitive part, and sniffing water into the nostrils can be extremely unpleasant – with a stinging, burning sensation. Although it is not fatal, and despite all evidence to the contrary, many people behave as if simply submerging their face will subject its vital and sensitive orifices to intense discomfort with the unstoppable influx of water. This is aqua phobia Is there any basis for such fears? Most swimmers would readily agree that such concerns are exaggerated. Nonetheless, they need to be taught, and the fears need to be addressed. They are obstacles to appreciating how the immersion of the face is a necessary and potentially rewarding aspect to the art of swimming.

The eyes

The eyes are undoubtedly delicate and a very sensitive organ, where most of us detest the sensation of medical drops being dripped into. When a foreign body touches the cornea, our automatic reaction is to blink and flicker our eyelids, and there’s a natural tendency for it to water. These reflexes serve as a protection to the cornea from any damage. With practice we can learn to inhibit these reactions, an important ability if we wish to wear contact lenses, or to open our eyes underwater unprotected by a mask or goggles. There are, of course, realistic concerns about the effect on our eyes of possible pollutants and detergent chemicals used to disinfect pools. People who are ultra-sensitive to chlorine or have allergic reactions to certain chemicals obviously need to take special care about chemically disinfecting their pools. Fortunately, there is a growing range of alternative methods of cleaning, filtering them. Prolonged exposure of the eyes to chlorine and other chemicals can cause irritation, but in most swimming-pools the levels are carefully monitored and controlled so that the water is safe, even if swallowed by mistake.

Anxiety or pain to the eye might result from water being in contact with the cornea. With its softness and neutral pH balance, clean water is a safe medium for the eyes. However, even when they keep their eyes tightly shut underwater, some swimmers feel the need to wipe water off their eyelids before they re-open them. The habit of using the hands to sweep the water constantly away from the eyes is often observed in beginners, but should be discouraged as it impedes learning to swim at any stage. Flicking the eyelashes and blinking the eyelids are all that is required for the eye to repel excess water. Familiarity with the feeling of water stinging the cornea – whether through regular swimming or practicing in the bath helps to remove unnecessary and distracting concerns about getting water in the eyes.

The Ears

Getting water in the ears is another distraction, but one which need not present excessive concern to swimmers. Reactions range from an irrational anxiety that simply placing the ears in the water will cause them to fill up, to an exaggerated worry about water remaining trapped inside the ears. The complex series of twists and turns inside the human ear effectively prevents water penetrating beyond its outer parts, and the deeper, more delicate region towards the eardrum is virtually inaccessible. Occasionally water can be trapped by wax in the outer canals of the ear, causing some temporary discomfort. If the water is allowed to remain there for an extended period, bacterial infection can develop, but inflammation is more often the consequence of excessive efforts to clear and dry the interior channels.

The ‘fear’

In the case of both eyes and ears, it’s not just the physical contact with water that can be the cause of anxiety. Often it’s because their functions – seeing and hearing – seem to be affected or impaired. This is mainly because the aquatic environment presents different kinds of visual and aural stimuli to those we normally experience outside the water. Under the water, sounds are muffled and sights appear less distinct. Some sounds will seem magnified, for instance, one’s own breathing and heartbeat. It is important not to be put off from exhaling firmly and steadily simply because it sounds louder than expected. These sensations should not provoke alarm, and unfamiliarity alone makes them intimidating. With time and experience, we easily become accustomed to the different quality of sensations in and around the water, and adjust our expectations accordingly.

Fears of placing the nose and mouth in the water are largely related to fears about breathing. The question of how we breathe when swimming is of paramount importance to feel at home in the water. The physiological mechanism of the mouth acts as an effective barrier to prevent water from getting into our lungs. We need to familiarize ourselves in practice with the operation of this mechanism so that unnecessary fears do not overwhelm us. Additionally, there are a number of swimming accessories which can be invaluable in helping swimmers overcome their fears about putting their face in the water.

Overcome the fear, and dive in!

Once we have learned to put our face in water, we stand to derive additional benefit from the effects of another remarkable physiological mechanism, known as the dive instinct. The dive instinct was first identified in seals, as despite being mammals, they are able to swim for extended periods under water. It was found that this ability is linked to a measurable change in their metabolism, which to a greater or lesser degree affects all mammals when the face is immersed in water. This change comprises a noticeable slowdown in the activity of the respiratory, digestive, and cardiovascular systems. The cumulative effect is to allow for a slower release of energy and accompanying feelings of tranquility – that is, so long as negative thoughts do not interfere and counteract these effects. There are thus positive physiological and psychological benefits to be gained from conquering the fear of putting the face in the water. Those who choose to swim with their heads held clear of the water – often, in fact, because of unacknowledged fears – are missing out on the very experience that could help to put a different perspective on their feelings.