How to Handle Panic Attacks in the Open Water

Hilary Topper in the water

When I first started training for triathlons, I used to have panic attacks in the open water. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, my throat was closing up, and no air could enter. It’s not a good feeling. It feels as if you are hyperventilating.

Where do Panic Attacks Stem From?

What is it that you fear? Is it the water itself? Is it the darkness and what is in the water that scares you? Did something happen as a child? Take a moment and reflect. If it’s something that you can’t work out alone, seek counseling from either a certified therapist or a sports therapist.

What Can You Do About Panic Attacks in the Open Water?

  • Take that fear and turn it around. Take a deep breath in and out for three breaths.


  • Then, look around and notice where you are. Find the beauty and focus on that.


  • Start to count your strokes. 1, 2, 3, and then rest. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and then rest. Do this up to 10, and make sure to sight along the way so that you are heading where you want to go.


  • Think of a song or listen to music on your waterproof headphones. If you don’t have headphones, think of a song that you love and start to sing it.


  • If you are really uncomfortable, take a few moments and roll over on your back and just float.


Having a Panic Attack

I haven’t had a panic attack since 2015, but recently, I had one in the water. I started to hyperventilate and my asthma kicked into high gear. What I did was tread water for a few moments to catch my breath and focused on my breathing. When I felt like I was okay to go, I took a few strokes and stopped. Since I was feeling particularly uncomfortable that day, I headed back to the beach. No need to put yourself in a bad situation. I sat and looked at the water, calmed down, and continued to think that the water was my happy place.