Therapy for Water Phobia, resolved in seven sessions October 2017

Mary Kullman, MS, LCPC

Sara is a 64-year-old female who presented to get help in dealing with her fear of water. Her response to ‘What’s the problem?’ “I am terrified of being in the water. Let me qualify that, water deeper than four feet. Unless it was sweltering outside, my mother would not let me go into the pool because she was afraid I would get pneumonia” (again). “I got pneumonia at the age of eight or nine. They put me in the hospital, and then they placed me in one these oxygen tents. At some point, one of the nurses had turned off the oxygen, and there was cold air blowing in there. Unsure of what was happening, I think it was worsening symptoms, and I was having difficulty breathing. My mother opened up the tent and called the nurse, and I remember someone putting a mask over my face.” The patient continued to reflect on her past issues with breathing later in life, “After my first child, I had asthma. Also, I have control issues—I need to be in control.”

In her first age regression, Sara experienced significant feelings of fear that she was unable to connect to anything or any specific age or time. She allowed it to be present and to feel it and saw it as a block or barricade that she could not get around or through. This feeling of obstacles changed to feeling like being wrapped in a cloud with white all swirling around and feeling pretty calm. Since this was the end of the session, I was sure to remind her that she could choose to wrap herself in this cloud of peaceful calm any time, even in the water.

In the second age regression, Sara drifted back to a recent time she was in the water, feeling the panic, feeling scared, expressing, “I can’t get my feet on the bottom.” When asked exactly what she was feeling inside, she said “My chest, heart, my head, I’m gonna die; I’m gonna drown! I think when I was in the hospital as a small child in an oxygen tent, very sick [switches here to present tense—so now Sara in back at age 8/9] I can’t breathe—I am terrified —someone comes—someone opens the tent—there’s commotion—next thing they put this mask—I can breathe.”

Then she is asked: “What do you know now?”
Response: “I’m alive. In water, when my face gets wet, I feel like this or get water in my ears.”

Immediately, at this moment, this therapist points out the connection between Sara’s current water fears and the feelings/fears she had when the oxygen malfunctioned—she did not die—she is alive. In both situations, she thought she was going to die. Sara was then invited to have her adult-self come and take her younger-self to a place in her imagination that feels safe, sit with her and lovingly talk to her.

Here are some of those new messages adult Sara told her Inner Child: “ It was terrifying in that oxygen tent, but you got out of there, and you got all better. So now we need to let go of that fear so we can have fun in the water. You need to trust me. I am not going to let anything happen to you. You need to know I’m the one who keeps you safe.” After this regression, Sara shared that during the inner child healing song that was played for her, she saw her little 8-year-old self at her kitchen table dunking Oreo cookies in milk. Adult Sara said that she is amazed and feels liberated.

Once Sara connected with her inner child, she never ceased to be amazed. With each appointment, she would report on how she now is aware of taking little Sara everywhere she goes, including to work each day. She said she finally realizes that she has neglected her inner child and needed to form a relationship with her.

At her fourth session, another age regression, adult Sara, and little Sara were looking online for bathing suits. Previous to beginning the therapy, Sara had made arrangements with a swim instructor to start private lessons when she and this therapist felt she was ready. During this session, little Sara was feeling quite hesitant about ordering the bathing suite. When adult Sara asked her what the problem was, little Sara said she was afraid of going under water. Adult Sara reassured herself that nothing is going happen to her and that she could trust herself. Then little Sara agreed that she was willing to try going underwater with the swim instructor.

At the next session, Sara came in super excited because she began swim lessons and was blowing bubbles with her head under water and floated on her back. She also said that little Sara was with her and she talks to her all the time, reassuring her that it’s ok. She said that once in while she has a few twinges of anxiety, which she lets go of quickly. All along she has been practicing her self-hypnosis.
When Sara came in at her sixth session, she reported that she was doing fine swimming in the 4’9” deep water, but that both she and little Sara did not feel quite ready for the deeper water. So another regression was done, this time to have a dialogue with her inner child, little Sara. Adult Sara asked little Sara after they were swimming along nicely, to go with her (in the regression) into the deeper water.

Little Sara said, “I’m afraid of deeper water; I’ll be scared.”
Adult Sara then said, “What can we do to get ready for this? Let’s work with James (swimming instructor) and have him teach us. You think we need more practice, right? Will you be willing to work with James in deeper water?”
Little Sara says ‘yes’ to this.
Then adult Sara says to little Sara, “ See, did you hear her? (referring to the therapist) We’ve come a long way—she’s telling us that.”

At the end of this session, it was suggested to Sara that daily in her self-hypnosis, she remind little Sara that she agreed to practice in the deeper water with the instructor.
At the seventh session, Sara reported that she is doing very well in the water and only experiences some anxiety when the instructor teaches her new things. Luckily, this is very short lived. At this session, Sara was given strong ego strengthening suggestions in hypnosis to reinforce all the positive changes.

Sara was scheduled for a follow-up session in about two months. However, she emailed this therapist shortly before that appointment saying, “I would like to cancel my appointment in February. I am doing so well in the pool that I don’t think I need to see you again. Thank you very much for giving me back the joy of being in the water and knowing that I have this. Best wishes and if I ever need you again, I will be in touch.”

Therapist’s comments: This case is a very concrete example of the Hypnoanalytic in action. In the past, Sara had taken swim lessons for people with phobias related to water. However, that did not last because it only addressed the symptoms. Sara needed to get to the underlying cause of her phobia at the emotional level and then work at that level to undo the negative beliefs and replace with new positive beliefs related to being in the water, especially with her head under the water. Then these beliefs needed to be reinforced both in her sessions and on her own in self-hypnosis. The result: A very happy, confident swimmer.

Update on swim client: (10/10/17—10 months later)

I continued taking lessons until our planned trip to the Galapagos in mid-March.  I “graduated” from swim lessons by swimming the entire length of the pool up and back all by myself!  It was quite a moment!  I was able to enjoy all the water activities of our trip.  I swam with penguins, tons of very colorful fish, sea turtles, sea lions and the highlight was swimming next to a reef shark for a few seconds!  It certainly was a trip of a lifetime.  I was able to get into the water a few times over summer.  I always have a conversation with “little Sara” before going in.  I have stayed in touch with my inner self and am much more aware of her and the impact she has on me.  It has become a comfortable friendship.

I cannot thank you enough for helping me overcome this life-long fear.  I’m not going to enter any swim competitions, but it’s a beautiful feeling getting into a pool with calm and confidence.

Mary Kullman, MS, LCPC shares her story about a patient finding her way back to joy. Director of the Alpha Counseling Center, Inc., has been an established therapist in hypnotherapy in Aurora/Naperville, IL, for over 25 years. She offers many years of clinical, consultative and educational experience in the field of mental health, as well as guidance in individual spirituality. She is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor by the state of Illinois and a Board Certified Hypnoanalyst with 480 clinical residency hours. She has extensive experience in the areas of Hypnoanalysis, couple and family counseling, group work, and teaching. She specializes in individual counseling, especially age regression therapy and complete medical hypnosis in Aurora, IL. Please click here to learn more about her services


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