Everyone has their own fear threshold when it comes to surfing bigger waves.
For some, that fear might be a 2ft whitewater, for others it might be a 20ft wave at Jaws, regardless the fear of waves (big or small) is real, and overcoming it is no joke.
But, armed with the right knowledge and skills (plus a little application) overcoming a fear of big waves is within your grasp, and you’re about to learn how.
WHAT IS THE FEAR OF BIG WAVES CALLED?
The fear of waves, or swell if you like is called cymophobia and it's described as "...an excessive and irrational fear of waves or large bodies of water, particularly the ocean."
There is another term that you should know too: thalassophobia.
Thalassophobia is the fear of the sea or ocean (not necessarily the waves).
I'm going to confuse once more here, and add another random term: megahydrothalassophobia.
A mouthful I know, this phobia is an irrational fear of large things underwater, things like marine life, rocks, etc.
Fear of waves & swell
Fear of the ocean
Fear of large things underwater
Whether it's just waves you're scared of, or a bit of all three, at least now you know what it's all called.
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WHY AM I SCARED OF BIG WAVES?
Being scared of big waves is a natural, evolved, healthy, autonomic bodily response.
Fear, along with the fight and flight response is generated by the body to keep you out of danger.
Without this ingrained fear, human beings would likely not be around today, so in an evolutionary sense, it’s served us well.
What our evolution didn’t anticipate for however was just how damn fun surfing is, and how exhilarating it can be surfing bigger waves.
HOW TO STAY CALM & OVERCOME A FEAR OF BIG WAVES IN 6 STEPS
Below you're going to learn how to stay calm in bigger waves, and how to build confidence too, all in six neat little steps:
STEP 1. UNPACK IT
To overcome a fear of big waves it’s first important to unpack it.
Unpack, unravel, and understand.
Why, well, just understanding what’s happening to the body when it’s engulfed in fear goes a long way to diffusing it and loosening its grip on you.
So, in simple ‘layman’s’ terms, here’s what happens to the body:
BLOOD FLOW DECREASES TO THE BRAIN'S FRONTAL LOBE
During a fight or flight response the blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobe decreases.
This is the part of the brain used for logical thinking and planning.
WHY IS THIS BAD: In a dangerous situation in the water the last thing you want to do is start thinking irrationally.
This type of thinking will put you in more danger than almost everything else put together.
HEART RATE INCREASE
During this process the heart rate rapidly increases to pump more blood around the body.
WHY THIS IS BAD: An increase in heart rate makes the body burn through oxygen at a much higher rate.
Increased oxygen burn rate means decreased breath hold times underwater.
BLOOD PRESSURE INCREASE
Alongside the heart rate increase your blood pressure increases too.
This helps the heart pump more blood around the body faster.
WHY THIS IS BAD: Same as above, increased oxygen burn rates means decreased breath hold times underwater.
BREATH RATE INCREASE
As your body’s fight and flight response goes into overdrive, it must take on more oxygen to fuel the process - hence the increased breath rate.
WHY IS THIS BAD: Underwater, the one thing you don’t have is the ability to take on more breath - regardless of how much your body craves it.
An increased breath rate does nothing for you in the water.
INCREASED MUSCLE TENSION
In a fight or flight scenario the muscles in the body tense up, ready for combat or to flee.
WHY IS THIS BAD: Increased muscle tension means one thing, increased O2 burn rate.
Again, the exact opposite of what you want when you’re being held underwater.
STEP 2. MANAGING TRAUMA
If you’ve had a bad experience in bigger waves in the past, it’s very likely that you’re carrying along with you some associated trauma.
Does this doom you to forever be the victim to a past event?
No, it doesn’t. In fact trauma (when looked at from a different view point) is not something that is happening to you, outside of your control, instead it’s self-generated.
And if it’s self generated, that means you are in control.
It doesn’t mean overcoming past trauma is easy, but you are not trapped by it, and there are ways to move past it.
STEP 3. MASTER YOUR MIND
Your mind, when left to its own devices does not always serve you well.
In fact as humans we all have an inbuilt negative bias that can hold us back in many areas of life.
Understanding that you are not your mind (you’re not just in case you didn’t know), creates separation, and with that separation things can be seen from afar - for what they really are.
Spending a little introspective time, looking within from afar, will help to disarm any negative narratives that don’t serve you and build new positive narratives that do.
STEP 4. BREATH
It’s weird I know, but most people don’t know how to breathe properly, and definitely don’t know how to breathe effectively to help them in the surf.
We’ve got a whole course teaching how to double your breath hold times underwater, but to keep things quick, here are a few pointers:
CO2 INTOLERANCE CAUSES CONTRACTIONS
Did you know that it’s actually CO2 build up that causes the onset of those nasty diaphragm contractions, NOT lack of Oxygen?
Well it’s true.
Increase your CO2 tolerance and you’ll keep those contractions at bay for longer.
FULLY IN, FULLY OUT
Most surfers only fill their lungs with about 60% Oxygen with a big in-breath.
They fail to remove the old CO2 fully first, and fail to fill the lungs (the right way) second.
Get a full, complete in-breath - maxed out with fresh O2 - and you’ll stay chill underwater for much longer.
STEP 5. EXPOSURE
To overcome any fear, you’ve got to expose yourself to it, even if it’s only baby steps.
Exposure will help you to touch the edges of your threshold, understand it’s ok, and allow you to build up new autonomic bodily responses as a result.
Increased exposure to incrementally bigger waves will slowly but surely help you to overcome a fear of big waves.
It’s no coincidence that all Hawaiians charge big surf, right?
STEP 6. FRONT LOADING
At the House of Surf we’re pretty big fans of front loading; do the work, and avoid putting yourself in sketchy situations in the first place.
So, here’s what you can do to plan to win rather than fail.
- Practice CO2 & O2 tables (breathing exercises to increase tolerance)
- Check your gear (check legrope, fins and board for defects before they break leaving you in a compromised situation).
- Understand how to conserve energy in the surf (more energy, more ability to handle underwater situations, easier to stay relaxed).
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Overcoming a fear of big waves will take time, but it’s time well spent.
We’re not talking about surfing massive waves like you see on the internet, but being able to surf everyday waves without being scared, enabling you to playfully attack the surf with reckless abandon.
Get to this place and your surfing ability will go through the roof too I promise
Rowan is the technical nerd behind the scenes. A lover of everything entrepreneurial, and living a minimal, simple life.