Therapy for trauma after being swept out to sea

The ocean's vast expanse, with its rhythmic waves and infinite horizon, can be both enchanting and daunting. For many, it's a sanctuary of relaxation and recreation. However, its unpredictable nature can sometimes lead to harrowing experiences, such as being swept out to sea by currents or rip tides. Understanding the psychological aftermath of such events is crucial for recovery, and seeking therapy for trauma after being swept out to sea is an option to consider.


The hidden perils of rip tides

Rip tides, potent currents moving away from the shore, are a primary reason individuals get swept out to sea. These currents can be swift and unexpected, catching even seasoned swimmers off guard. The terror of almost drowning, the fear of not being found, the chilling cold, and the eventual rescue can leave lasting scars. While some may recover quickly after such an ordeal, others might grapple with profound psychological challenges. Although many people will recover naturally from the experience, for some there may be ongoing difficulties.  

The psychological impact of being swept out to sea

If you've been swept out to sea, you may experience a range of psychological symptoms, including panic episodes, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Panic episodes can be particularly challenging, as they may make it difficult for you to engage in everyday activities, such as going to work or socialising with friends. You may also develop a fear of the sea or of water, which can impact your ability to participate in water-based activities in the future.

  • Fear of the sea/water: A once-beloved sanctuary can transform into a source of dread. This fear can be so paralysing that it prevents individuals from nearing any water body.
  • Panic episodes: Sudden and intense bouts of fear can strike unexpectedly, often triggered by reminders of the traumatic event.
  • Anxiety: A persistent state of worry, especially when reminded of the sea or similar environments.
  • Post-traumatic stress: Reliving the traumatic event, nightmares, and heightened reactions to triggers are common symptoms.
  • Learned fear and vicarious trauma: Fear can also be instilled by witnessing someone else's traumatic event or hearing about it.

With the right knowledge, support, and self-care, recovery and a return to enjoying the beauty of the ocean is possible.

Recovery after being swept out to sea

Surviving such a traumatic event as being swept out to sea can have profound emotional and psychological effects. Here are some self-care steps and ways to support oneself after such an experience:

 Physical care

  •  Medical care: seek immediate medical care, particularly if you almost drowned, became cold or were in the water for a prolonged time.
  • Rest: Your body has undergone immense stress. Ensure you get adequate sleep and allow your body to recover.

 Emotional processing and psychological care

  •  Journaling: Write down your feelings and the details of the event. This can help process the trauma.
  •  Talk: Share your experience with trusted friends or family. Speaking about it can be therapeutic.
  • Breathing exercises: Deep breathing can help calm the nervous system.
  • Grounding techniques: Techniques such as the "5-4-3-2-1" method, where you identify five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste, can help bring you back to the present moment.
  • Engage in relaxing activities: Activities like reading, listening to music, or taking baths can help distract and soothe the mind.

 Moving towards recovery

  • Educate yourself: Learn about the sea, rip tides, and safety measures. Knowledge can empower you and reduce fear. The RNLI offer some useful advice for water safety and drowning prevention.
  • Avoid triggers: Initially, it might be helpful to avoid beaches or similar environments that remind you of the event. Over time, with support, you can gradually reintroduce these environments at a pace that feels comfortable.
  • Stay connected: Spend time with loved ones. Their support and understanding can be invaluable during the healing process.
  • Set boundaries: It's OK to tell people you're not ready to talk about the event or to ask for space when needed.
  • Reintroduce activities gradually: If you wish to return to sea-related activities, do so slowly. Start with short visits to calm beaches or pools and gradually increase exposure as you feel comfortable.

Remember, everyone's healing journey is unique. It's essential to listen to your body and mind and seek support when needed. There's no set timeline for recovery, so be patient and compassionate with yourself.

Therapy to support recovery from trauma

If you're struggling with the psychological impact of being swept out to sea, consider seeking support from a mental health professional. A psychologist can help you work through your feelings and develop coping mechanisms to manage anxiety and panic episodes. Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) is one therapy option that has been shown to be effective in treating PTSD. Many people experience psychological trauma after a distressing experience, and it's perfectly normal to need support to overcome these feelings. Here's how therapy can guide you:

  • Understanding the fear: Delve into the root of your fear. A psychologist or therapist can help you explore the parts of the experience that you found most distressing. This varies from person to person. It may likely involve the traumatic experience of drowning or the possibility that you could have. It may relate to the fear of being lost and disconnected from loved ones. It is also possible that being swept out to sea opened up previous unhealed trauma.
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): This therapy aids individuals in recognising and altering negative thought patterns and behaviours. It's especially effective for trauma and anxiety. It is generally recommended to offer trauma-focused CBT after first waiting to see if the person recovers without intervention.
  • Eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR): Particularly recommended for single-event traumas, EMDR can often provide relief within a few sessions. Short interventions are available to offer relief in the immediate aftermath of the event.
  •  Exposure therapy: Gradually and safely confronting the source of fear can help in desensitising and reducing the dread. (Often part of CBT and EMDR). 
  •  Imaginal exposure and mental rehearsal: These techniques can help calm an over-reactive fear response before facing the actual fear. (Often part of EMDR).

Staying safe after surviving being swept out to sea

Surviving a traumatic event like being swept out to sea can leave lasting emotional and psychological scars. As you navigate the journey of healing and possibly returning to sea-related activities, it's essential to prioritise safety. Consider researching safety advice or even taking a course. Swimming alone is not recommended; having a buddy can provide assistance and seek help if needed. Before heading to the beach, check local weather and tide forecasts and be aware of any warnings. It's always safer to swim in areas supervised by lifeguards, trained to recognise and respond to distress situations. Recognising signs such as a channel of churning water or a break in the incoming wave pattern can be life-saving. And did you know, that if caught in a rip tide, it's crucial to remain calm and swim parallel to the shore until you're out of the current, then angle your way back to the shore?

Before returning to the sea, consider ways to address the trauma of being swept out. Unprocessed trauma can be triggered by similar situations and environments to the original event. When triggered, thinking can be impaired, as well as the ability to stay calm and focus on the activity you are doing. Healing this trauma can reduce anxiety and fear, making your return to sea-related activities safer. With the right knowledge, support, and self-care, recovery and a return to enjoying the beauty of the ocean is possible.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hexham, Northumberland, NE46
Written by Dr Laura Walton, Clinical Psychologist
Hexham, Northumberland, NE46

Dr Laura Walton is a Clinical Psychologist (swimmer, and scuba diving instructor). Providing remote/online therapy, including ACT, CBT & EMDR. She specialises in therapy for trauma and anxiety, and has a particular interest in supporting the well-being of people who love water (swimmers, divers etc.).

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