You spent the first nine months of your life floating around in the watery home of your mother's womb, so there's nothing unnatural about being the water. Young, pre-verbal babies can be taught Infant Self Rescue and some toddlers can swim unaided. You, too, can float peacefully, and even swim.
If you are terrified of the water, keep in mind that almost 20 million Americans are phobic about something, so don't worry, you're not alone. Aquaphobia is one of the most common fears out out there. And just like any other phobia, it can be overcome. The key is to take it slowly; while you're learning a new skill, you don't want to traumatize yourself more — so give yourself time and space to learn your new skill.
I've been a lifeguard, I've taught a few kids how to swim and helped an adult at least partially overcome his fear of the water, enough so that he felt comfortable floating around on his back and paddling on his front in the shallow end of the pool. The below process is one I have used with success. Some people move faster than others — I've gone through the whole routine below in a half an hour with a young child who had never swum before, while for others it took several hour-long sessions in the water. Go at your own pace.
Preparing to swim
You start, as with so many things in life, with the basics. If you can talk to someone about your fear of water in a calm way, and try to find out where the fear comes from, that might help you to intellectually understand your discomfort. More than 90 percent of people who are afraid of the water learn it from a parent who taught them to be afraid at a young age. Just knowing this can be helpful in overcoming your fear — this was taught to you, and you can unlearn it.
Beginning in a pool or a lake is easier than the ocean, where you might get moved around by the waves, though a quiet, protected, shallow area of sea can be great too — because seawater is salty, you'll float more easily. The key is finding a safe spot where you can slowly wade in and out and where you feel comfortable.
If you can enter the water up to your waist without getting nervous, do that. If not, enter the water as far as you can and practice slowly walking in circles, from the shallow water into slightly deeper, and back up into the shallow again. Then increase the size of your circle so that you go in and out of slightly deeper water each time you make a circle. While you are walking, breathe deeply in to the count of five and out to a count of seven, keeping your breathing slow and even. This relaxed breathing will remind your body that you don't need to panic and and start resetting your neurological pathways so you don't go into fight-or-flight mode when you're in the water.
Put your face underwater
This next step might take some time, and that's OK. For most people who are uncomfortable with being in the water, having their faces and head submerged is what they find most alarming. First, simply lower yourself down into the water by bending your knees (hold onto the edge of the pool if you want to) until your mouth — but not your nose — is in the water. Then, blow bubbles out of your mouth while breathing in slowly through your nose. Come up for a break, then do it again. And again.
When you feel comfortable doing this exercise, move a little lower into the water; this time put your nose and mouth underwater and blow out. Come out of the water and breathe in, then bob down and bubble air out through your nose and mouth. Make noise if you like. Do this until it's no longer scary and kind of boring. Then, do the same thing but bob your head entirely underwater. Repeat, repeat.
What does practicing floating look like? The first few minutes of the video above offer a great description. Simply bending over in the water and trying to touch your toes, while holding your breath, will help you get used to the feeling that you will, indeed, float. Then try a mushroom float, where you bend over with your face in the water and pull your knees up toward your chest, as demonstrated in this video:
Hold this and pay attention to where your body lifts to the surface. When you feel comfortable, stretch your arms out. Finally, stretch your legs out, too, floating face down in the water. You'll find this is actually very peaceful and not scary at all. Flip over and try your back when you feel ready.
Now you can start learning to swim
Dealing with your fear of water can take several sessions of going through the above steps. You might even get to floating one day, then find a week later when you get back to the water you have to start at step 1 or 2 all over again. That's OK. Just keep repeating the steps.
Now that you are feeling comfortable in the water, find someone who can teach you the different types of strokes. There are beginner classes at the YMCA in most communities, or at public pools. It is a complicated thing to coordinate breathing and strokes, so having someone who is expert to help you through the unfamiliar is key.
For your own safety and that of other people in your life, knowing the basics of how to swim are important and could save a life. And overcoming a fear feels absolutely incredible and is a real accomplishment.
You can do it. Even Piper, the baby sandpiper bird who stars in an animated short prior to "Finding Dory," learns how to overcome his fear of water.