It may seem like a far-fetched accusation, but what we see is what we believe.
Think of what it looks like when you see a person who is drowning. It’s pretty easy to bring to mind, isn’t it? They flail their arms and splash as they are trying to stay above water, they yell for help and they cause a big scene, right?
Wrong. This is what most of us picture when we think of someone drowning, but this is completely wrong. Television and movies have taught us to think this way because they exaggerate real life events. It’s called “dramatic conditioning.” Guns don’t make a cocking noise every time you point them at something; knives don’t make that sinister “schling” sound every time you lift them, and people don’t really flail and scream when they are drowning… in fact they can’t.
The instinctive drowning response is what happens when someone is actually drowning. A person experiencing this response will likely look as if they are just looking up and treading water. This is problematic because someone can be right in front of you looking at you and you will think they are perfectly fine, yet they are actually less than a minute away from dying.
The reason a person in this state will not call out for help is because their body will not let them. They are using their lungs entirely to try to breath, and they may only have a split second with their mouth above water at a time for them to breathe. Since screaming is secondary to breathing when it comes to survival, you probably won’t hear them make a sound. They will not wave for help. Their instinct is to push down on the water with their arms to try to get their mouth above water so they can breathe. Their body will straighten out, and within seconds they will probably be under water and not coming back up.
Now don’t think because this is what a drowning person looks like that a person who is screaming and splashing is automatically joking about it. This is known as aquatic distress. Aquatic distress often happens before a person reaches the state of the instinctive drowning response, but not always. A person in this condition is still in trouble, but they can help in their own rescue by trying to grab onto things such as a throw-ring or a lifeline. This is something you need to be careful of however because if you try to help someone who is in aquatic distress, they may instinctually grab onto you and push you down into the water to get themselves up, or they may drag you down into the water with them.
Because people only think of the aquatic stress response when they picture someone drowning there are many cases each year where someone drowns while people are watching with no idea that it is happening. Parents may be watching their child swim and not even realize that their child needs to be pulled out immediately before they go under water. Here is a list of signs to watch out for to tell if someone is experiencing the Instinctive Drowning Response:
-Looking up with their mouth open
-Climbing the invisible ladder
-Gasping for air
-Mouth at water level
-Hair over their eyes
-Mouth going in and out of the water
-Vertical position in the water
Be safe this summer. If you have friends with children you might want to let them know what a truly drowning person looks like so they can watch for signs of it.
-Source “ON SCENE: The Journal of U. S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue”