So, I have always had a very healthy fear of the ocean, but like a respectful fear. An "I'm in Awe of you" fear. It's deep, it's dark, it's the home to way too many big and scary things. But I could never stay away from it. When I started surfing, there was a new element of being in the water that would create a new type of fear.
Being held under the water by a wave is a fucking horrible feeling. Particularly the first time it's for a substantial amount of time. The first time I truly panicked in the water I had just ridden a ~6 foot wave. I had paddled back out for another set, and the next one I pitched my board forward and got thrown off. The wave broke on top of me, and tossed me around in the break for what felt like forever. When I finally got the the surface, another wave crashed right on top of me, and I had to do the same thing over again. And then the third wave came.
When I finally got up and was able to take more than one breath, I could feel my heart beat increasing dramatically. I was truly panicking. I jumped onto my board and got my ass to the white water.
It was like mid-day on a Wednesday, high tide, and maybe like 8 other people in my general area on the water - none women, by the way. I got genuinely scared to paddle back out to the lineup. I surfed in the white water for a little bit, then called it a day, happy I got a head high wave before feeling like I was about to die.
So, now, how do I paddle out when the waves are 9+ feet out without freaking the fuck out?
Well, there's a few things that I do, and remind myself of:
I feel the fear before I get in the water, but I let it go the second I get into the water. Fear is healthy, but when you're going for big waves, you can't have that with you. You'll hesitate, you'll make a mistake, and you might hurt yourself. So don't pretend like big waves aren't scary, but don't let it be a baggage.
Progress at a natural pace - by this I mean, don't go from surfing 4ft waves to all of a sudden paddling out for double over head waves (12+ ft). Keep challenging yourself with bigger waves, different currents, etc. But don't do it in such a way where you are setting yourself up for failure.
Study the water before you paddle out. Where are the waves breaking? Where is the rip-tide (where the current pulls you back into the ocean)? Where are the other surfers taking the wave? This all helps you figure out where to paddle out at, and where to sit in the lineup.
You can hold your breath for longer than you think. When you get held under a wave, I know that 5 seconds feels like a minute, and if you don't know which way is up, you can start to really panic. But remember, you could legitimately probably hold you breath for near a minute. Remember to keep your mouth shut. I personally have a habit of cussing when I bail off a wave, which usually ends up with me swallowing way more salt water than necessary - don't do that. Keep your mouth shut, grab your leash and make your way up to the surface.
There's nothing wrong with getting scared. The ocean is terrifying. No one should deny that. But don't let your fear hold you back. Don't set yourself up for failure by not addressing the dangerous parts of surfing before you go out.