Thalassophobia produces strong feelings of worry, anxiety, and fear related to the fear of water or deep bodies of water. Phobias can severely impact the life of people with the disorder. Fortunately, mental health experts can successfully treat thalassophobia, and other phobias, with therapy and sometimes medication.
What Is Thalassophobia?
Thalassophobia is a fear of water, but the situation is not so straightforward. People with this condition will not be afraid of all water in all situations, so taking a shower or getting a drink on a hot day will not create an anxious response. Thalassophobia will create a powerful and irrational response when the trigger is present.2 In the case of thalassophobia, the person may believe that they will drown, regardless of their swimming skills, or that they will be attacked by a shark, even though the risk is minimal.
“Anxiety is a normal part of being human and certain situations naturally cause anxiety for many people. This is evolutionary; the more anxious humans in prehistoric days were more likely to be cautious and survive, compared to anyone who did not have enough anxiety to make safe decisions,” says Dr. Patricia Celan, psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University. “Unfortunately, this very natural fear of dangerous situations can become exaggerated and take over a person’s life. Compared to a normal fear of deep water, someone with thalassophobia is so terrified of deep water that it causes distress out of proportion to the situation and negatively impacts that person’s functioning.”
According to Dr. Holly Schiff, PsyD, “The intense fear those with thalassophobia experience is usually disproportionate to the situation and causes extreme distress and impairment. The difference between natural fears and a phobia is that the latter involves unreasonable and excessive fear of a specific stimulus – in this case, deep water – and a consistent and immediate anxiety response.”
What Can Trigger Thalassophobia?
Some common triggers of thalassophobia are:1
- Oceans (the most common trigger)
- Deep lakes
- Rapid rivers
- Large ponds
Because not everyone with thalassophobia will have the same experience or triggers, some people with the condition could note feeling fearful around swimming pools or water parks. If the fear becomes too widespread, though, it could indicate that the condition is not thalassophobia and may instead be aquaphobia.
Thalassophobia Vs. Other Phobias
Thalassophobia should not be confused with:
- Aquaphobia: A person who reports high levels of anxiety around more sources of water could have aquaphobia. With aquaphobia, nearly any source of water, even toilets and bathtubs, may produce unwanted stress and anxiety.
- Hydrophobia: Not classified as a mental health condition, hydrophobia is a symptom experienced in rabies-infected people that leads them to avoid drinking water.
- Bathophobia: A person who experiences intense anxiety when thinking about of physically near any type of depth. Triggers for bathophobia include cliffs, long hallways, deep water or tunnels.
How Common Is the Phobia of Deep Water?
Though there is not currently specific research on the prevalence of thalassophobia, having a fear of the deep water is very common. Many may not receive a formal diagnosis, however it is estimated that 7-9% of the population has a phobia, with fear of deep water being a commonly-reported phobia.4 That statistic is likely much higher, as many people don’t get a formal diagnosis, especially if they can figure out ways to deal with their fears without the help of a therapist.
There is one essential symptom of thalassophobia – high levels of fear or anxiety about a specific situation, thought, or location involving deep or large bodies of water. The reactions will be powerful and disproportionate to the actual danger of the situation.2
This heightened fear of deep water could result in:
- Poor concentration and difficulty making decisions
- Inability to sit still
- Feeling sweating and shaky
- Full panic attacks marked by fear of dying, trouble breathing, and other intense physical and mental symptoms
These symptoms will likely present and increase as the person comes closer to their trigger. People with severe thalassophobia could note significant distress when thinking about the ocean, even if it is not physically close.
To meet the diagnostic criteria for thalassophobia, the fear must last for at least six months and create significant issues for the individual at work, home, and school. Because thalassophobia is so easy to avoid, people’s lives may be minimally affected, which makes proper diagnosis challenging.
What Causes Thalassophobia?
Currently, experts are not certain what causes some people to have phobias. There is a strong belief that a combination of negative life experiences, genetics, environment, brain functioning, and learning patterns could create thalassophobia. A person with a strong family history of anxiety who was taught to fear the ocean will be more likely than others to develop an irrational fear of the ocean. The risks are even greater if the person lacks healthy coping skills and supportive loved ones to relieve their stress.
Possible causes and triggers of thalassophobia include:3,4
- Young age: Anyone can endure a phobia, but children are more likely to report the symptoms of these disorders.
- Direct or observed life experiences: A person who personally has a negative experience involving an ocean or other large water body could develop a phobia. Likewise, those who see scary situations, in person or through some media, may note a phobia.
- Informational learning: Rather than experiencing or observing scary situations, some people could see their phobia develop from the information provided by others. If a parent or trusted adult tells a child about the dangers of deep water, the child could become phobic.
- Genetics: Family history of anxiety and phobias can create an increased risk for others. It seems that there is an unidentified genetic component to specific phobias.
- Brain function: Researchers are investigating the way anxiety disorders affect a person’s brain and the way the brain influences anxiety disorders as a connection seems present.
Dr. Celan notes, “Anxiety tends to run in families, and phobias can as well. A person’s genetic vulnerability can combine with a negative life experience that works as a catalyst, leading to a fear that is significant enough to be considered a mental disorder. For example, if someone has a tendency to be anxious and then witnesses a close friend drown in the ocean, that person may begin to overvalue the idea that the ocean is unsafe. Over time, that fear magnifies to the extent of causing enough distress or impairment to be considered a phobia.”
Complications of Deep Water Phobia
Having a phobia of deep water can definitely cause some complications, including:
- Panic attacks: If you are around the sea, a lake, or a pool, it is likely that someone may experience panic attacks if there is pressure to go into the water.
- Isolation & loneliness: Many social situations in warm months and family gatherings can involve locations that have deep water, which can leave those with the phobia feeling anxious and unable to enjoy themselves—they may skip the gatherings altogether.
- Depression: This fear and many phobias can lead to depression, as people may compare themselves to others who do not have this phobia.
- Risk of substance misuse: Those with phobias which are hard to manage can lean on substance use as a way to cope with the fear, which in this case can be dangerous as substance use around or in deep water can be risky and lead to drowning.
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How to Deal With Thalassophobia
No one will have to live with thalassophobia long-term if their treatment and follow-through is appropriate.
The best ways to cope with thalassophobia include:1
- Stick with your treatment plan: Exposure therapy for thalassophobia will have plenty of uncomfortable moments, which might make someone want to quit. Instead, persist to realize the benefits exist.
- Avoid negative coping: Negative coping skills may seem like the easy way to deal with your symptoms. They never live up to the promise, though. Alcohol, drugs, shopping, excessive video game playing, and sex may seem like great solutions, but they only create bigger issues later.
- Reach out to loved ones for support: No one should confront a mental health condition alone. When managing your phobia and receiving treatment, get as many of your trusted supports involved as possible. Together, your support can make fighting thalassophobia more fun and more successful.
- Explore relaxation techniques: Yoga, meditation, and other forms of relaxation can go a long way to aid the recovery process. Explore options to find one that works for you.
- Distract yourself when you can: If you can give yourself a grounding exercise when you are feeling anxious about the deep water, it is a good way to distract yourself from the water and help you focus on something else.
- Practice Safe Self-Exposure: Working up to exposing yourself to your fear is a great way to help overcome it. If you have people who can support you and help you be safe, that is a great way to cope.
- Be Compassionate With Yourself: Let yourself be OK with having this fear. Fears are a healthy part of human experience. As you start to work through this phobia, allow space for self compassion.
Dealing With a Thalassophobia-Induced Panic Attack
Phobias have the power to create incredibly high levels of stress and anxiety. When these symptoms emerge and go unchecked, panic attacks can surface.
Panic attacks are discrete periods of high anxiety that lead to significant physical and mental health effects like:2
- Heart pounding and palpitations
- Chest pain
- Feeling disconnected to the body or the surroundings
- Feeling dizzy or light-headed
- Fear of dying
Treatment can help deal with a thalassophobia-induced panic attack in two ways:
- Teaching new relaxation techniques and coping skills to respond more effectively to panic symptoms
- Address the underlying symptoms of depression and anxiety that contribute to thalassophobia
By combining prevention with damage control in therapy, a person can lessen the chances of panic attacks while becoming better able to react when symptoms start emerging.
How Is Thalassophobia Diagnosed?
A diagnosis of thalassophobia comes after several sessions or appointments with a mental health therapist or psychiatrist to learn about the fear, the person’s mental health history, and their current symptoms accompanying their fears. The formal diagnosis will also come with treatment options.
Treatment of Thalassophobia
At times, mental health treatments may offer limited efficacy for certain psychological disorders, but professional phobia treatments, like psychotherapy and medication management, can provide quick and effective results with symptom reduction. Paired with helpful lifestyle changes, treatments for thalassophobia will restore a person’s health and well-being.
Psychotherapy is the practice of meeting with a trained therapist to address and resolve the symptoms so the person is no longer fearful. Therapists, like psychologists, counselors, and social workers, will meet with the client in individual, group, or family sessions to provide coping skills and therapeutic interventions that diminish anxiety and restore control and power to the person’s life.3
Therapy sessions for thalassophobia can occur in a variety of settings like schools, mental health agencies, private practices, and doctors’ offices. Since thalassophobia is triggered by the ocean, therapy sessions could even take place on the beach or in the water to address the source of the issue, though this practice would not be necessary.
Exposure therapy is based on the notion that one must confront and face their fears directly to shrink their symptoms.5,6 Any form of exposure therapy is challenging and uncomfortable for the client because the situations will trigger their stress. The person will learn, though, that they can overcome the stress and not be controlled by fear.
Dr. Schiff states, “The gold standard for phobia treatment is exposure therapy. The individual is exposed to their feared stimuli in increasing levels of intensity until fear extinction is reached. In the case of thalassophobia, an individual might start with looking at photos of the sea, then escalate to watching videos of the ocean or deep water and the exposure would culminate with a trip to the ocean or a pool in person (called in vivo exposure). Through this controlled exposure, the individual learns that the feared stimulus is not in fact dangerous, and they can start to associate it with more positive outcomes.”
Other Therapy Options
Exposure is a wonderfully effective therapy for phobias, but it is not the only option. Some other psychotherapies for thalassophobia include:7
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Without the specifics of exposure therapy, CBT can help people recognize the irrational aspects of their fear and set out to complete healthy behaviors without the influence of their phobia.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A form of therapy that helps people find acceptance by living in the moment with a nonjudgmental approach while also committing to needed changes to shift away from certain thoughts and feelings.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): A therapeutic form based on CBT principles that focuses on helping the individual by improving their mindfulness, communication skills, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation.
Not everyone will have a positive response to therapy for thalassophobia, but phobias are one of the most treatable mental health conditions. With consistency and a trust in the process, a person will see their stress drift away.
Intended Treatment Outcome & Timeline
Effective treatments delivered by an experienced therapist can rapidly resolve symptoms with some people noting benefits in as little as four hours of therapy.5 In a broader sense, phobia therapy can improve the condition in around 12 sessions, so just a few months of therapy can separate people from less stress.7 Therapy sessions can be done in person, but people can also find very experienced therapists offering DBT, ACT, and CBT sessions online.
Many people will use therapy to fully eliminate the symptoms of thalassophobia, but others will need a combination of therapy and medication to adequately address their condition. Fortunately, prescribers like psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, and primary care doctors have several types of medications to assist the treatment process. Some of the medications commonly used include:5 Talk with your doctor or a psychiatrist if you are interested in pursuing medication for anxiety and phobias.
How to Get Help for Thalassophobia
To get help for thalassophobia, someone must begin by no longer working to avoid and escape their symptoms. When the person is able to admit their issue and see the benefit of treatment, they can seek the needed assistance from mental health professionals.
By calling a mental health agency, a primary care doctor, a trusted friend, or the insurance company, a person can begin the process of getting treatment for their phobia.
How to Get Help for a Loved One
Getting help for a loved one is much of the same process. Work to help your loved one see the negative impact thalassophobia is having on their life and how therapy can assist with these symptoms. Prepare for the conversation with helpful resources the person can use to contact available treatment providers. Always offer to be part of the treatment process.
How to Get Help for a Child
Children have some of the highest rates of phobias, so many parents may experience the need to find treatment for their children.
A trusted pediatrician can start the process, or you can contact other parents that have had successful stints of mental health treatments. Make sure the child knows that they are not doing anything wrong or bad. Instead, you are just doing what they need to have a happier, lower-stress life.
Can a Fear of the Ocean Be Prevented?
Phobias and fears cannot be prevented, but they can be well managed with these tips:
- Know & manage your triggers: By knowing that you may have a mild fear of something, taking time to name your fears and expose yourself to them when you can (safely) is a great way to prevent them from getting out of hand.
- Prioritize your physical wellness: Take care of your mind and body and work through your fears so they don’t consume you.
- Avoid using substances to cope: Using substances to cope is dangerous as it may give the impression that a phobia is cured when really it is the result of lower inhibitions due to the substance.
- Get help at early signs of anxiety: If you are feeling anxious and worried where it interferes with your quality of life, don’t wait any longer to get help.
- Model positive behaviors and mindsets for children: To avoid passing a fear onto a child, make it clear for them that deep water can be dangerous, but don’t overblow your concerns. Children can pick up on your fears and behaviors, so modeling a calm response is a great way to prevent them from developing a phobia.
Because there are so many forms of specific phobias, the group of disorders is well-studied by experts.
The most noteworthy statistics associated with specific phobia include:2,5
- Roughly 8% of all people in the U.S. have a specific phobia each year
- Age 10 is the average age of onset for specific phobia
- Among children ages 13-17, 16% will have a specific phobia
- Women with specific phobias outnumber men by a 2:1 ratio
- Due to high stress, people with phobias are around 60% more likely to attempt suicide at least once