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what is fear of being in deep water called?
Thalassophobia can cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe — some people may feel slightly afraid of deep water or the ocean, while others may find that looking at the sea or images of it triggers feelings of panic.
What is thalassophobia?
Thalassophobia is an intense fear of deep bodies of water. People with thalassophobia experience sudden onset of anxiety when exposed to triggering stimuli, which can include deep pools, the ocean, or lakes.
Everyone experiences thalassophobia differently. Some people might panic when swimming in deep water, being on a boat, or no longer being able to touch the bottom of a pool. Others experience fear just thinking about the ocean, or when looking at pictures of deep water.
Thalassophobia, often called “fear of the ocean,” is a specific phobia involving intense fear of deep bodies of water. Thalassophobia is a specific phobia and is therefore classified as an anxiety disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).1
People with specific phobias experience intense fear, triggered by a specific stimulus, which is disproportionate to the situation and causes significant distress or impairment.
When left untreated, thalassophobia can greatly limit a person’s life.2 A person with thalassophobia may feel increased anxiety and quit engaging in formerly enjoyed activities such as going to the beach with friends and family, boating, swimming, watching certain movies, and more.
Signs of thalassophobia
A person with thalassophobia experiences feelings of fear and anxiety about the sea or another large body of water that do not match the level of danger that the water poses to them at that moment.
A person with thalassophobia may be afraid of:
- being near the ocean
- going in the ocean
- visiting beaches
- traveling on boats
In severe cases, symptoms may be triggered by images or thoughts of the ocean or other deep bodies of water.
The anxiety that thalassophobia causes activates the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, which is the body’s way of preparing for danger. This produces physical symptoms, such as sweating, faster breathing, and an elevated heart rate.
In more severe cases, this response escalates into a panic attack, which may cause:
- rapid breathing, or hyperventilation
- heart palpitations
- trembling or shaking
- the feeling of choking
- nausea, with or without vomiting
During a panic attack, a person may feel as if they may faint, that they are losing control, or that they might die. However, although they can feel very serious, panic attacks are not dangerous in themselves.
People with thalassophobia may also feel dissociated while they are experiencing symptoms. Dissociation is a feeling of being disconnected from the body or the current situation.
The stress resulting from thalassophobia may cause a person to avoid any situation that might trigger the symptoms.
What causes it?
There are a variety of reasons that someone may develop a fear of the ocean. Exposure to stimuli that cause a fear response may lead to the development of a phobia. This stimulus can be a traumatic event, such as nearly drowning or witnessing a shark attack in the ocean. This type of phobia is called an experiential phobia.
Phobias can also develop without any experience or trauma. These types of non-experiential phobias may develop from the following causes:
- genetic factors. Having a relative with a fear of the ocean may increase your risk of developing thalassophobia.
- Environmental factors. Hearing of other traumatic events, such as drownings or attacks in the ocean, may cause a fear of the ocean.
- Developmental factors. If the fear-response area of the brain has not developed properly, it makes it easier for a phobia to develop.
It is important to know that with thalassophobia, the fear of the ocean becomes an automatic, irrational response that the person cannot control.
If you suspect you might have thalassophobia, there are a few things that you can do. An informal online test might give you an indication that you have this type of specific phobia. Such internet-based, at-home tests might involve looking at potentially triggering images or taking a quiz to determine the extent and severity of your symptoms.
While there is no formal test or assessment to diagnose this phobia, your doctor will likely assess your symptoms and investigate any possible underlying medical factors.
In order to be diagnosed with a specific phobia according to the DSM-5:
- Your fear of deep water is persistent, excessive, and unreasonable
- And feel this fear every time you are exposed to deep or open water
- You realize that your fear is out of proportion to the actual dangers
- You either avoid the ocean or other waters or endure them with intense fear
- Your fear of large bodies of water interferes with your normal functioning
- You fear has been present for six months or longer
- Your fear is not better explained by another disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder
How is thalassophobia treated?
Treatment for thalassophobia may include one or a combination of the following:
- Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT). When it comes to specific phobias, CBT often involves desensitization or exposure therapy, in which people are gradually exposed to their triggers until their anxiety begins to lessen. In the case of thalassophobia, a person might begin by looking at photos of deep water, progress to watching films with deep water, and ultimately go to the beach or get on a boat.
- Medication. Benzodiazepines, such as Valium or Xanax, or beta-blockers, such as propranolol, may be prescribed to help reduce anxiety, particularly in specific situations such as needing to get on a boat.
- Relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness practices may also help reduce anxiety symptoms.
For instance, a person with thalassophobia might do everything in their power to avoid going to the lake or the ocean. They may even avoid movies or books featuring the ocean, ships, or ocean life.
Avoiding a fear allows it to remain for an extended period of time — or get even worse. Then, when a trigger is accidentally encountered, you may experience a panic attack.
Seeking treatment may make it easier to manage your thalassophobia as you learn coping and recovery strategies.
Therapy for thalassophobia
Once you make the decision to seek support for your condition and find a licensed therapist,
be prepared to be open about your current lifestyle and any past traumas. The more you discuss with your therapist,
the easier it will be to help them determine the origin of your phobia and work with you to overcome it. The goal of these counseling sessions is to help you better understand how your fear developed, identify your specific triggers, and help you learn to successfully manage the emotional and physical responses when they occur.
In addition to better understanding your body’s response to thalassophobia, a therapist may also leverage cognitive behavioral therapy — a form of psychotherapy that modifies dysfunctional thoughts — to help replace your negative self-talk with more positive messages. It will help you control your thoughts instead of feeling overwhelmed by them.
Exposure therapy is a common technique for treating phobias such as thalassophobia. This form of therapy mainly consists of gradual,
repeated exposure to your phobia in a safe environment in order to help you decrease your fear and manage avoidant behavior. For example, many people with thalassophobia fear the ocean. A therapist might use exposure therapy to work with you to overcome this fear by first having you think about a situation where you would be in the ocean — with imaginal exposure — then move on to showing you images of the ocean, and then ultimately guiding you through an in-person experience of the ocean or via virtual reality exposure.
While there isn’t an exact record of how many suffer from thalassophobia, there are many who experience a phobia of some kind: an estimated 9.1% of American adults have reported having a phobia in the last year. Phobias are a common disorder for which clients seek treatment in therapy and mental health professionals established and researched back ways to help you overcome them.
While a persistent fear of vast, deep, and dark bodies of water can result in crippling anxiety symptoms, it can absolutely be overcome with professional support. Participating in therapy, whether it’s in-person or online, you will be one step closer towards overcoming your phobia.
When you are able to lessen the burden of a phobia and diminish its negative impact on your life, you’ll be able to spend less time living in avoidant fear. Instead, you’ll have a newfound perspective on the world and be able to prioritize living life to the fullest and enjoying each day. And, hey, you might even decide it’s time to go back in the water!
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