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Thalassophobia: Do You Fear the Deep Ocean?

deep ocean
Some people have a deep fear of deep water. Samere Fahim Photography/Getty Images

For some, the ocean is the inspiration for many beautiful poems, songs and pieces of literature. But for others, it's a big old watery nightmare, just waiting to swallow unsuspecting humans up. Those people experience thalassophobia, a persistent, intense fear of large, deep bodies of water.

"It is different from the fear of water as aquaphobia can cause distress with small amounts of water, while thalassophobia specifically involves larger quantities of water," says Dr. Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada, via email.

So, someone with this condition might be just fine hitting the neighborhood swimming pool, but a dip in the Gulf of Mexico is totally out of the question. However, thalassophobia is exceedingly rare. "Demographics for thalassophobia are unavailable, but at least tens of thousands of people are believed to have the condition worldwide," Celan says. That's much less than aquaphobia, which affects 2 to 3 percent of the world's population (140 to 210 million), according to a study in Frontiers in Psychology.

Still, thalassophobia can be pretty terrifying for those who do suffer from it. Here's the rundown on why it develops, how it presents and how it can be treated.

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Why Do People Develop Thalassophobia?

Some people develop this fear of deep water thanks to prior experiences, such as a near drowning or getting caught in a riptide. Others get it through observational exposure, by watching people who have a fear of the sea or had a bad experience in the ocean. Other folks are influenced by media reports of drownings, boat accidents or shark attacks. Then of course, there's "Jaws," a movie about a (mostly unseen) shark that terrorizes a New England tourist town. The blockbuster has caused many people to be afraid of swimming in the ocean.

Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, Jaws
Blame it on "Jaws": The 1975 movie sparked an increase in thalassophobia. Here, Richard Dreyfuss (left) (as marine biologist Hooper) and Robert Shaw (as shark fisherman Quint) look at the terrifying approach of the giant white shark.
Universal Pictures courtesy of Getty Images

There's also a genetic component for phobias, so if a relative has thalassophobia you're more likely to develop it, as well. Especially if you grew up around the person.

"From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that humans would develop a tendency to fear and avoid deep water because of all the associated risks," emails Dr. Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, and co-author of "The Anti-Anxiety Workbook." "We are essentially 'programmed' through evolution to fear some situations (e.g., heights, deep water, snakes) more easily than others (e.g., flowers, teddy bears)."

He notes that this term thalassophobia "does not appear in any official diagnostic nomenclature. With very few exceptions (e.g., agoraphobia, claustrophobia), phobia experts do not use the hundreds of Greek and Latin names for phobias that are out there in the media."

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Signs and Symptoms of Thalassophobia

Signs of thalassophobia, like many other phobias, can be severe. "When people with thalassophobia are exposed to the ocean or similarly large bodies of water, such as seeing the ocean in person from a distance or in a photograph, they experience extreme anxiety," Celan says. "Their anxiety impedes their ability to function and may include panic attacks. They typically have difficulty sleeping and experience persistent worry after their exposure." She adds that actively avoiding the ocean is usually a key feature of true thalassophobia. Many even avoid smaller bodies of water, as well.

When forced to encounter deep water, people with thalassophobia often experience any or all of the following symptoms (which are common to many other phobias as well):

  • Racing heart
  • Breathlessness
  • Chills
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Dry mouth
  • Need to use the bathroom
  • Numbness

These can be accompanied by psychological symptoms, such as:

  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of fainting
  • Fear of losing control
  • Dread

The effects of exposure can last long after the exposure is over. "Their anxiety impedes their ability to function and may include panic attacks," Celan says. "They typically have difficulty sleeping and experience persistent worry after their exposure."

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Treating Thalassophobia

Dealing with thalassophobia can be as easy as staying away from large bodies of water, but that's not an option for everyone. "For some people (e.g., swimmers, people who fish, people who work on cruise ships), a fear of water may cause significant problems," says Antony.

Fortunately, there are a number of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques that can be used to revamp a person's thinking.

"CBT can be used to change negative thinking patterns around the ocean to more realistic thoughts, as well as resisting any behavior resulting from the negative thoughts," Celan explains. "The best treatment for phobias is generally exposure therapy. Gradual exposure to images, videos, and eventually slowly approaching the ocean in person can all be done with a mental health professional to lessen the fear associated with the ocean."

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