What is Thalassophobia?

legs with flippers under water

Are you afraid of being in or around large bodies of dark water? Perhaps this fear prevents you from going to too far out while in an expansive lake or makes your heart drop into your stomach when thinking about all that exists beneath the water’s surface. Because water is an important part of enjoying a lot of new experiences — whether a cruise, a trip to the beach, or a visit to a tropical island — this anxiety can have a negative impact on your quality of life.

If this fear rings true, you may be suffering from a common phobia called thalassophobia. Although the name is long and complicated, the description is pretty simple – it is the persistent fear of vast, deep and often dark bodies of water. In particular, it is a person’s fear of the great unknown right below their feet. To better understand the phobia and help manage its symptoms, it is important to gain a solid understanding of its causes and treatment.

Signs and Symptoms of Thalassophobia

Differing from the fear of water itself, thalassophobia is the persistent fear of what exists below the water’s surface. Whether in the ocean, a deep river, or a large lake, the fear can stem from the thought of an unknown creature swimming below you or even just knowing how deep, expansive, and dark some large bodies of water are. Often, the most frightening part is the water’s ability to get darker the deeper it gets, coupled with what little we actually know about the life forms inhabiting the deepest depths.

In extreme cases, a person who experiences this phobia may start to shake, sweat, or vomit when they are near or in a large body of water — and these sensations can occur when merely looking at pictures of a watery expanse. It can also be a terrifying thought to be so far away from the land while in the water. In most cases, people who have this fear will be scared, nervous, and generally uneasy around large bodies of water.

You may also experience the following common phobia symptoms:

  • Uncontrollable anxiety when confronted with the fear
  • The need to avoid the source of the fear at all costs
  • Inability to function normally when around the trigger
  • Awareness the fear is irrational, yet an inability to control the feelings

Additionally, if you are experiencing the feelings of panic and intense anxiety when exposed to a large body of water, physical sensations can include:

  • Sweating
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Abnormal breathing
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Shaking
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Chest pains or tightness in the chest
  • Dry mouth

In some cases, these anxiety symptoms can be conjured up when merely thinking about the object of the phobia or viewing a picture of it.

What Makes a Fear a Phobia

When you have a phobia such as thalassophobia, you are experiencing an anxiety disorder caused by an irrational fear of a specific situation. Having a phobia is common in the U.S., with about 19 million people experiencing at least one, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. It is a diagnosable mental disorder resulting in intense distress when a person is faced with the source of their phobia. In this instance, a large body of water.

Often, this fear causes a person to shape their life to avoid situations they consider “dangerous” to help avoid any type of fear reaction they cannot control. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to avoid your trigger without negatively impacting your quality of life. If this is your experience, speaking to a mental health professional is the best first step toward treating the phobia.

Treatment for Thalassophobia

Thalassophobia is a treatable condition and can be overcome with the help of professional therapy. Before receiving support, you may want to consider taking an informal thalassophobia “test” to help gauge the degree of your phobia.

This entails viewing pictures of large, expansive bodies of water to see if the sight makes you anxious and rating the level of fear you have when thinking about them. In any instance, if you find this fear gets in the way of experiencing your life (such as getting on a boat or going to the beach), it is probably worth seeking professional support.

Therapy for thalassophobia

Once you make the decision to seek support, the therapist may ask you about your current lifestyle and past trauma to determine the origin of your phobia. The goal of these counseling sessions is to help you better understand how your fear developed, identify its 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. You may be given assignments to visit the ocean while remaining safely onshore to test some common coping mechanisms.

While there are no precise numbers regarding how many people actually have thalassophobia, there are many who experience a phobia of some kind, making it a common disorder to treat in therapy. 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.

When you are able to lessen the impact a phobia has on your life, you can spend more time enjoying it.

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