Updated on 8/15/2021

Are you afraid of being in or around large bodies of dark water? Perhaps this fear prevents you from going 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 defined as the persistent fear of vast, deep and often dark bodies of water, which to us humans often feels dangerous. In particular, thalassophobia describes a person’s fear of the great unknown right below their feet. To better understand this phobia and help manage its symptoms, it is imperative to gain a solid understanding of its causes and treatment.

Signs and Symptoms of Thalassophobia

Differing from aquaphobia, which is the fear of any type or amount of water, thalassophobia is the persistent fear of bodies of deep, dark water and what exists below the 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.

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What Makes a Fear a Phobia

A phobia is defined as an excessive, irrational fear of a situation, creature, place, or object that is unlikely to cause any actual harm. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder and a person who suffers from them will feel intense distress when brought into contact with the source of their phobia — so much so that they might even experience a panic attack. . Having a phobia is common in the U.S.; and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America about 19 million people experience at least one phobia. . Phobias are a diagnosable mental disorder and are commonly categorized as one of these five types:

  • Animal type
  • Blood-injection type
  • Natural-environment type
  • Situational type
  • Other

Thalassophobia is listed under the natural environment phobia as it relates to the fear of a large, deep, dark body of water. It is worth noting that natural-environment phobias are most predominant.

Often, phobias cause a person to shape their life to avoid situations they consider “dangerous” and 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. Therapy, particularly exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you work through your fears.

Treatment for Thalassophobia

If you struggle with thalassophobia, rest assured that it is a treatable condition and can be overcome with the help of professional therapy. Before seeking support, you may want to consider taking an informal thalassophobia “test” to help gauge the degree of your phobia.

A thalassophobia test 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 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. You may be given assignments to visit the ocean while remaining safely onshore to test some common coping mechanisms.

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!