Coping With the Fear of the Ocean

The deep dark ocean

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Thalassophobia is a type of specific phobia that involves a persistent and intense fear of deep bodies of water such as the ocean or sea. What makes this phobia different than aquaphobia, the fear of water? Where aquaphobia involves a fear of water itself, thalassophobia centers on bodies of water that seem vast, dark, deep, and dangerous. People are not afraid of the water so much as they are afraid of what lurks beneath its surface.

While thalassophobia is not recognized as a distinct disorder by the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual of mental disorder used by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, its symptoms may fall under the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias.

Specific phobias tend to be one of five different types: animal type, natural-environment type, blood-injection type, situational type, or other type. Thalassophobia is usually considered a natural environment type of specific phobia.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), phobias are the most common type of mental illness in the United States. While specific phobias themselves are quite common among the general population, it is unknown how many people have thalassophobia.

Natural environment fears tend to be one of the more frequently experienced types of phobias, with some studies suggesting that water-related phobias tend to be more common among women.

Causes, Triggers, & Risk Factors

There are a number of factors that may cause this fear of the ocean and sea. Like other types of phobia, it is likely a combination of nature and nurture that contributes to thalassophobia:

  • Genetics: From a nature perspective, evolution and genetics may play a role. Our ancestors who were more cautious and fearful of deep bodies of water were probably more likely to survive and pass down these fearful genes to their offspring.
  • Past Experiences: This fear may also be partially learned due to experiences people may have had around water. Being frightened by something while swimming, for example, may also be a possible cause of this type of fear.
  • Upbringing: Observing other people, particularly parental figures and other influential adults, who also had a fear of deep water might also be a contributing factor.

There are also a number of risk factors that might increase the likelihood that a person will develop a specific phobia such as thalassophobia. Some of these include:

  • Having a family member with thalassophobia or another type of specific phobia
  • Personality factors such as being more negative, sensitive, or anxious
  • Traumatic personal experiences involving deep water, large bodies of water, or ocean travel
  • Hearing stories from other people or through media sources focused on water accidents

Signs & Symptoms

Some of the common physical symptoms of thalassophobia include:

  • Racing heart
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • A sense of imminent doom

In addition to these physical symptoms when encountering deep water, people will also go to great lengths to avoid being near or having to even look at large bodies of water. They may experience anticipatory anxiety when they know that they will be encountering the object of their fear, such as feeling extremely nervous before boarding a ferry boat and forms of water travel.

Diagnosis 

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.

For a more formal diagnosis, you will need to consult a health professional such as a doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist.

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. Once your doctor understands your medical and symptom history, you may then be formally diagnosed with a specific phobia.

In order to be diagnosed with a specific phobia according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):

  1. Your fear of deep water is persistent, excessive, and unreasonable
  2. You feel this fear every time you are exposed to deep or open water
  3. You realize that your fear is out of proportion to the actual dangers
  4. You either avoid the ocean or other waters or endure them with intense fear
  5. Your fear of large bodies of water interferes with your normal functioning
  6. You fear has been present for six months or longer
  7. Your fear is not better explained by another disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder

Treatment

Like other specific phobias, treatment for thalassophobia usually involves some form of behavioral therapy. Exposure therapy, systematic desensitization, and cognitive-behavioral therapy are some of the most common and effective of these approaches.

Research has also found that not all treatments have the same effectiveness for different subtypes of specific phobias. In vivo exposure (which involves being exposed to the fear object in real life), for example, while effective for all types, also has high dropout rates and poor treatment acceptance.

Studies suggest that in vivo exposure tends to be more effective than imagined exposure. Of course, exposure to a fear object in real-life is not always possible, particularly if it involves something dangerous or impossible. In the case of thalassophobia, live exposure to open water may be the most effective, but imagined exposure may provide some benefits if this is not possible.

Treatment may sometimes encompass a number of different strategies including gradual exposure, systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring, and relaxation techniques. 

Complications

Although thalassophobia may simply sound like a quirky fear to some, it can make life difficult for those who have symptoms of this phobia. These complications can ultimately end up impacting many different areas of a person’s life.

Potential complications of thalassophobia include:

  • Panic Attacks: A panic attack is characterized by sudden and intense feelings of fear, accompanied by physical symptoms that can include chest pain, feelings of choking, numbness, feelings of unreality, and a fear of dying.
  • Loneliness and Social Isolation: Anxiety-symptoms and fear of suffering a panic attack can sometimes lead people to avoid situations where they might come into contact with their fear object.
  • Depression: Research has shown that people with specific phobias also sometimes experience mood changes or symptoms of depression.
  • Substance Abuse: People may sometimes self-treat symptoms of anxiety with alcohol and other substances.

Prognosis & Prevention

While there is no research available on the treatment of thalassophobia specifically, it is assumed that people would experience similar treatment results to those of other phobias. Research suggests that behavior therapy treatments, particularly exposure-based treatments, tend to be quite effective at reducing symptoms of specific phobias.

While genetic and evolutionary factors may play a role in the onset of specific phobias such as thalassophobia, there are steps people may take to help prevent such fears from developing.

Because thalassophobia is often provoked by a specific stressful or traumatic experience, how such experiences are dealt with can play a major role in whether a phobia eventually takes hold.  

Some steps you can take to minimize the risk of developing thalassophobia include:

  • Get help early: If you suspect you might be developing a severe fear of deep or open water, look for ways to deal with your anxiety as soon as possible. This might involve talking to a mental health professional about what you can do to ease your fears.
  • Model desired behaviors: Children may learn phobic responses from parents, so if you have a fear of deep, dark water, your child may pick up on your anxiety as well. Seeing you respond fearfully to certain things and situations may result in your child developing the same fear response. You can help prevent this by confronting your own fears in a positive way and modeling non-anxious behaviors around your children.

Coping Tips

Dealing with thalassophobia can be challenging, but there are things that you can do to cope and ease your fears:

  • Use relaxation strategies: When you find yourself experiencing fear-related symptoms in response to water or even the thought of water, try some relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualization to calm your mind and body. The more you practice these techniques, the better able you will be able to control your symptoms in the face of your fears.
  • Try self-exposure: While treatment under the care of a therapist is often best, you can also take a self-help approach to confront your fears. Start by simply visualizing yourself near a deep body of water, then use the relaxations techniques you have been practicing to calm yourself. Over time, gradually expose yourself to the source of your fear, starting with images, then smaller bodies of water, and eventually the ocean, sea, or large lake. Each time, use your relaxation methods to ease your fear response. Over time, your fears should begin to ease and you should find it much easier to reach a calm state of mind. Note: Always use caution and never place yourself in a potentially unsafe situation. The key is to only confront your fear in a well-controlled environment. 

    The most important thing to remember when trying to cope with your thalassophobia is to be kind to yourself. Specific phobias are quite common, so while not everyone shares your exact fear, many people have been in your shoes and know what it to experience such overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Give yourself the time and resources you need to deal with your fears and don’t be afraid to reach out to a doctor or therapist if you need help managing your anxiety.

    If you feel like you need to see a mental health professional for further treatment, talk to your doctor for a referral or use the American Psychological Association's Psychologist Locator to find a therapist in your area.

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