Thalassophobia ( Fear of Deep Water) 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.
How Common Are Phobias?
Causes, Triggers, & Risk Factors
Several factors may cause this fear of the ocean and the 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.
Several risk factors 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
- Shortness of breath
- 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.