Aquaphobia refers to an extreme or irrational fear of water.
Many people exhibit some degree of fear or caution around certain types of water, such as murky lakes, high tides, or rapids.
However, people with aquaphobia can experience excessive anxiety around seemingly harmless bodies of water, such as pools and bathtubs.
This article will discuss what aquaphobia is, as well as its causes, symptoms, and treatment options.
The term aquaphobia describes a type of anxiety disorder that involves an intense fear of or aversion to water.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of anxiety and depression, anxiety disorders affect around 40 million adults every year in the United States alone.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that 264 million people around the world had at least one anxiety disorder in 2015.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 9.1% of adults in the U.S. have a specific phobia.
Anxiety disorders include a group of conditions that involve feelings of fear and anxiety. Specific phobias, including aquaphobia, are a type of anxiety disorder.
As with other anxiety disorders, the severity of aquaphobia varies from person to person. Some people may fear deep bodies of water or fast-flowing rivers, while others may fear any body of water, including pools, hot tubs, and bathtubs.
The cause of aquaphobia and other specific phobias remains unknown. However, one theory suggests that phobias develop when a person experiences an emotional event or response while exposed to the object or situation that induces fear or anxiety.
For example, a person may be swimming in the ocean or at a public pool and sustain an injury or witness a person drowning. As a result of this simultaneous exposure, the person may permanently associate water with danger.
Another theory proposes that phobias are learned associations. For example, a person can develop a specific phobia after observing a phobic reaction in another person, such as a parent, sibling, or friend. The person may internalize the other person’s fear reaction and adopt a similar aversion to the object or situation.
According to the authors of one 2020 article, symptoms of animal phobia, blood injection or injury phobia, and natural environment phobia — including aquaphobia — tend to begin during childhood.
The symptoms of aquaphobia vary widely from person to person. For example, some people may feel fear in the presence of deep water or rapid tides, while others may experience intense anxiety by merely thinking about water.
Regardless of the type or amount of water, people with aquaphobia experience anxiety in response to water itself.
Some symptoms of aquaphobia include:
- an immediate sense of fear, anxiety, or panic when thinking about water
- an excessive or irrational sense of fear and aversion in the presence of water
- an acknowledgment that the fear that is out of proportion to the real threat of water
- fear and anxiety in the presence of water that noticeably impacts a person’s ability to socialize or function
- a persistent avoidance of water
A person with aquaphobia is likely to experience anxiety, fear, or panic when exposed to water. The physical effects of aquaphobia include:
- a rapid heartbeat
- shallow breathing
- tightness or pain in the chest or throat
- trembling or shaking
- butterflies in the stomach
- a dry mouth
- confusion or disorientation
Children with specific phobias may express anxiety or fear by:
- having tantrums
- refusing to speak or move
- physically clinging to a parent or an object
People who have a specific phobia often have at least one additional mental health condition. According to data from the World Mental Health Surveys, around 60.5% of people with lifetime specific phobias had at least one other mental health condition, including:
- a different type of anxiety disorder
- bipolar disorder
- substance use disorder
- impulse control disorder
Phobias are very treatable. To receive the right form of treatment, a licensed mental healthcare provider must evaluate the person’s symptoms and diagnose their specific phobia.
During the diagnostic evaluation, the mental healthcare provider will review a person’s medical history. They will also ask the individual to describe the type, severity, and duration of their symptoms.
Most people with aquaphobia, and other specific phobias, are aware that they have an extreme or irrational fear response. This sense of self-awareness may speed up the diagnostic process.
The mental healthcare provider must rule out other types of anxiety disorder, such as:
- generalized anxiety disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- panic disorder
Mental healthcare providers usually treat specific phobias with a combination of exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The sections below will look at each of these in more detail.
Exposure therapy can help alter a person’s fear response by repeatedly exposing them to the object or situation that provokes the phobic response.
Exposure therapy often takes place over several sessions. During each session, a mental healthcare provider will gradually expose the individual to the source of their phobia over escalating phases.
They will always perform exposure therapy in a safe, controlled environment. During each session, they will record and analyze the individual’s reactions, thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
If a person shows improvement, the mental healthcare provider may move to the next phase of exposure. On the other hand, if a person feels uncomfortable or exhibits more severe symptoms, they may recommend returning to a less intense form of exposure.
Exposure therapy for someone with aquaphobia may include the following phases:
- thinking about and talking about water
- looking at pictures or watching videos of water
- interacting with water in a glass, sink, or bathtub
- turning faucets on and off
- touching running water
- standing near a swimming pool, lake, or the ocean
- entering a body of water
A mental healthcare provider may recommend a different approach, called flooding, which begins with the most difficult or intense form of exposure.
However, this method can sometimes lead to unnecessary stress for the person. This means that it is essential that people inform their mental healthcare provider of their boundaries and expectations during any treatment session.
CBT is another vital element of treating specific phobias. CBT addresses the thought and behavioral patterns that occur during a phobic response.
During CBT, a mental healthcare provider will help the person understand which of their thoughts and behavior patterns contribute to phobias. They work with the individual to alter these patterns to overcome the phobia.
CBT can also involve learning various relaxation techniques and coping mechanisms for managing anxiety, fear, and panic. This helps teach people how to respond appropriately during exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy can exacerbate a person’s phobic response or even retraumatize them if they do not know how to manage or cope with the anxiety or fear.
People should only seek exposure therapy from licensed mental healthcare providers with specialized training in treating specific phobias and administering exposure therapy.
Aquaphobia refers to an intense fear of or aversion to water. It is classified as a specific phobia. People often develop specific phobias during childhood.
A person may develop aquaphobia after an emotional or traumatic experience in or near water. It is also possible that a child might internalize an observed phobic response from a parent or caregiver.
However, aquaphobia is highly treatable. Exposure therapy and CBT are effective treatments that help reduce feelings of fear, anxiety, and panic in people with specific phobias.