Thalassophobia is a fear of the ocean or other large bodies of water. A person may develop this phobia after a traumatic event. Healthcare professionals typically treat phobias with different types of therapy.
Thalassophobia can cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe — some people may feel slightly afraid of deep water or the ocean, while others may find that looking at the sea or images of it triggers feelings of panic.
This phobia may stop people from visiting the beach, swimming in the sea, or traveling by boat.
This article explores what thalassophobia is, signs and symptoms, potential causes, and treatments.
Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. The word “thalassophobia” refers to a fear of the ocean or other large, deep bodies of water.
A person with thalassophobia may be afraid of the vastness or emptiness of the ocean, the sea creatures in the water, or both.
Thalassophobia is different from aquaphobia, which is a fear of water itself. Aquaphobia can include a fear of being in any body of water, including small ones.
Phobias are very common. According to professional diagnostic criteria, approximately 7–9% of people in the United States have a specific phobia in any given year.
However, there are no estimates of how many people live with thalassophobia specifically.
A person with thalassophobia experiences feelings of fear and anxiety about the sea or another large body of water that do not match the level of danger that the water poses to them at that moment.
A person with thalassophobia may be afraid of:
- being near the ocean
- going in the ocean
- visiting beaches
- traveling on boats
In severe cases, symptoms may be triggered by images or thoughts of the ocean or other deep bodies of water.
The anxiety that thalassophobia causes activates the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, which is the body’s way of preparing for danger. This produces physical symptoms, such as sweating, faster breathing, and an elevated heart rate.
In more severe cases, this response escalates into a panic attack, which may cause:
- rapid breathing, or hyperventilation
- heart palpitations
- trembling or shaking
- the feeling of choking
- nausea, with or without vomiting
During a panic attack, a person may feel as if they may faint, that they are losing control, or that they might die. However, although they can feel very serious, panic attacks are not dangerous in themselves.
People with thalassophobia may also feel dissociated while they are experiencing symptoms. Dissociation is a feeling of being disconnected from the body or the current situation.
The stress resulting from thalassophobia may cause a person to avoid any situation that might trigger the symptoms.
- direct experience of something dangerous or distressing
- witnessing something traumatic happening to someone else
- the transmission of information, such as news coverage or films
- having an unexpected panic attack, which can lead to a fear of the situation or location in which the attack took place
People with thalassophobia may have had negative early experiences with the ocean or felt unsafe while learning to swim. Or, they may have become afraid of the sea after seeing news coverage of an event such as a shark attack or tsunami.
It is common for people to not remember any specific event that triggered their phobia. Specific phobias, such as thalassophobia, often develop in early childhood, which can make it difficult to remember the initial cause.
People can also develop phobias as adults.
Psychiatrists and psychologists use criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition — commonly called the DSM-5 — to diagnose phobias such as thalassophobia. A person may have a phobia if they:
- experience significant anxiety about an object or situation
- almost always feel immediate anxiety when confronted with the object or situation
- actively avoid the object or situation to cope with their anxiety
- experience anxiety that is out of proportion with the threat that the object or situation poses
- have experienced these symptoms for 6 months or more
- have no other mental health conditions that would explain the fear
Phobia treatment typically involves therapy. Someone with thalassophobia may benefit from several types, including:
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy. The aim is to help a person challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs in order to reduce the anxiety that they cause.
For example, in a CBT session for thalassophobia, a therapist may help someone learn to identify anxious thoughts about the ocean and understand how those thoughts affect their emotions, physical symptoms, and behavior.
Over time, CBT can help people question whether their thinking or behavior patterns are helpful, realistic, or appropriate for the current situation. This can help the person change their responses to a phobia trigger, reducing their anxiety.
A person may also benefit from cognitive processing therapy, which is similar and designed specifically for people who have experienced trauma.
Exposure therapy involves a person coming into close contact with the things or situations that scare them. Sometimes, this contact is simulated or imagined.
The aim may be to prove that something is not dangerous much less dangerous than the person believes. Exposure therapy can also help someone feel more confident in their ability to cope, should they face the situation that they are afraid of.
During exposure therapy, a therapist helps a person confront their fear in a safe, controlled environment. This can occur in several ways:
- In vivo exposure: This involves direct contact with the phobia trigger.
- Imaginal exposure: This involves a person imagining the object or situation that they fear in detail. A person with thalassophobia may think about or describe the ocean during these sessions.
- Virtual reality exposure: This involves using technology to simulate the experience of engaging with a particular object or situation. Therapists may use this technique when it is not possible to try in vivoexposure.
Graded exposure involves very gradual exposure to the phobia trigger, while “flooding” involves beginning with the most difficult tasks.
Medications can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and fear, but they do not cure phobias. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly called SSRIs, are a type of antidepressant that doctors use to manage anxiety.
Phobias can be disruptive and difficult to manage. But if someone unexpectedly comes across a phobia trigger, the following coping techniques may help:
- Breathing exercises: Slow, steady breathing can help stop hyperventilation and make it possible to return to a calmer state. When anxiety begins to rise, try exhaling in long, slow breaths. Or, try 4-7-8 breathing.
- Mindfulness: This technique involves staying in the present moment, and it can reduce tension if a person is worried about something that has already happened or might occur. A person can do this by noticing and focusing on their breathing, physical sensations, or surroundings.
- Distraction: Focusing on something else can be a temporary solution for anxiety. It may help to speak with a friend or family member, watch a video, or listen to music.
- Self-compassion: If a person experiences anxiety unexpectedly, they may feel embarrassed or that they have failed. But it is not always possible to prevent negative emotions, and it is normal to have good days and bad days. Being self-compassionate can ease any stress that a person feels about their anxiety.
If thalassophobia is causing significant distress or interfering with work and everyday life, help is available. A doctor or therapist can provide advice or treatment.
If a person does not have health insurance, low-cost or free options may be available. Some therapists offer sliding-scale fees, for example.
Thalassophobia is a fear of the ocean or other large bodies of water. It may stem from a traumatic childhood event, which a person may have experienced directly, seen, possibly onscreen, or heard about.
Several types of therapy, including CBT and exposure therapy, can help reduce the impact of phobias. In the shorter term, coping strategies such as breathing exercises, self-compassion, and mindfulness can help people manage anxiety as it arises.