Thalassophobia: The Psychology Behind Fear of Deep Water

Written By Nathan Chilcott

While it may seem commonplace, a lurking unease at the sight of deep waters might point towards an often unacknowledged phenomenon—thalassophobia. This pervasive apprehension, varying widely in intensity, affects more individuals than you might think.

The term ‘thalassophobia’ has roots in the Greek language, with thalassa meaning sea and phobos translating to fear. However, this fear isn’t exclusive to the ocean’s abyss. Thalassophobia encapsulates a broader apprehension, extending to any large, deep expanse of water.

The fear of deep water

Have you heard of the Loch Ness Monster? Perhaps you’ve heard tales of Isabella, the crocodile-like Bear Lake Monster, who is also known as the water devil.

For most people, the belief that something of this scale lies beneath the water is enough to keep them out of the water—this is thalassophobia in action. Call it a fear of the unknown when the unknown is a huge amount of dark water, and knowing what lurks beneath is impossible to know.

In a way, fearing deep water makes sense. Large areas of the world’s oceans remain unexplored and are likely to remain so. Humans simply aren’t equipped to get to the depths of the ocean. Did you know the whole of the Empire State Building will fit into the Mariana Trench, the deepest oceanic trench on Earth? Worse, once it hits the bottom of the trench, you’ll have to go seven miles (11.27 km) down just even to reach the top of the tower!

A close encounter with a shark is likely to be terrifying, but with a little imagination, a shark will seem like nothing compared to what else could be beneath the waves.

How thalassophobia compares with a fear of water

Therein lies the real issue: a fear of water (aquaphobia) is often triggered by a singular incident, such as nearly drowning or even being shipwrecked. A fear of deep water, however, is fuelled by your imagination. In short, there is no limit to what could be in the murky depths below.

It’s important to note that the fear doesn’t just apply to the sea: any lake or body of water that is too deep to see the bottom will induce the same response.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you realize you have thalassophobia. The truth is, humans are not usually great swimmers. Combining this fact with a natural fear of darkness, a fear of deep water is not only unsurprising but also understandable.

Millions may suffer from thalassophobia

In other words, you’re not alone. Though there are no definitive statistics on the number of people who have a fear of deep water, phobias, in general, are experienced by roughly 19 million people in the US.

Add to this the large proportion of people that experience a jolt of fear or panic when a fish brushes past them in the water, and there is the potential for millions of people to suffer from thalassophobia!

Symptoms of thalassophobia

In most cases, those who have a fear of deep water feel abject fear. It slows their responses and leaves them eager to leave the water. But extreme sufferers will display much more intense symptoms. These include shaking, sweating, and even vomiting.

Oddly enough, some sufferers are happy on a boat in the middle of the ocean, as long as they’re not asked to put their feet in the water. Others, however, won’t even get on the boat.

Dealing with a fear of deep water

Thankfully, you don’t have to live with extreme thalassophobia. The phobia is connected to a fear that originated from somewhere, even if it’s just in your imagination. Though it may be unrealistic to say you will be cured completely, with a little help, you can face the fear and even beat it—at least until you watch The Meg or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest again.

In fact, there’s a theory that suggests many cases of thalassophobia originated from watching Jaws at a young age. But learning facts such as in the last 55 years, there have been only 35 fatal shark attacks in US waters isn’t going to make you feel better… you’ll just be wondering if you’re going to be victim number 36.

The most common way to overcome this fear of deep water is through hypnotherapy or psychiatry. The therapy uses a step-by-step approach, allowing you to identify the fear of deep water and replace it with a safe feeling. Because phobias are usually a result of repetitive experiences, it takes time to replace the fear you feel.

A therapist will start by creating a safe image in your mind and encouraging you to procure it at will. They’ll then help you to imagine increasingly difficult and potentially scary deep-water scenarios. Each time you’ll need to focus on your safe, or happy, image to ease the fear.

In many ways, it’s similar to creating the Patronus Charm! Of course, that may lead to a fear of Dementors….

A hypnotist will use a similar approach as a psychiatrist. The main difference is the hypnotist prefers to talk directly to your mind, while the psychiatrist tries to talk to your conscious self.

Seeking help online

There are some great forums online that can help those brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to try the confrontation approach. Reddit has an especially good group if you want to see sights that will leave you cold and shivering under your covers.

Instead of confronting and mastering your fears, you may simply reinforce them.

Ready to jump in?

It’s generally agreed that a sudden development of the fear is easier to resolve, as it is likely to have been triggered by a specific incident. The question is whether you want to tackle the fear and dive under the waves, or are you happy to stay on dry land forever?

There’s a unique sense of liberation in confronting our fears, a compelling push towards personal growth. Engaging with thalassophobia not only paves the way toward a renewed appreciation of deep water but also cultivates resilience—a trait transferable to every facet of life. After all, as the adage goes, courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.