What Is Thalassophobia?

Thalassophobia refers to an intense, overwhelming, and persistent fear of the ocean and other deep bodies of water. The word “thalassophobia” comes from the Greek root words “phobos” (fear) and “thalassa” (sea). 

Thalassophobia is a type of specific phobia under the natural environment type category—an anxiety disorder that involves an ongoing, marked fear of a certain thing, situation, environment, or animal. About 12.5% of adults in the U.S. will develop a specific phobia at some point during their lifetime. 

Thalassophobia Symptoms

People with thalassophobia have an ongoing, intense fear of large bodies of water, such as oceans and lakes. They may be afraid of drowning, deep sea creatures, the vastness of the ocean waters, or the sense of the unknown associated with the ocean depths. 

When they see or even think about the ocean, people with thalassophobia experience symptoms of severe anxiety, such as:

  • Panic and fear
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Trembling
  • A need to get out of the situation

The fear that specific phobias like thalassophobia cause is often considered to be irrational, or out of proportion to whatever danger there might actually be, if there even is any. 

For example, someone with thalassophobia may go out of their way to avoid social gatherings at the beach or even pictures and movies that depict the ocean. Others steer clear of traveling by ship or swimming, especially alone. In some cases, these avoidant behaviors can lead to social isolation, shame, and distress.

Photo Composite - Thalassophobia

Design by Health

What Causes Thalassophobia?

Specific phobias like thalassophobia have no known exact cause.

It's believed that phobias can run in families. Environmental factors, such as parental influence and upbringing, can also play a factor in the development of a phobia.

Phobia might also develop if you've had a past experience that brought about fear or panic of a specific object or situation. For instance, a near-drowning experience when you were young might bring on thalassophobia.

Risk Factors

Anyone can develop a specific phobia, no matter their gender, age, or medical history. 

However, there are certain risk factors that may increase your chance of developing a fear like thalassophobia, including:

  • Being female
  • Being diagnosed with another mental health disorder, such as an anxiety disorder or mood disorder
  • Having a history of substance abuse
  • Having experienced a past traumatic event or seen a loved on go through one
  • Having been abused in the past
  • Having certain personality traits, such as perfectionism or fearfulness

How Is Thalassophobia Diagnosed?

A mental health professional can diagnose you with thalassophobia according to the criteria for specific phobias laid out in the “Anxiety Disorders” category of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is a tool providers use to help classify and diagnose mental health conditions. 

To be diagnosed with a specific phobia such as thalassophobia, you must meet the following criteria:

  • You have an intense, ongoing fear of a particular object, situation, environment, or animal that persists for six months or more.
  • Your fear is disproportionate to the actual level of danger or threat.
  • You go to great lengths to avoid the source of fear, or you bear with it with extreme distress.
  • Your anxiety causes dysfunction in major areas of your life, such as work, school, or relationships.

To fit a diagnosis of specific phobia, your fear of the ocean also can’t be caused by another mental health condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Treatments for Thalassophobia

Treatment for specific phobias, such as thalassophobia, usually involves therapy, medication, or both.

Behavioral therapy is an effective way to manage phobias. There are different approaches to this therapy. One approach is exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy, which is considered the first-line treatment for specific phobias. ERP therapy involves being gradually introduced, or exposed, to the source of your fear under the care of a trusted provider. You'd also learn techniques to manage or prevent distress.

Cognitive therapy can also help. With the help of a trained professional, this therapy will help you identify negative thoughts that trigger or maintain the fear. Once identified, the therapy will teach you how to promote more realistic thoughts.

Medication may also be used to help you manage thalassophobia. A healthcare provider may prescribe beta-blockers or benzodiazepines if your phobia brings on panic attacks. Beta-blockers, which are typically used for heart-related conditions, prevent adrenaline and other substances from acting on nerve cells and cause blood vessels to relax and widen. Benzodiazepines are depressants that produce sedation and relieve anxiety.

How to Prevent Thalassophobia

There’s no specific way to prevent the development of thalassophobia or any other phobia. 

However, there are measures, known as safety behaviors, you can take to try to manage the phobia and prevent some panic attacks. Safety behaviors are steps you can take to cope with whatever your phobia is. Behaviors could include distracting yourself, suppressing thoughts, and carrying an item that you can turn to for a feeling of safety.

There's been some mixed findings on the effectiveness of safety behaviors, though. Some research has found that implementing the behaviors alongside therapy can actually compromise the results of therapy by encouraging avoidance. Other research has shown that safety behaviors and therapy can go hand-in-hand and allow for you to get closer to whatever you fear.

Related Conditions

Many people with specific phobias also have other mental health conditions. Research suggests that up to 81% of people with a specific phobia have at least one other mental disorder, including:

You may also have more than one phobia.

Living With Thalassophobia

Specific phobias frequently begin in childhood. For many people, though, phobias persist throughout adolescence and adulthood. Up to 30% of people with specific phobias experience symptoms for years or even decades.

Specific phobias are highly treatable with the help of psychotherapy and medication. However, the prognosis of specific phobias, like thalassophobia, is considered fair because it is common for people to experience their phobia again.

If you think you may have thalassophobia, reach out to a healthcare provider as soon as possible to discuss your treatment options. Knowing you have a phobia is also important as it can be an indicator of a mental health disorder later down the road.

Was this page helpful?
16 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mahdavi Fashtami S, Darvishpour A. Fear of drowning (thalassophobia) and its coping strategies in nurses working in public hospitals in Eastern Guilan. J Inj Violence Res. 2022;14(2 Suppl 1):Paper No. 8.

  2. American Psychological Association. Specific phobia.

  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Specific phobia.

  4. Samra CK, Abdijadid S. Specific phobia. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

  5. MentalHealth.gov. Phobias.

  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health - Table 3.11, DSM-IV to DSM-5 specific phobia comparison.

  7. MedlinePlus. Phobias.

  8. Sawyers C, Ollendick T, Brotman MA, et al. The genetic and environmental structure of fear and anxiety in juvenile twins. Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2019;180(3):204–212. doi:10.1002/ajmg.b.32714

  9. Capriola NN, Booker JA, Ollendick TH. Profiles of temperament among youth with specific phobias: implications for CBT outcomes. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2017;45(7):1449-1459. doi:10.1007/s10802-016-0255-4

  10. Coelho CM, Gonçalves-Bradley D, Zsido AN. Who worries about specific phobias? - A population-based study of risk factors. J Psychiatr Res. 2020;126:67-72. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2020.05.001

  11. Thng CEW, Lim-Ashworth NSJ, Poh BZQ, Lim CG. Recent developments in the intervention of specific phobia among adults: a rapid review. F1000Res. 2020;9:F1000 Faculty Rev-195. doi:10.12688/f1000research.20082.1

  12. McCabe RE, Bui E. Cognitive-behavioral therapies for specific phobia in adults. In: Stein MB, Friedman M, eds. UpToDate. UpToDate; 2020.

  13. National Cancer Institute. Beta-blocker.

  14. Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration. Benzodiazepines.

  15. Wardenaar KJ, Lim CCW, Al-Hamzawi AO, et al. The cross-national epidemiology of specific phobia in the World Mental Health Surveys. Psychol Med. 2017;47(10):1744-1760. doi:10.1017/S0033291717000174

  16. Eaton WW, Bienvenu OJ, Miloyan B. Specific phobias. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018;5(8):678-686. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30169-X

Related Articles