Does the thought of the deep blue sea bring you out in a cold sweat? And would you feel just as terrified about floating around in the ocean, knowing all the while that practically anything could be underneath? Well, if your answer to either of these prospects is “yes,” then you may well be suffering from a condition called thalassophobia.
During his inaugural speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told America, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Yet while there’s wisdom in Roosevelt’s words, virtually everyone is scared of something – whether that feeling of panic appears rational or not. And some phobias are pretty common: take arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, for instance.
In fact, according to mental health website Verywell Mind, arachnophobia ranks among the most widely experienced fears. It must be said, though, that the condition involves more than just a dislike of spiders. Typically, the sight of one of the creatures makes arachnophobes either freeze or run in terror – even if they’re shown just a still image.
Fear of clowns, or coulrophobia, is likewise very real for its sufferers, who apparently include Johnny Depp and Daniel Radcliffe. And Depp is said to have mentioned the issue in an interview with The Courier Mail. There, he reportedly said of clowns, “It’s impossible – thanks to their painted-on smiles – to distinguish if they are happy or if they’re about to bite your face off.”
However, while other common fears may not involve tangible targets, they are nevertheless debilitating for sufferers. For example, social anxiety disorder – or social phobia – is a particularly impactful condition that largely equates to a terror of public situations. This phobia can sometimes occur with such severity as to be present whenever a person is simply around others.
Then there are the many more obscure phobias out there. For instance, did you know that there’s a rare fear of woodland called hylophobia? Yes, trees and forests or even just the thought of bark can send hylophobes spiraling into a cycle of panic.
And if you’re partial to a bit of brie or Cheddar, then spare a thought for those who have turophobia. People with this condition simply can’t stand the thought of being around cheese – whether it’s all kinds of fromage or just a specific type – and so this could make a simple trip to the supermarket a real ordeal.
Still, the process of identifying phobias can be as complicated as the human mind itself. So, what differentiates a fear from a phobia? Well, generally, a phobia is a terror that exceeds mere panic and appears to be felt on a primal level. As a result, then, sufferers can experience panic attacks or severe anxiety upon thinking of or seeing a certain object or concept.
And because phobias are often varied and complex, there may be others out there that psychologists have yet to identify. In fact, people have already floated some potential conditions that haven’t been officially classified. Nomophobia – a fear of not being able to use a cell phone – is one of these, although it could also be seen as merely anxiety.
Likewise, trypophobia is an unofficial phobia that purportedly affects thousands of people. It’s characterized by a fear of little holes, such as those seen in a sponge or in bees’ honeycomb. As for the potential origin of such a fear? Well, it’s been suggested that there’s a connection between these holes and an expectation of danger.
Fortunately, though, some can at least find respite from their phobias by deliberately avoiding whatever triggers their conditions. Eremikophobes – people who fear sand – are less exposed in the city than at the seaside, for instance.
There are others, too, who wouldn’t do well by the coast, as they can’t bear the thought of being in the sea – or, even worse, under it. In fact, merely contemplating the watery depths of the ocean can be enough to make them squirm. That’s thalassophobia.
It should be said, though, that thalassophobia is a little more nuanced than just having a fear of water. Some people are terrified of swimming in large bodies of water, for instance, while others can’t travel over oceans or lakes by boat. Waves in particular might cause individual sufferers to tremble, or just the separation from land when out in the sea.
Additionally, experts have identified several fears that can be linked to thalassophobia. Does the thought of fish scales brushing against your submerged ankle cause you shivers? What about the idea of being exposed to a glassy-eyed dead fish? That fear of exposure to fish – alive, deceased or sometimes even cooked – is called ichthyophobia.
Ichthyophobia could be considered irrational, too, since the majority of fish we encounter in our daily lives are harmless. On the other hand, a fear of sharks – or galeophobia – is a little more understandable at first. After all, predators of the deep that possess several rows of dagger-like teeth are more of a threat than a flopping, wet fish.
But galeophobics can at least take some comfort in one statistic. Since 1958, you see, there have reportedly been only 35 shark-related fatalities in U.S. waters. In fact, as a species, humans are far more of a threat to sharks than they are to us.
Meanwhile, the rather unwieldy-named megalohyrdothalassophobia can be defined as the fear of huge creatures or cryptids in deep water. Sea serpents, Cthulhu-esque monstrosities or primordial sea beasts from times past, then, may all cause abject terror in megalohydrothalassophobes.
And if shipwrecks happen to shiver your timbers, you may well have submechanophobia. If this is the case, freshly waterlogged or rusting wrecks can make your skin crawl – whether the vessels are partially or fully submerged. This particular phobia, it’s said, potentially stems from a fear of the unknown.
So, someone who is scared of the sea could have any and all of these conditions in addition to their core concern. And as with many phobias, thalassophobia’s name has been taken from ancient Greek, with “thalassa” translating as sea and “phobos” the word for fear. It’s not such an irrational thing to worry about, either.
You see, humans aren’t born with gills. So while we’re usually pretty safe on land, the ocean may present a real danger to our lives – especially if we can’t swim. Given that potential justification for thalassophobia, then, such a fear may seem almost rational.
Furthermore, thalassophobia can still be debilitating even if sufferers don’t live near large bodies of water. For example, it may restrict holidaymakers’ travel plans by limiting their enjoyment to land-based activities. And thalassophobes with particularly severe examples of the condition can’t even watch ocean-centric TV programs or movies.
Plus, those with thalassophobia may find it hard to bear certain video games – such as Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s Subnautica. Subnautica takes place on an alien planet almost entirely covered by water, and players must therefore try to make their way out of the depths. But the planet contains some nasty surprises, including huge deep-sea beasts that are classified as leviathans.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the game can prove too much for thalassophobes or megahydrothalassophobes. On the subject, one Reddit user wrote, “I don’t know why I thought buying Subnautica was a good idea. It triggers me pretty bad. [I] heard a leviathan the other day and decided to save and quit.”
So, what actually causes thalassophobia? Well, psychologist Stanley Rachman has provided potential explanations. In particular, the professor has posited that there are three different causes of extreme fear: classical conditioning, informational/instructional acquisition and vicarious acquisition.
And Rachman believes that classical conditioning-related phobias in particular occur when a person has a scary experience that triggers a lasting trauma. If someone gets bitten by a dog, for instance, they may develop cynophobia, or a fear of canines. In essence, the sufferer associates one terrifying event with similar situations.
Meanwhile, informational/instructional acquisition basically relates to developing a phobia from received information. Let’s say you learn about a particularly nasty illness that chills you to the core. In extreme circumstances – and even if you haven’t experienced the ailment yourself – this knowledge could result in a fear of life-threatening illness known as hypochondriasis.
The last phobia-inducing event, according to Rachman’s theory, is vicarious acquisition, which involves learning a fear from others. Studies on primates show that when something frightens one of their number, the others observe and mimic their reaction. The psychologist thinks, then, that humans operate in a similar way by picking up certain worries from our friends and family.
But that may not be all, as hypnotist Marc Carlin has yet another hypothesis regarding the origins of phobias. Specifically, he told Atlas Obscura in 2016, conditions such as thalassophobia could come from a deeper place. “In context, [a fear of the sea] is not irrational,” Carlin explained. “It’s primal.”
“We all have this fear of darkness because we can’t see, and we rely on our vision to protect us,” Carlin continued. “If you shut your eyes and you can’t see, now you have to rely on senses that you don’t normally rely upon.” So, given our natural discomfort with darkness, a phobia of the water and its obscured depths may be the end result.
What’s more, while Carlin hadn’t encountered a thalassophobe patient at the time of his interview, he has nevertheless successfully treated many phobias in the past. And, as he told Atlas Obscura, they can be easier to cure than simple fears. “A true phobic response is learned in an instant,” Carlin said.
“Because we learn it very quickly, we can unlearn it very quickly,” Carlin added of such deeply held terror. “Sometimes a fear might take a number of sessions. A true phobic response can be done in like five or ten minutes.” The hypnotherapist explained, moreover, how he would approach the general treatment of thalassophobics.
“If your challenge is a fear of the water, [I want] to give you a way to access a safe and secure feeling,” Carlin told Atlas Obscura. “I want to give you the ability to access that feeling, where you can turn it on as an act of will.”
In addition, Carlin said, he would identify the cause of an individual’s thalassophobia and slowly increase their exposure to whatever triggers them. That therapy would be carried out in a controlled environment, of course, since phobias can create extreme reactions from sufferers. And for evidence of this, you need look no further than the thalassophobia subreddit.
On the site, one Redditor started a thread asking people to share their thalassophobia moments. And to start, they supplied their own anecdote by describing an occasion on which they had been forced to swim across a foggy lake at summer camp. “Those two miles took me four hours and 23 minutes to complete,” the user wrote.
“Four hours and 23 minutes of complete and total fear,” the original poster continued. “Thinking that at any moment, huge jaws would open up beneath me and drag me to my watery grave. At one point, I could’ve sworn I saw a little girl in a white dress attempting to grab at my leg and drag me down.”
“I was up to my chest at a beach along the Chesapeake Bay,” another poster wrote in response to the thread. “Me and my friend were just standing around talking and laughing… I turn around to look at the beach, and my friend kicks me as hard as he can in my thigh right above my knee.”
“I laugh and make a comment while regaining my balance,” the Redditor continued. “And when I turn around, my friend is about 25 feet away from me and asked what happened. I [got] right… out of that water.” Incidentally, Chesapeake Bay is allegedly home to a cryptid called Chessie.
And yet another Reddit user chose to write about a frightening encounter that they had in a deep stream. “I dove down and felt something ram me in the back,” they described. “I turned and saw nothing, [then] I started going back up, and something poked me in the side.”
“It was a six-foot-plus eel. And it’s a lot bigger when it’s at eye level in its own environment,” the poster revealed. “Needless to say, I tried to push it away, but it furiously wanted a hug or something and kept running into me. Of course my friends freaked out, seeing me trying to shove away this big eel.”
“Anyways, [the eel] was creepy as hell,” the writer concluded. “And when we got to shore, you could see seven or eight other very large eels cruising around the stream in this deep spot. I haven’t been there in probably ten years.” And if anything about this situation floods you with fright, then you may just have thalassophobia.