What is Aquaphobia?

Causes, Symptoms and Treatment for Aquaphobia

Young woman sitting on the beach
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Fear of Water

Aquaphobia, or fear of water, is a fairly common specific phobia. Like all phobias, it may vary dramatically in severity from person to person. Some people are only afraid of deep water or strong waves, while others fear swimming pools and bathtubs. Some are afraid of entering the water, while others cannot bear to even look at a large body of water. Occasionally, aquaphobia is so pervasive that even being splashed or sprayed with water can cause a phobic reaction.

Causes of Aquaphobia

The most common cause of aquaphobia is a previous negative experience. If you have been through a near-drowning, shipwreck or other scary occurrence in the water, you are more likely to develop a phobia of water. Learning to swim is a rite of passage for many children, and frightening experiences are common. The way that these situations are handled plays a major role in determining whether a phobia will occur.

The negative experience need not have happened to you specifically. After the film was released in 1975, reports of water phobia, as well as shark phobia, increased dramatically. In addition, if your parents are afraid of water, you are at a higher risk of sharing their fear.

Symptoms of Aquaphobia

Like all specific phobias, the symptoms of aquaphobia vary between sufferers. In general, the more severe the phobia, the more severe the symptoms will be. You might shake, freeze in place or attempt to escape.

You may develop anticipatory anxiety in the days or weeks preceding an upcoming encounter with water. You might refuse to enter the water, or begin panicking as soon as you step in.

Complications of Aquaphobia

Water is an innate part of human life. Swimming is a common activity at summer camps and resorts, on cruise ships and at luxury hotels.

Avoiding the water altogether may be difficult or embarrassing.

If your fear extends to water splashes and sprays, it can be even more life-limiting. Fountains are a decorating staple at theme parks, resorts and even local malls. Some of these fountains perform elaborately choreographed water routines set to music and timed lighting, which may splash bystanders. Water splashes are also a common effect in haunted houses and carnival rides and games.

In some cases, aquaphobia can lead to ablutophobia, or fear of bathing. This relatively rare phobia can have a devastating impact on self-esteem. Modern culture places a heavy emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene, and those who do not take a daily shower or bath may be scorned. There is also an elevated risk of both common and rare diseases in those who allow dirt and bacteria to linger on their skin and hair.

Treating Aquaphobia

Like most specific phobias, aquaphobia responds quite well to treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is especially popular.

You will be taught to replace negative self-talk with more positive messages, and learn new behaviors for coping with your fear. You might be given homework assignments, such as filling the bathtub with a few inches of water and stepping in, or visiting the ocean while remaining safely on the shore. Over time, a series of small successes will increase your confidence, allowing you to gradually add new water-related activities.

If your phobia is severe, medications, hypnosis, and other forms of therapy may be used to help you get your fear under control.

The goal is for you to become comfortable around water, and there is no “one size fits all” treatment that works for everyone. Nonetheless, with the help of a skilled therapist, aquaphobia can be successfully managed and even overcome.

Did the Movie Jaws Fuel Shark Phobia?

 made shark phobia a household name and preyed on our most primal fears. Animal phobias are one of the four main categories of specific phobias in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Ed.), and sharks are among the most feared of all animals. The film used many of the techniques of suspense that were pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock to create an intense experience that was rated #1 on Bravo's list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments in 2004 and #2 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years…100 Thrills.

Jaws was an unexpected smash hit, breaking box office records to become the most successful film at the time. The film's success was in large part due to skillful direction and the finely tuned performances of its cast. However, part of its success can be attributed to its subject matter.

At the time, public opinion of sharks was generally that they were mindless killing machines. Sleek, powerful and easily large enough to see humans as food, the shark has been the subject of primal fear throughout recorded history. While today, advanced research has dispelled many misconceptions about sharks, in the 1970s the average moviegoer had little reason to disbelieve the way that Jaws was portrayed.

Nonetheless, the average moviegoer did not spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about shark attacks. The beach was a popular vacation destination and while shark attacks were occasionally recorded, they rarely led to widespread hysteria. The film brought the possibility of shark attack to the forefront of people's minds, and the effect was noticeable. From coast to coast, beach towns reported a downturn in tourism following the release of Jaws. Even today, nervous references to the movie can be overheard at virtually any beach.

It is unlikely that Jaws would create a new shark phobia in viewers today. The slasher films of the 1980s have largely desensitized us to onscreen violence. Nonetheless, fear of sharks is a deep and primal fear, and it is possible that in those who are sensitive, Jaws could aggravate the fear, potentially resulting in a full-blown phobia. If you are afraid of sharks, you may want to think twice before seeing Jaws.


American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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