Most of us have some degree of fear when it comes to water. Typically, we overcome those fears or learn ways to cope with them. But if you have aquaphobia, or the fear of water, you live with a persistent and abnormal amount of fear and anxiety that prevents you from even getting close to water.
Aquaphobia is a specific phobia. This is an irrational fear of something that doesn’t cause much danger. You may have aquaphobia if you find that any source of water causes you an excessive amount of anxiety. This can include a swimming pool, a lake, an ocean, or even a bathtub.
Aquaphobia is often mistaken for another phobia called hydrophobia. Even though they both involve water, aquaphobia and hydrophobia aren’t the same.
Hydrophobia is an aversion to water that develops in humans during the later stages of rabies.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that specific phobias affect 19.2 million adults in the United States. Women are twice as likely to experience them than men.
Many adults who live with a specific phobia, such as aquaphobia, begin developing symptoms related to their fear in childhood or adolescence.
Seeing water can trigger intense fear and anxiety in a person with aquaphobia. This could be a very small amount of water, like what’s found in the bathroom sink, or a large body of water, such as an ocean. The amount of water isn’t what causes the phobia. It’s the water itself that creates the fear and resulting anxiety.
Some of the more common symptoms of aquaphobia include:
- an immediate feeling of intense fear, anxiety, and panic when thinking about water
- a persistent, excessive, or unreasonable fear when exposed to water
- recognizing that the fear of water is excessive or out of proportion to the actual threat
- avoidance of water
- rapid heartbeat
- tight chest and difficulty breathing
- dizziness or fainting
The causes of specific phobias aren’t well-understood. However, there’s some evidence that phobias can be genetically inherited. If you have a family member who has a mental health condition, such as anxiety or other phobias, you may be at risk of developing a phobia.
Aquaphobia is often caused by a traumatic event during childhood, such as a near-drowning. It can also be the result of a series of negative experiences. These typically happen in childhood and aren’t as severe as a traumatic experience.
The Mayo Clinic also suggests that changes in brain function may also play a role in developing specific phobias.
Doctors use the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to help them diagnose mental health conditions.
Currently, the DSM-5 doesn’t have a specific diagnosis or category for aquaphobia. Instead, it identifies a fear of water under the diagnosis for specific phobia.
If you suspect you have aquaphobia, make an appointment with your doctor. They’ll be able to refer you to a mental health specialist who can diagnose and treat your phobia.
Based on the criteria from the DSM-5, a mental health specialist will likely diagnose aquaphobia (or a specific phobia) if you have experienced the symptoms listed above for at least six months.
Part of the diagnosis also includes ruling out other mental health conditions, such as:
Since aquaphobia is considered a specific phobia, it’s treated most commonly with two forms of psychotherapy: exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.
The preferred treatment method is exposure therapy. During this type of therapy, you’ll be repeatedly exposed to the source of the phobia — in this case, water. As you’re exposed to water, your therapist will keep track of your reactions, thoughts, feelings, and sensations in order to help you manage your anxiety.
With cognitive behavioral therapy, you’ll learn to challenge your thoughts and beliefs about your fear of water. As you learn to challenge your fears, you’ll also develop strategies to cope with those thought patterns and beliefs.
In addition to professional treatment, there are also several self-care techniques you can practice at home. Mindfulness-based strategies, daily physical activity, yoga, and deep breathing are all helpful strategies when treating phobias.
In the later stages of treatment, you may decide to work with a specially trained swim instructor who can help you learn to feel comfortable swimming.
Your doctor might also prescribe medications to treat some symptoms of anxiety and panic. But the Mayo Clinic notes these aren’t used long term. Rather, medications can help during initial treatment and for specific reasons.
A treatment plan that includes psychotherapy — along with the support of loved ones — can help you learn to manage your phobia successfully.
If you suspect that you have aquaphobia, make an appointment to see your doctor. They can help you find the treatment that will work best for you.