What Is Aquaphobia?

  • Linda NkrumahBiological Sciences with International Year, University of Birmingham, UK


Aquaphobia, an intricate blend of "aqua," signifying water, and "phobia," representing an intense fear, encapsulates a psychological phenomenon that might appear perplexing at first glance.1 This article embarks on a journey to unravel the depths of aquaphobia, shedding light on its core attributes, exploring its implications, and offering insights into its understanding.

At its heart, aquaphobia is more than a casual apprehension of water; it is an unwarranted and often incapacitating fear of water-related situations.1 This fear can encompass anything from the vastness of open waters to the confined spaces of swimming pools, and even the mere thought of water-related activities can trigger overwhelming anxiety.

While water is a fundamental element sustaining life and a source of recreation for many, the existence of aquaphobia underscores the diverse ways in which our minds can perceive and react to the world around us. Aquaphobia holds significance not only in the field of psychology but also in comprehending the intricate interplay between our experiences, emotions, and innate survival instincts.

What is aquaphobia?

The fear associated with aquaphobia isn't limited to a specific type of water encounter; it encompasses a broad spectrum of situations.2 For some individuals, it might be the vastness of oceans or the mysterious depths of lakes that trigger anxiety (known as "thalassophobia" and "limnophobia" respectively). Others might experience heightened fear when encountering enclosed water spaces such as swimming pools or bathtubs ("piscinophobia"). Even seemingly harmless instances of water, like raindrops on a window or a water fountain, can evoke intense panic in those with aquaphobia.

It's crucial to distinguish between a rational concern and an irrational phobic response. Many people, regardless of aquaphobia, exercise caution near water to ensure safety, an instinct honed through evolution. This wariness, in appropriate contexts, serves as a protective mechanism.

Aquaphobia, however, goes beyond this adaptive response. While a reasonable level of concern aims to prevent harm, aquaphobia triggers overwhelming dread even when there's no evident danger. Those with aquaphobia might find themselves unable to differentiate between a harmless situation and a genuine threat, leading to heightened anxiety and even panic attacks.

Causes and Triggers1

Past Traumatic Experience

One of the root causes of aquaphobia can be traced back to past traumatic experiences involving water. These experiences might involve near-drowning incidents, witnessing accidents, or being exposed to distressing water-related situations during childhood. The emotional imprint left by such events can create a lasting association between water and danger, leading to the development of aquaphobia.

Learned Behaviour

In some cases, aquaphobia can be a learned behaviour. Observing a family member or close friend display a strong fear of water can influence an individual's perception of water-related activities. Children, in particular, are highly susceptible to learning from the behaviours and reactions of those around them. If they witness someone close to them displaying extreme fear around water, they may internalize the idea that water is inherently dangerous.

Genetics and Hereditary Factors

Research suggests that genetic predisposition could play a role in the development of aquaphobia. Individuals with a family history of anxiety disorders, including specific phobias, might be more prone to developing aquaphobia themselves. This genetic vulnerability, combined with environmental factors, can increase the likelihood of aquaphobia manifesting.

Cultural and Environmental Influences

Cultural and environmental factors can also contribute to the development of aquaphobia. Cultures that emphasize caution around water due to prevalent water-related accidents or stories might inadvertently heighten fear in individuals. Additionally, living in an environment with limited exposure to water-related activities or lack of swimming education can lead to unfamiliarity and subsequently, apprehension towards water.

Symptoms of Aquaphobia1

Physical Symptoms

Rapid Heartbeat

When faced with water-related situations, individuals with aquaphobia often experience a rapid increase in heart rate, known as tachycardia. This physiological response is a result of the body's "fight or flight" reaction to perceived threats. The heart races to pump more blood, preparing the body to respond to danger, even if the threat is irrational.

Shortness of Breath

A common symptom of aquaphobia is shortness of breath. The fear and anxiety triggered by water-related situations can lead to shallow, rapid breathing. This not only contributes to feelings of panic but can also cause dizziness and lightheadedness.

Sweating and Trembling

Excessive sweating and trembling are physiological manifestations of the body's stress response. Individuals with aquaphobia may find their palms becoming clammy, and their bodies shaking involuntarily. These symptoms can intensify the sense of unease and contribute to an overall feeling of distress.

Emotional Symptoms

Intense Anxiety

Aquaphobia elicits intense anxiety that can range from a persistent feeling of unease to overwhelming dread. The mere thought of encountering water can trigger this anxiety, causing a continuous state of apprehension that may disrupt daily activities and thoughts.

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are a hallmark of aquaphobia. When confronted with water or water-related scenarios, individuals may experience sudden and extreme episodes of panic. These attacks can involve a combination of physical symptoms, such as a racing heart and shortness of breath, along with intense fear and a sense of impending doom.

Overwhelming Dread

The emotional aspect of aquaphobia often centres around a deep-seated and overwhelming dread. This feeling extends beyond a typical fear response, enveloping individuals in a sense of helplessness and terror. This dread can be so powerful that individuals might go to great lengths to avoid water-related situations altogether.

Effects on Daily Life

Avoidance Behaviour

Aquaphobia's impact extends far beyond moments of encountering water—it often leads to avoidance behaviour aimed at sidestepping any potential water-related situations.3 Individuals with aquaphobia might go to great lengths to avoid places like beaches, swimming pools, or even rainy weather. This avoidance can limit their experiences, preventing them from engaging in activities that could be enjoyable or even necessary.

Impact on Social Activities

Aquaphobia can significantly affect an individual's social life.4 Friends and family might plan outings that involve water-related activities, and the fear of participating can lead to isolation or feelings of exclusion. The avoidance of social situations due to aquaphobia can strain relationships and hinder the ability to connect with others.

Hindrance to Professional and Personal Growth

Aquaphobia can impede both personal and professional development. Career opportunities that involve water-related tasks, such as jobs in marine biology, lifeguarding, or certain travel-related roles, might be off-limits to those with aquaphobia. This fear can limit an individual's potential and prevent them from pursuing interests or achieving personal goals.


Professional Assessment

Diagnosing aquaphobia involves a comprehensive evaluation conducted by a mental health professional. A trained therapist or psychiatrist will assess the individual's symptoms, personal history, and the impact of the fear on their daily life. This assessment helps determine if the fear of water qualifies as a phobia and if it requires treatment.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)5 is used by mental health professionals to diagnose psychological conditions and outlines criteria for specific phobias, including aquaphobia. According to the DSM-5, aquaphobia is diagnosed when the fear of water is excessive and persistent, leading to marked distress or impairment. The fear is usually recognized as irrational, and the individual goes to great lengths to avoid water-related situations.

It's important to distinguish aquaphobia from other phobias that might share similar characteristics.6 While aquaphobia is specific to water-related situations, other phobias might involve different triggers, such as animals or heights. Diagnosing professionals carefully assess the distinct nature of the fear to ensure accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Treatment Options


Exposure Therapy

One of the primary psychotherapeutic approaches for treating aquaphobia is exposure therapy.7 This technique involves gradual and controlled exposure to water-related situations, allowing individuals to confront their fear in a safe environment. Over time, repeated exposure helps reduce the anxiety response associated with these scenarios. Through guided exposure, individuals learn to manage their fear and build confidence in their ability to cope.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is another effective approach for treating aquaphobia. CBT focuses on identifying and modifying negative thought patterns that contribute to the fear. Therapists work with individuals to challenge irrational beliefs about water, helping them develop healthier coping strategies and more realistic perceptions of water-related situations.1


Anti-Anxiety Medications

Medication can be a valuable adjunct to psychotherapy for individuals with severe aquaphobia. Anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, can help manage acute symptoms of anxiety. However, these medications are typically used for short-term relief and aren't considered a standalone treatment due to the risk of dependence.8


Beta-blockers, often used for managing heart conditions, can also be prescribed to alleviate physical symptoms associated with anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat and trembling. While they don't directly address the underlying fear, they can help make the experience of confronting water-related situations more manageable.

Self-Help Strategies

Relaxation Techniques

Learning relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation, can help individuals manage the anxiety triggered by aquaphobia. These techniques provide tools to stay calm and centred in anxiety-provoking situations.

Gradual Desensitization

Gradual desensitization is a self-help strategy that involves systematically exposing oneself to water-related scenarios in incremental steps. Starting with less anxiety-inducing situations and progressively moving to more challenging ones, individuals can desensitize themselves to the fear of water over time.

Seeking Help

Recognizing and acknowledging the presence of aquaphobia is the crucial first step towards seeking help. Denial or downplaying the fear can prolong its impact on daily life. Understanding that aquaphobia is a valid psychological condition, rather than a personal weakness, is essential to initiating the process of recovery.

Open communication plays a pivotal role in seeking help for aquaphobia. Sharing one's struggles with trusted individuals—friends, family members, or healthcare professionals—can provide a support network that fosters understanding and empathy. Discussing the fear openly can reduce feelings of isolation and encourage seeking appropriate treatment.

Friends and family play a crucial role in the journey to overcoming aquaphobia. Their understanding and encouragement can provide emotional support, reducing the sense of isolation often experienced by individuals with aquaphobia. Loved ones can also assist in identifying triggers and helping to create opportunities for exposure and gradual desensitization.


In our exploration of aquaphobia, we've delved into its intricate nature, from its definition as an irrational fear of water to its profound impact on an individual's daily life. We've examined its causes, observed its symptoms, and discussed the various treatment options available.

While aquaphobia can be debilitating, it's important to emphasize that recovery is possible. The journey might be challenging, but the stories of countless individuals who have successfully conquered their fear stand as a testament to human resilience and the power of effective treatment strategies.

For those grappling with aquaphobia, seeking help is a pivotal step towards reclaiming control over one's life. Professional assessment and guidance, combined with the support of loved ones, can provide a solid foundation for embarking on the path to recovery. Remember, aquaphobia is not a reflection of personal weakness, but a valid psychological condition that can be addressed with the right tools and support.

If you or someone you know is dealing with aquaphobia, don't hesitate to reach out to mental health professionals who specialize in anxiety disorders. Engaging in open communication, embracing treatment options, and recognizing the importance of a support network can lead to a future where water-related situations no longer hold paralyzing fear.


  1. Mehta N, Espinel Z. Aquaphobia: A Case Report on the Unique Presentation of a Specific Phobia. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2021;29:S139–40. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jagp.2021.01.139.
  2. Assessing phobia diagnoses and improving nosology - proquest [Internet]. [cited 2023 Aug 17]. Available from: https://www.proquest.com/openview/b6b43028474ebbe66424833a306f7ef1/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
  3. Ueno H, Takahashi Y, Suemitsu S, Murakami S, Kitamura N, Wani K, et al. Mice can recognise water depths and will avoid entering deep water. Translational Neuroscience 2022;13:1–10. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1515/tnsci-2020-0208.
  4. Crosby J. Crossing the black line: an examination of the process of transitioning from non-swimmer to swimmer and a program evaluation of an adult swim lesson program focusing on people with aquaphobia. All Dissertations [Internet]. 2017 May 1; Available from: https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/all_dissertations/1889
  5. First MB, editor. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5-TR. Fifth edition, text revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing; 2022. 1050 p.
  6. Marks IM. Fears and phobias. Academic Press; 2013. 313 p.
  7. Albakri G, Bouaziz R, Alharthi W, Kammoun S, Al-Sarem M, Saeed F, et al. Phobia Exposure Therapy Using Virtual and Augmented Reality: A Systematic Review. Applied Sciences 2022;12:1672. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3390/app12031672.
  8. Biology Articles, Tutorials & Dictionary Online [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Aug 17]. Thalassophobia - definition and examples - biology online dictionary. Available from: https://www.biologyonline.com/dictionary/thalassophobia
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Dr. Lewis Spencer

Doctor of Philosophy - PhD, Biomedical Sciences, General, University of Derby

Lewis is a PhD graduate, where his research focus was on obesity and diabetes treatment with GLP-1 Receptor Agonists. He also has 6 years' experience as an Associate Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology and Research Methods. He is now working as a Health Information Specialist.

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