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What is Aquaphobia?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2016
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Aquaphobia is a fear of water. Many people have some fear of and respect for water, recognizing that it can be dangerous in some circumstances. For a person with aquaphobia, this healthy and normal fear becomes extreme, and may interfere with quality of life. For example, a person with aquaphobia might avoid driving over bridges, swimming, boating, or even being near a body of water.

Individuals with aquaphobia sometimes recognize that their fear of water is not entirely rational, but the fear is not within their control. Even when water does not pose an immediate threat, feelings of unease and anxiety such as an elevated heart rate, sweating, nausea, hyperventilation, and trembling can be experienced. The patient cannot suppress these feelings or overcome them, and may have an extreme reaction to being splashed with water or forced into coming into contact with water.

There are a number of potential causes for aquaphobia. People who have experienced traumatic events in and around the water, or heard about such events, may develop a fear of water. This fear can even be cultivated through watching movies or reading books in which people drown or are attacked in the water. Cultural conditions can also lead to aquaphobia. For example, people who grow up in desert climates may find the sight of large bodies of water intimidating or traumatic.

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Some individuals with aquaphobia experience fear on such an unconscious level that they may not be aware of it. They will avoid situations in which water is present, sometimes coming up with creative ways to evade water, but they may not recognize that fear is behind the avoidance. In other cases, people are well aware of their fear, and choose avoidance so that they do not experience emotional distress.

Like other social phobias, aquaphobia can be treated, often with psychotherapy. There are different approaches to treatment which patients can explore with care providers to find the method which works best for them. Systematic desensitization is one option, in which the patient is slowly exposed over time to the source of the phobia so that she or he can unlearn the fear associated with it. This technique may start with photographs or drawings of water, working up slowly to a step such as visiting a swimming pool or beach.

People may wonder why the term “hydrophobia” is not used to describe fear of water, given that “hydro” is a commonly used root which can be seen in a lot of water related words such as hydrodynamics, hydropower, and hydrology. “Hydrophobia” is already established in word usage as a term which refers to some of the hallmark symptoms of late stage rabies, so a new word was coined to clearly differentiate between a social phobia characterized by fear of water and the symptoms of rabies.

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