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With up to half of the UK population reporting that they are scared of sharks, galeophobia, an extreme and overwhelming fear of sharks, is one of the most common phobias.
Although sharks are very rarely spotted in UK waters and shark attacks are extremely rare all over the world, a phobia of sharks is much more common than many people may think. A phobia of sharks can occur in varying degrees of intensity, with some people having more triggers and more severe symptoms than others.
Today, we are going to look at galeophobia in more detail, including the common causes, symptoms, triggers and treatments.
What is galeophobia?
Galeophobia, sometimes known as selachophobia, is the extreme, irrational, overwhelming and persistent fear of sharks. Someone with galeophobia will likely experience extreme and overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety and panic at the sight or thought of a shark. In some cases, the fear of sharks can be so intense that a person can experience extreme fear and panic when they see an ocean or sea, or other bodies of water.
Galeophobia is a type of specific phobia that is characterised by an enduring, overwhelming and irrational fear of a specific object, situation, place or person; in this case, an extreme fear of sharks. It is also classified as a type of animal phobia.
Sharks can be so anxiety-provoking that someone with galeophobia may experience intense anxiety and fear at the thought of them. They may be unable to think about sharks reasonably or rationally and may be out of touch with reality regarding how much of a danger sharks pose to them.
Unlike many other phobias, a fear of sharks is a logical phobia with an evolutionary basis. There are several species of sharks which are dangerous to humans, and although shark attacks are relatively rare (with approximately 80 unprovoked shark attacks and 10 deaths reported worldwide each year), the idea that sharks have the ability and resources to kill humans with ease results in many people being afraid of them.
Because shark bites are so rare, the fear of being bitten by a shark is more of an emotional response, rather than a reality phobia, particularly when you consider that humans kill nearly 100 million sharks every year, a whopping 10 million times more that the number of people killed by sharks.
However, a fear of sharks is not irrational. Sharks are predators, and in the water can outswim and overpower a human easily. What many people with galeophobia don’t consider is that there are more than 465 known species of sharks and the vast majority of them are not dangerous to humans. Although a fear of sharks can be rational in some situations and many people dislike sharks and may be afraid of them, this doesn’t mean that they are experiencing galeophobia.
Someone with galeophobia will be fearful of all sharks, not just those that pose a danger. For example, they may fear very small sharks, herbivorous sharks and those that have never attacked a human.
To be classified as galeophobia, your fear of sharks will include:
- Feelings of intense fear, panic or anxiety that are difficult to manage.
- Fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the true risk.
- A fear of sharks that lasts for at least six months.
- Engaging in avoidance behaviours to prevent encounters with sharks.
- A fear of sharks that interferes with your day-to-day life, overall well-being or sense of safety.
- Experiencing anticipatory anxiety or worry when thinking about encountering a shark.
On an evolutionary basis, humans are predisposed to fear anything that could be a danger to them. To determine how dangerous something could be, we look at factors such as size, strength and killing tools, such as sharp teeth.
Although our ancestors may not have necessarily feared sharks, they would have feared any animals that possessed the same features as sharks. Just by looking at a shark, such as a great white shark, humans can instantly see they could pose a danger. This innate response to seeing a shark can result in an excessive fear or anxiety response, which in some people can result in a phobia.
Because galeophobia is an individualised phobia, different people have different fears connected to sharks.
The most common fears are:
- The fear of being attacked or bitten by a shark
This is one of the main fears people have about sharks. Many species of sharks have large strong teeth, with some species of sharks having 15 rows of teeth and as many as 300 teeth at one time. A shark’s teeth are specifically designed to kill and eat prey, such as seals, whales and other sharks. Although sharks rarely bite humans, even one bite from a shark can be strong enough to kill or seriously injure a human. People with galeophobia are usually so scared of being bitten by a shark that they will refuse to swim in the sea or ocean, even if there have been no reported shark bites.
- A dislike of the way a shark swims
Sharks pass through the water silently. Some people are afraid of a shark because of the way a shark can seemingly sneak up on you. Sharks can also swim significantly faster than humans, with humans unable to swim faster than 6mph and sharks swimming up to 30mph. The thought that it would be impossible to swim away from or escape a shark if you need to is part of the reason why many people are afraid of them and refuse to swim in the ocean.
- The fear of a shark’s fin
A shark’s fin appearing above the surface of the water is an ominous sight that features in many scary films, such as Jaws and The Reef. The fear of seeing a shark’s fin (which is often the only sign people get that a shark is close by) can be terrifying for some people and result in them mistaking any movement or shadow on the surface of the water as being a shark fin.
- The fear of the unknown
Similarly to a more generic fear of large bodies of water, many people fear sharks because of a fear of the unknown. Humans have explored more of Mars than they have the ocean floor, and some people fear that there are certain species of shark that are still undiscovered. Some people fear that there are sharks that are bigger and deadlier than those we are aware of that may mimic the extinct Megalodon shark, which could grow up to 25 metres long. The fear of the unknown when it comes to sharks can trigger a phobia in some people.
- The fear of a shark smelling blood
A shark’s sense of smell is extremely powerful, and they can smell blood from as much as a quarter of a mile away, in tiny concentrations of one part per million. Many people are afraid of swimming in the sea or ocean in case they have a tiny cut they aren’t aware of or in case they are menstruating. Although a shark’s sense of smell is grossly exaggerated, many people still fear a shark being able to smell them in the water.
Someone with galeophobia may have difficulties functioning normally in certain places or situations, because of the fear that they could encounter a shark.
They may become consumed with the thought of sharks and find themselves being hyperaware and constantly checking there are no sharks around them. For example, their fear may be so overwhelming that they are unable to spend time close to the beach or go on an aeroplane if the flight travels over the sea or ocean. The fear, anxiety and panic that they feel can have a significant impact on their mental and emotional well-being and their behaviour.
The fear of encountering a shark can result in avoidance behaviours, where somebody avoids places or situations where they could encounter a shark. In some cases, people avoid places where there is no chance of seeing a shark because that place reminds them of sharks. For example, they may be unable to swim in lakes and rivers or visit a zoo or aquarium, even if they have been reassured that there are no sharks.
Although avoidance behaviours are designed to help you avoid sharks and prevent you from experiencing negative thoughts and feelings and adverse symptoms, they can actually have a paradoxical effect. Instead of helping you to manage or reduce your symptoms, avoiding places or situations where you could encounter sharks can have the opposite effect and instead reinforce your fear and result in more severe symptoms in the future.
Some people think avoiding sharks doesn’t have much of an impact on their lives because sharks are not frequently found in the UK and avoiding them in towns and cities is effortless. However, if you find yourself refusing to visit certain countries or refusing to swim or visit the beach, then avoidance behaviours are negatively impacting your life.
Even if you have galeophobia, you may be aware that your fear of sharks is irrational and that the chances you will ever come close to a shark are extraordinarily low. However, you may still find that you are unable to control your fear or anxiety and are unable to manage or prevent your physiological, psychological or behavioural responses to sharks or the thought of sharks.
Galeophobia is often connected to and can occur in conjunction with other phobias, such as:
- Aquaphobia: An extreme fear of water.
- Thalassophobia: An extreme fear of large, deep bodies of water, such as oceans and seas.
- Zoophobia: An extreme fear of animals.
- Cetaphobia: An extreme fear of whales.
- Ichthyophobia: An extreme fear of fish.
- Daknophobia: An extreme fear of being bitten.
- Thanatophobia: An extreme fear of death or dying.
How common is galeophobia?
Because galeophobia is a type of specific phobia, any diagnoses of this condition fall under the specific phobia umbrella. This means there are no specific statistics available to show how many people have a phobia of sharks.
Although it is not known exactly how many people experience galeophobia, animal phobias are some of the most commonly diagnosed phobias. Research studies have shown that 46% of the UK population is ‘terrified’ of sharks (equating to nearly 31 million people) and 64% of the population would prefer sharks not to exist.
However, it is important to bear in mind that not everyone who is afraid of sharks is experiencing a phobia. Negative thoughts and feelings concerning sharks occur on a spectrum, ranging from mild fear and anxiety in certain situations (for example, if you are swimming in deep waters or are visiting a country where shark attacks are more common) to severe fear, panic and anxiety that can impact your day-to-day life, affect your decision-making and result in changes in your behaviour.
It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between people who are afraid of sharks and those who are experiencing galeophobia.
As with many other specific phobias, it is thought that specific phobias are underdiagnosed. Many people with a phobia of sharks never seek a diagnosis or their phobia is misdiagnosed or undiagnosed.
There are multiple reasons why this may happen, such as:
- Many people who experience fear and anxiety in relation to sharks have never heard of galeophobia so may not realise they are experiencing a diagnosable medical condition.
- Many people are not aware that there are effective treatment options available for phobias so may never seek a diagnosis.
- If the phobia occurs in a child, they may be expected to grow out of their fear.
- Someone with a phobia of sharks may implement effective avoidance strategies that prevent them from seeing sharks, meaning their phobia is not frequently triggered.
- Someone with galeophobia may not discuss their thoughts and feelings with others so may not realise that their fear of sharks is extreme.
- Someone with galeophobia may be embarrassed by their fear and may not want to speak to their GP or admit that they are experiencing difficulties.
Who is at risk of galeophobia?
Although anyone can develop galeophobia, there are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of you developing a fear of sharks.
These can include:
- Having a previous negative, traumatic, scary or painful experience involving sharks.
- Having a previous negative, traumatic, scary or painful experience involving another animal that reminds you of a shark.
- Having a previous negative, traumatic, scary or painful experience while you were swimming (such as nearly drowning).
- Being exposed to negative portrayals or depictions of sharks in popular cultures (such as the films Jaws and Meg), particularly during childhood.
- Spending little or no time in the sea or ocean.
- Having another related phobia, such as thalassophobia or cetaphobia.
- Having another animal phobia.
- Being exposed to the fear of sharks at a young age.
- Having a close family member, for example, a parent or sibling, with galeophobia.
- Having a close family member, for example, a parent or sibling, with another phobia.
- Hearing traumatic or scary stories about sharks, for example, someone being attacked or eaten by a shark, particularly at a young age.
- Having another mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression.
- Being a naturally more anxious or nervous person.
- Experiencing a significant life stressor, having higher than usual stress levels or being in a heightened mental state (particularly if you are exposed to a fear of sharks or have a negative experience involving a shark during this time).
- Having a substance use disorder, such as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Unlike many other phobias, which are more common in children compared to adults, galeophobia occurs in people of all ages. Although children are more likely to develop phobias because they are less able to manage feelings of fear and anxiety and understand or rationalise any negative thoughts they are having, many adults also have galeophobia because they are aware of how potentially dangerous sharks can be and have been conditioned to be afraid of sharks by society and popular culture.
It is important to note that even though the above risk factors can increase the likelihood of you developing galeophobia, they do not guarantee this. Someone with none of the above risk factors can develop the condition unexpectedly, whereas someone with several risk factors may never develop galeophobia and may be comfortable swimming in the ocean throughout their life.
How to deal with galeophobia
Although there are multiple treatment options available for phobias such as galeophobia, there are also effective coping and calming strategies that you can implement yourself. These strategies can be combined with lifestyle factors to help you successfully manage the symptoms of your phobia and reduce the impact your phobia has on your life.
Some of these coping and calming strategies are most effective when you implement them long term, meaning you engage in them regularly, not just when you are faced with your triggers.
These strategies could become part of your daily or weekly routine and can help you to reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms over time and enable you to be exposed to your triggers in the future without experiencing negative thoughts and feelings.
Other strategies are designed to be utilised short term when you are faced with your triggers. They are effective in helping you to prevent or manage any physiological, psychological or behavioural symptoms that usually occur when you face shark-related triggers, and to prevent a triggering situation from worsening and your negative thoughts and feelings from taking over.
The most effective long-term and short-term coping and calming strategies to help you deal with your phobia of sharks are:
- Educate yourself about sharks
Misconceptions about sharks and sensationalised portrayals of sharks in the news and popular media are common reasons why many people are afraid of sharks. The reality is that sharks are not as vicious or dangerous as many people perceive them to be and can actually co-exist in the ocean with humans peacefully. Reading facts and information about sharks and speaking to specialists is a great first step to overcoming your fear. It can remind you that sharks don’t pose a threat to you and that sharks don’t eat and rarely attack humans. This can help you to overcome your fear of sharks. The more you know and understand about sharks, the easier it will be to dispel the common myths and conceptions that are contributing to your phobia.
- Acknowledge and understand your phobia
Acknowledging that you have a phobia of sharks and not trying to deny your thoughts and feelings can be extremely beneficial. It allows you to accept and change your internalised beliefs and thought processes and explore the cause of your shark phobia and any negative or damaging beliefs, patterns of thought, feelings and behaviours that are attached to it. Accepting and understanding your fear allows you to change your automatic and conscious reactions and behaviours towards sharks and other triggers. It can also help you to understand and rationalise your thoughts and reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms.
- Think about the danger humans pose to sharks
Approximately 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year, with the shark population declining by 90% in the last 50 years. Many of these sharks are killed for their fins, which are often considered a delicacy. Humans pose such a danger to sharks that many species of sharks will go extinct in our lifetimes. Although some people who dislike sharks will celebrate this, sharks are vital to the ocean’s ecosystem and the decline in the shark population can be devastating. Recognising the vulnerability of sharks and how much more dangerous we are to sharks than sharks are to us can help to remove some of the danger and fear you have attached to sharks.
- Avoid negative portrayals and media sensationalism
Negative portrayals in popular culture, such as the film Jaws, and media sensationalising of rare shark attacks can cause someone to develop a phobia of sharks or worsen their existing phobia. Negative portrayals can reinforce any negative connotations, beliefs or thoughts connected to sharks. Negative portrayals can also result in you becoming hyperaware or paranoid that sharks are around and can encourage avoidance behaviours. This can exacerbate your phobia and result in more severe phobic symptoms. Try to avoid any triggering portrayals or superstitions about sharks to prevent your phobia from escalating.
- Learn how to safely co-exist with sharks
Being armed with the knowledge of how to swim in the water without the risk of a shark attack can make you feel calm and reassured and prevent an automatic fear response. Stay away from beaches with a higher number of shark encounters, stay out of the water during sharks’ usual feeding times (usually dawn and dusk), stay away from areas with high numbers of seals and dead fish and don’t swim if you are bleeding. These are just some of the tips you can follow to ensure your safety. Although sharks rarely attack humans, reducing the likelihood even further can help you to feel comforted and assured.
- Visualise yourself overcoming your fear
Visualisation techniques can help you to overcome your phobia and any fear, anxiety or panic you usually experience in relation to sharks. Visualise yourself in triggering situations and imagine confronting your fear of sharks and successfully overcoming it. You can also visualise how overcoming your fear will positively affect your life. Visualising positive experiences with sharks can help to reassure your brain that they don’t pose a threat to you and that you are not in any danger. This can make it less likely that you will experience an automatic fear response in the future.
- Create a fear ladder
A fear ladder can help you to analyse and understand your fear of sharks and can also help you to identify which of your triggers creates more severe fear, anxiety and panic than others. When creating your fear ladder, your triggers will be organised from least severe to most severe. It may not be possible to confront all your fears because it is difficult to predict or plan an encounter with sharks. However, you can confront triggering situations. Because phobias are highly individualised, everyone’s fear ladder is different. An example fear ladder for overcoming a fear of sharks is shown below:
– 1 = Swimming further from the shore in the sea or ocean.
– 2 = Swimming close to the shore.
– 3 = Seeing a shark in an aquarium.
– 4 = Visiting a country where sharks are known to be more prevalent.
– 5 = Watching a TV show or film about sharks.
– 6 = Looking at pictures of sharks.
Once you have created your fear ladder, you can then confront your fears one at a time, starting at the bottom of the ladder (the trigger that results in the least phobic response). This can help you to build up your tolerance of your triggers gradually and reduce your fear of sharks long term.
- Challenge negative thoughts and feelings
If you have galeophobia, you may feel intense distress or fear when thinking about or talking about sharks or if you are close to a shark or a shark’s habitat. If you find yourself thinking about sharks negatively or experiencing negative emotions, try to disrupt your thoughts and feelings to prevent your fear from escalating. Remind yourself that sharks pose very little threat to you and that you aren’t really in any danger. If the symptoms of your phobia begin to take over, remind yourself that the feelings will soon pass and your fear is disproportionate.
- Utilise distraction techniques
If you are in a triggering situation, such as at the beach or on a boat, distraction techniques can help to prevent your automatic fear and anxiety responses and prevent the symptoms of your phobia from manifesting or escalating. There are a variety of distraction techniques and you can choose the ones that are most likely to be successful for you, for example, listening to music, engaging in conversation or playing a game.
- Attend a support group
Attending a support group with other people who have had similar experiences and similar fears to you can be extremely beneficial. It can help to gain a deeper understanding of your thoughts and feelings and allow you to receive advice, reassurance and empathy from other people who understand your experience. You could attend an in-person or online support group with other people with phobias or anxiety disorders.
- Tell your support network about your phobia
Many people with phobias don’t tell the people they are close to about their fear. Being honest with the people in your life, such as your family and friends, can ensure they understand your phobia and are aware of what you find difficult. It can also be helpful as they will be more conscientious and will be more aware of what triggers your phobia, for example, they will refrain from talking about sharks negatively. This can help to prevent your phobia from being triggered and ensure you feel supported.
- Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness can be an effective tool for managing the symptoms of your phobia and can help you minimise the impact your fear has on your life. It can teach you how to accept your thoughts and feelings whilst also overcoming any fear or anxiety you may be feeling. Mindfulness also teaches you how to focus your breathing and attention, which can reduce your anxiety and the likelihood that you will experience a panic attack. Mindfulness can also help you to manage stress and anxiety and be more in control of the connection between your mind and body and help you to control the symptoms of your phobia.
- Practise yoga and meditation
Yoga and meditation are effective in helping you manage a variety of mental health conditions, including phobias and anxiety. They can also be effective in helping you to manage and reduce stress and anxiety and prevent a panic response. Yoga and meditations teach you how to achieve a highly relaxed state and decrease your stress levels, which can reduce the likelihood of you experiencing a fight-or-flight response. You will also learn how to achieve a meditative state, control your breathing and manage your body and mind’s negative reactions to sharks. Practise them regularly (at least once a week) to reduce the impact of your phobia and improve your symptoms.
- Learn deep breathing exercises
You can successfully manage or prevent phobia symptoms by engaging in deep breathing exercises when you encounter a trigger. When you breathe deeply, your brain relaxes and calms down, which can help you to manage your anxiety. Daily deep breathing exercises can effectively reduce your stress levels, relieve tension in your body, and reduce your anxiety in the long run. In triggering situations, utilise deep breathing exercises for at least 10 minutes, or until you begin to feel less anxious.
- Make lifestyle changes
Certain lifestyle factors can worsen the symptoms of your phobia and increase your anxiety. By making changes to your lifestyle, you can reduce your anxiety and the impact your phobia has on your life. Some of the lifestyle changes you could make are:
– Implement a successful sleep routine.
– Reduce your daily stress.
– Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
– Implement an exercise routine.
– Avoid caffeine, sugar and other stimulants.
– Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.
– Stop smoking.
What triggers galeophobia?
A trigger, also known as a stressor, is an object, person, place, situation or thought that triggers a negative reaction and negative thoughts and feelings, such as fear, panic, anxiety or distress. A trigger can also lead to physiological, behavioural and other psychological symptoms. Your brain perceives a trigger as a threat to your physical or mental safety or well-being and will react accordingly.
The triggers of galeophobia are the things that trigger your fear of sharks and the associated physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms. Some people think that the only thing that will trigger your phobia is seeing a shark. However, this is usually not the case. Many different things can trigger your fear of sharks, with some people having only one or two triggers and other people having many different triggers.
Because galeophobia is an individualised condition, it can manifest differently in different people. Different objects, places and situations can act as triggers for your phobia, and the triggers can vary from person to person. The types of triggers and the number of triggers experienced by different people can vary depending on what initially caused their phobia of sharks to develop, their perception of the potential risk, the severity of their symptoms and their current mindset and mental health.
The most common triggers for galeophobia are:
- Seeing a shark close to you.
- Seeing a movement in the water that could be a shark.
- Swimming in the sea or ocean or another large body of water.
- Going to the beach.
- Going on a boat.
- Seeing the sea or ocean.
- Going to a zoo or aquarium where other aquatic animals are frequently found (even if you know there are no sharks).
- Watching a film or TV show about sharks.
- Watching a video or seeing a picture of a shark.
- Hearing scary or negative stories about sharks.
- Thinking about sharks.
- Seeing a toy shark.
- Seeing other animals that remind you of sharks, such as whales and dolphins.
- Seeing shark on a menu in a restaurant.
What are the symptoms of galeophobia?
The symptoms of galeophobia are the physiological (related to your body), psychological (related to your mind) and behavioural (related to your behaviour) symptoms and negative changes that you experience when you are faced with a shark or another trigger. The symptoms of galeophobia can vary and often differ from person to person. The symptoms can differ in the types of symptoms you experience, the way they manifest and their severity.
Some people with a phobia of sharks only experience a few, relatively mild symptoms, whereas other people experience more severe symptoms. It is also possible to experience different types and severities of symptoms in different situations, depending on the trigger you are facing, for example, your symptoms may be more severe if you are on a boat and see a shark’s fin, compared to if you see a shark on TV.
Differences in the severity of symptoms, how frequently they occur, and their manifestation can also occur for multiple reasons, such as how acute your phobia is, your perception of the situation and your current mental health and mindset; for example, your symptoms may be more likely to manifest and may be more severe if you are already experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety.
The symptoms of galeophobia can occur at any time and are often automatic and uncontrollable. It may feel like you are unable to control or manage your thoughts or feelings and that your phobia is taking over your body.
The most common symptoms of galeophobia are:
This refers to the cognitive and emotional symptoms you experience when faced with a shark or another trigger.
The most common psychological symptoms of galeophobia are:
- Intense, overwhelming persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear, anxiety, panic or distress when faced with sharks or another trigger.
- Feelings of fear, anxiety or panic that are out of proportion to the risks.
- Being unable to control your fear, anxiety or panic even if you are aware that they are out of proportion to the risk.
- Feeling anxious in bodies of water where it is impossible for a shark to be, such as a swimming pool.
- Being unable to concentrate or function normally when close to sharks or the ocean.
- Feeling immobilised or frozen by your fear.
- Feeling defenceless or vulnerable.
- Feeling like you are losing control or are out of control.
- Catastrophising the potential risks, for example, if you paddle in the sea a shark will attack you.
- Mood swings, irritation or anger in triggering situations.
- Feeling like you have a lack of mental and physical control over your body.
- Experiencing anticipatory anxiety in the lead-up to triggering situations, for example, before going to the beach.
- Experiencing depersonalisation or derealisation when in a triggering situation (where you feel like you no longer understand what is happening around you or you have lost touch with reality).
- Experiencing frequent or distressing nightmares about sharks.
- Feeling like you are in danger or having a sense of impending doom.
- Feeling like you are going to die if you see a shark.
This refers to any conscious or unconscious changes to your behaviour that occur as a result of your fear of sharks. These behavioural changes are usually negative or harmful, even if it doesn’t feel that way initially. The behaviours will also likely be different from your usual behaviour or unusual for society as a whole.
The most common behavioural symptoms of galeophobia are:
- Refusing to live close to the coast.
- Being unable to go on a boat or becoming extremely seasick on boats.
- Avoiding any large body of water.
- Being unable to travel to other countries, particularly those where sharks are more prevalent, such as Australia.
- Refusing to watch any TV shows or films that feature sharks.
- Being unable to swim in any body of water.
- Avoiding any place or situation where you could encounter a shark or that reminds you of a shark.
- Refusing to talk about or think about sharks.
- Being unable to eat or having a lack of appetite during or in the lead-up to triggering situations.
- Having difficulties sleeping or insomnia in the lead-up to triggering situations.
- Feeling like you want to run away or hide if you see a shark or another trigger.
This refers to the physical symptoms you experience in your body as a result of your phobia. They are usually physical changes or disturbances that you experience as a result of the fight-or-flight response.
This is an automatic physiological reaction that occurs when your brain perceives the object of your fear (sharks) as a threat or danger. This can result in a sudden release of hormones, such as adrenaline or noradrenaline, that activate your sympathetic nervous system and prepare your body to fight or flee from the perceived danger.
These hormones can cause physiological symptoms, such as:
- Chest pain or feeling a tightness in your chest.
- Difficulties breathing, hyperventilating, shortness of breath or rapid breathing.
- Feeling like you cannot catch your breath.
- Dizziness or light-headedness.
- Feeling confused or disoriented.
- A choking sensation, finding it difficult to swallow or feeling a lump in your throat.
- Heart palpitations, increased heart rate or feeling like your heart is pounding.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Unusual or excessive sweating or clamminess.
- Chills or hot flashes.
- Shaking or trembling.
- Unexplained headaches or other bodily pains.
- Muscle tension or stiff muscles.
- A dry or sticky mouth.
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or stomach pains.
- Feeling like you’ve got butterflies in your stomach.
- Being unusually sensitive to hot and cold temperatures (e.g. feeling like you are extremely hot even though the room temperature is normal).
- Pale or flushed skin, particularly on your face.
- Experiencing a panic attack.
Symptoms of Galeophobia in Children:
Although children can experience some of the same symptoms as adults, symptoms can also manifest differently, particularly in younger children. This could be because children are less able to manage intense emotions, such as fear and anxiety, may be less able to rationalise and understand the way they are thinking and feeling and may be less constrained or less likely to hide their feelings.
The most common symptoms of galeophobia in children are:
- Crying, screaming or having a tantrum.
- Lashing out by hitting or kicking people or objects that are close to them.
- Trying to run away or hide.
- Clinging to a parent, guardian or another safe person.
- Showing signs of extreme anxiety, fear or panic.
What causes galeophobia?
There are many possible causes of galeophobia, with some people able to identify one clear cause of their phobia and other people recognising that multiple factors contributed to them developing a fear of sharks. Some people with galeophobia initially find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused them to develop a fear of sharks. This is more likely if your phobia developed a long time ago (such as during childhood) or if your fear manifested slowly over time.
If you are unsure what caused your phobia, spending some time identifying and understanding the root cause of your phobia can be extremely beneficial and can help you to treat your phobia long term. Understanding your fear can help you to manage your symptoms and reduce the impact your phobia has on your life.
The causes of galeophobia can be psychological, environmental, societal or genetic. Because phobias are specific to each individual, the causes of phobias often vary from person to person.
The most common causes of galeophobia are:
- Negative portrayals of sharks in popular media
This is one of the most common causes of a fear of sharks. Films such as Jaws, The Reef, Deep Blue Sea and Meg all portray sharks in an extremely negative way, as dangerous predators who are likely to attack humans. In fact, a whole generation of people is triggered by the foreboding Jaws theme tune. Popular culture also demonises a shark’s appearance, zooming in on their large jaws and sharp teeth. Although sharks are predatory animals, demonising them can make them seem much more dangerous and threatening than they are and many people with galeophobia view sharks as being bloodthirsty and violent. Popular culture’s messaging and portrayal of sharks has led to many people developing a phobia of sharks.
- Traumatic stories involving sharks
Although shark attacks are rare, particularly when you compare them to the number of sharks that are killed by humans every year, stories of shark attacks on the news are dramatised, with some news channels and newspapers even publishing traumatic pictures and eyewitness accounts. Although the chances of being attacked by a shark are extremely low (0.000026%), the over-reporting and sensationalising of shark attacks can make them seem much more prevalent and likely than they are in reality and can make people fear that if they go in the water, they are going to be attacked by a shark.
- A negative, scary or traumatic experience involving sharks
This is one of the most common causes of galeophobia and is also known as traumatic conditioning or a direct learning experience. The traumatic experience may or may not have involved real danger or risk. However, as long as you experienced significant fear, distress or trauma, this could have led to the development of a phobia. A traumatic experience is more likely to lead to a phobia if it happened during childhood or during a particularly vulnerable time in your life. The experience can be direct, meaning it happened to you, or indirect, meaning you witnessed it happening to someone else. Examples of traumatic experiences include:
– Swimming in the water and seeing or hearing that a shark is close to you.
– Someone pretending they can see a shark that is about to attack you.
– Witnessing a shark attack or the aftermath of a shark attack.
Following the traumatic experience, you may begin to have intrusive and negative thoughts or memories of the trauma and begin to avoid sharks, swimming and other trauma-related triggers. This can cause the fear or anxiety you felt at the time of the experience to linger or worsen and can lead to you developing a phobia of sharks.
- The startle response
A phobia of sharks can be triggered by the startle response, which is a mainly unconscious defensive response to something that we perceive to be dangerous or threatening. The threatening stimulus is usually a surprise or occurs suddenly and will startle you or make you jump; for example, in a scary film when a shark suddenly appears on the screen or if you feel something touch you in the water. Being startled can cause your brain to release chemicals that heighten your feelings of anxiety and your perception of danger. These feelings of anxiety, fear and panic can linger and can create a future negative association between sharks and fear and danger which can develop into galeophobia.
- False psychologies
Many people are afraid of sharks because of false psychologies regarding sharks. These are false beliefs and thoughts that make sharks seem much scarier and more threatening than they are in reality; for example, the idea that sharks eat humans, that sharks are bloodthirsty and will attack anything they can and that sharks are attracted to human blood. The vast majority of shark attacks occur because of a case of mistaken identity (e.g. surfboards look very similar to seals under water) or because the shark was provoked. Hearing or believing false narratives about sharks and taking them into your psychology can cause you to become fearful of sharks, even though the risks to humans are low.
- Fear rumination
This is a common cause of phobias and usually occurs following a negative experience involving sharks or swimming. Fear rumination involves engaging in repetitive negative thought processes and persistently and repeatedly recapping a traumatic, scary, negative or painful experience. Over time, these thoughts and memories can become increasingly upsetting and intrusive and can make you remember the event as being more negative or scary than it was in reality. Fear rumination reinforces your natural fear responses, creates additional anxiety and can result in you developing a phobia.
- A negative, traumatic or scary experience involving water or swimming
In some cases, the traumatic experience may not have involved sharks, nor were sharks or the thought of sharks part of your fear at the time. However, a traumatic experience in water, such as nearly drowning or being stung by a jellyfish, can cause you to become fearful of water and anything in the sea or ocean that could be dangerous to you, including sharks. This is known as an indirect cause of your phobia.
- An informational learning experience
An informational learning experience occurs when you are exposed to information that frightens you or creates feelings of fear or anxiety. For example, learning about the number of people who die from shark bites every year or information about a shark’s teeth or jaw strength can lead you to think of sharks as scary or dangerous and cause you to experience feelings of fear, anxiety or panic when you see a shark (even if it’s on TV) or think about sharks. If these feelings are not addressed and dealt with, they can then develop into a phobia.
- A learned phobia
Also known as modelling or an observational learning experience, a learned phobia usually occurs when you observe a fear of sharks in another person and learn to be scared of them yourself. You are more likely to learn a phobia if you are exposed to it during childhood or adolescence, for example, children who grow up with a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with galeophobia are more likely to develop the condition themselves. However, a learned phobia can also develop during adulthood.
- Evolutionary factors
There is thought to be an evolutionary basis for galeophobia, particularly because humans evolved to avoid predators to maximise survival. The water posed multiple risks to our ancestors, particularly because of the risk of drowning and the risk from predators, such as sharks. Fear is designed to promote survival, meaning in the course of human evolution, those who feared sharks and were more cautious in bodies of water may have been more likely to survive. Humans may have then evolved to be predisposed to be fearful or wary of sharks. In some people, this fear can become excessive and develop into a phobia.
- Experiencing significant or higher than usual stress levels
Significant, long-term stress can result in a disproportionate fear response or an inability to manage intense situations. This can make it more likely that you will develop a phobia, such as galeophobia, particularly if you have a negative experience involving sharks or are exposed to the fear of sharks while experiencing higher levels of stress. A stressful or distressing event, such as a death, can also trigger a phobia, as you may be less able to manage your emotions and thought processes when experiencing grief, which can result in a disproportionate fear response.
How is galeophobia diagnosed?
If you (or your child) are experiencing any symptoms consistent with galeophobia, you should make an appointment with your GP or primary healthcare physician, particularly if your fear of sharks is disrupting your life in any way. Because many people experience some level of fear relating to sharks, your doctor can help to determine if you are experiencing normal levels of fear or whether your symptoms are severe enough to meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.
Your GP will likely look at your medical history and ask questions about any medication or supplements you are taking to ensure your symptoms cannot be attributed to another source. If your GP thinks your symptoms may be consistent with galeophobia, they will likely refer you to a psychologist or phobia specialist.
To gain more information about your symptoms and any negative thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviours surrounding sharks, the psychologist will conduct a phobia questionnaire.
They will focus on information relating to:
- The types of symptoms you experience, how frequently they occur and how severe they are.
- The initial onset of your phobia, including when your symptoms first began and what initially triggered your fear of sharks (if you know).
- Your medical history, including whether you are currently or have previously had any anxiety disorders, panic disorders, phobias or other mental health conditions.
- Whether you have a family history of phobias.
- How much your fear interferes with your day-to-day life, your well-being and your behaviour.
Because galeophobia is a type of specific phobia, to make a diagnosis, your symptoms will need to be compared to the seven key criteria listed in the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias:
1. The fear must be persistent, excessive and unreasonable. It can occur either when the individual is close to a shark or when they are not.
2. Exposure to a shark or another trigger leads to an immediate anxiety response in the majority of situations.
3. The fear is excessive and disproportionate to the threat, and this is recognised by the individual.
4. The individual avoids places or situations where they could be exposed to sharks. If they are exposed to a shark, the individual will experience extreme fear, anxiety or distress.
5. The anticipation of encountering a shark and the avoidance behaviours associated with avoiding sharks can have a significant impact on the individual’s day-to-day life.
6. The fear has lasted for a minimum of six months.
7. The phobia is not associated with another disorder or mental health condition.
If your symptoms correspond with the diagnostic criteria above, you will be diagnosed with a phobia, specifically galeophobia. Depending on the frequency and severity of your symptoms, you may then be offered treatment.
How is galeophobia treated?
There are multiple effective treatment options available for treating phobias, such as galeophobia. Although many people are unaware of phobia treatments, they are effective in approximately 90% of cases. Galeophobia is a highly treatable phobia.
If your phobia is triggered frequently, if you change your behaviour to avoid sharks or a shark’s habitat, if your symptoms are severe or if your phobia negatively affects your life, then treatment will likely be recommended.
However, not everyone who has a phobia of sharks requires treatment. You may not require medical intervention if your symptoms are mild, your fear of sharks doesn’t affect your daily life or well-being, or if you’ve already implemented successful coping strategies. However, you should always consult your doctor before making any decisions regarding your treatment.
Because there are multiple treatment options available, your psychologist or doctor will create a personalised treatment plan that is designed to specifically treat the causes and symptoms of your phobia.
Your treatment plan will be based on several factors, such as:
- The severity of your symptoms.
- The frequency of your symptoms.
- The root cause of your phobia.
- How significantly your phobia impacts your life.
The most common treatment options for treating galeophobia are:
Also known as systematic desensitisation or gradual exposure, exposure therapy is one of the most common ways of treating a shark phobia. It involves gradual and repeated exposure to your triggers in a safe and controlled environment. By being gradually exposed to your fears, you should be able to be in previously triggering situations without experiencing automatic fear and anxiety responses and adverse symptoms.
Exposure therapy can help you to overcome your phobia by unlearning any negative beliefs or associations you have attached to sharks and creating more realistic patterns of thought. You will also focus on decreasing your negative reactions towards sharks and learn relaxation techniques and coping and calming strategies.
Exposure will happen gradually, in escalating phases. You will start with the least anxiety-provoking triggers, such as looking at pictures of sharks, and once you are comfortable with this level of exposure, you will gradually increase your exposure. With each exposure, you should experience progressively lower anxiety, with the aim that you can eventually be exposed to your biggest triggers without experiencing an adverse reaction.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT):
CBT focuses on identifying and exploring the root cause of your fear. It is a type of talk therapy that is used to treat a variety of mental health conditions. CBT sessions can be conducted individually or as part of a group, with other people who are experiencing similar phobias or anxiety to you.
During the sessions, you will work to identify and address the underlying cause of your phobia and any negative beliefs or patterns of thought surrounding sharks.
If you have a phobia of sharks, you will automatically view them negatively, which can lead to automatic and uncontrollable negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. CBT aims to change the way you think about sharks by deconstructing your negative thoughts and beliefs into smaller pieces, which can be addressed individually.
The negative thoughts and beliefs will be replaced with more positive, healthy thoughts. Because your thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviours are all interconnected, changing the way you think will help all aspects of your phobia. You will also learn how your thoughts affect your behaviours and how to identify harmful thoughts and behaviours and learn strategies on how to change them.
During your CBT sessions, you will work on:
- Understanding your triggers and what initially caused your fear of sharks.
- Recognising distorted patterns of thinking.
- Changing any unhealthy beliefs surrounding sharks.
- Learning coping strategies and calming strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, distraction techniques and coping statements.
Although medication is not usually prescribed as the sole treatment option for galeophobia, it may be recommended if you are experiencing another mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression, alongside your phobia. In this situation, medication will likely only be prescribed alongside another treatment option, such as CBT.
The types of medications you could be prescribed include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
- Anti-anxiety medication.