Aquaphobia – The Fear of Drowning

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While bodies of water are sometimes seen as calming, a place where one can relax, there can also be a logical reason to be fearful or scared. The water can very quickly can become an uncontrollable element, something that a minute before was rocking you gently now is attempting to drag you to the bottom. Whether you know how to swim or not, drowning can occur to anyone and is something we should be cautious over, but for some this fear can be immense.

A type of phobia, Aquaphobia is defined as the fear of drowning.  Although it is recognized as a disorder, it is not specified in the DSM-5 rather it is classified as a Specific Phobia. These phobias fall into one of 5 categories (i.e., animal type, natural environment type, blood-injection-injury type, situational type, other type) with Aquaphobia falling under the natural environment type. To be diagnosed with Aquaphobia, an analysis by a licensed clinician must be done to evaluate the history of experienced symptoms and the effect these experiences have had on one’s daily life.

What are the symptoms of Aquaphobia?

For individuals with Aquaphobia, being around water or even anticipating being around water can create immense anxiety because of being afraid to drown. While everyone can present a number of symptoms and a unique combination of these symptoms, they typically fall under three categories: psychological, physiological, and behavioral.

Psychological Symptoms

Because Aquaphobia falls under an anxiety disorder, common symptoms include those found in other anxiety disorders such as excessive fear due to exposure to the stimuli or even anticipating exposure. As a result, panic attacks can be quite common and are accompanied with a number of other symptoms we will discuss shortly. Not only are these symptoms, but psychological symptoms also include cognitions such as irrational thoughts regarding water and drowning. This symptom is critical for diagnosis because it is the core of any phobia, an irrational and debilitating fear of something that commonly shouldn’t be feared. While we did discuss being cautious around water, we do not need to believe we are going to drown every instance we are near water.

Physiological Symptoms

Additional symptoms include the physical reactions following exposure or anticipation of exposure to the negative stimuli. In the previous section we discussed panic attacks and if you are aware physical reactions are a tale tell sign of a panic attack. Thus, physical symptoms individuals with Aquaphobia can experience include sweating, a racing heart, dizziness, and difficulty breathing.

Behavioral Symptoms

Lastly, behavioral symptoms will most likely also be present and can look like avoidant behaviors. For any person scared of something, logical or illogical, we tend to avoid it at any cost to keep from experiencing the fear or being harmed. Now avoidant behaviors of individuals with Aquaphobia may look like the assumed avoidant behaviors (e.g., not going to pools) but can also look like avoiding small quantities of water (e.g., a bath or full sink). Asides from these avoidant behaviors, isolation can also be behavioral symptom

What are the causes of Aquaphobia?

So, we have defined Aquaphobia and have discussed its symptoms but how does one develop Aquaphobia? The answer is not so simple because like many disorders and diagnoses the reason something occurs can have multiple factors that increase the likelihood. Psychologists and licensed practitioners have identified three main factors or causes that lead to the development of phobias like Aquaophobia: Psychology, genetics, and one’s environment.


One factor to consider as a possible cause for the development of Aquaphobia are psychological reasons. Not to be confused with previously diagnosed psychopathologies, psychological factors here typically refer to traumatic experiences. It could be very plausible for an individual to have experienced almost drowning or even witness a drowning and end up fearing this situation to occur again thus developing a phobia. While these are two examples of possible situations, there is no direct experience that can lead to the development of Aquaphobia.


Family history is also another factor that needs important consideration as to why someone might have a phobia such as Aquaphobia. Like many diseases, diagnoses, or health problems genetics can provide tangible evidence for the development and/or presence of phobias. Specifically with phobias like Aquaphobia, family history of anxiety can provide this tangible evidence as genes related to anxiety can be passed down from parents to children. Of course, the presence of such genes doesn’t guarantee the development of Aquaphobia, but they do increase the likelihood of the individual developing anxiety or other anxiety disorders.

One’s Environment

Another consideration or possible cause for the development of Aquaphobia is one’s environment, the places and people they are surrounded by every day. One’s environment can have a large effect or influence on the development of an individual, certainly on a child or adolescent’s beliefs and perception of the world. Thus, the exposure to other individuals who demonstrate anxious tendencies such as extreme caution of the water can influence a young child to also take on these beliefs. Additionally, there are a few cities across the world that are by water and repeated exposure to news stories about drownings or similar incidents can also impact an individual to develop a fear of drowning.

How to cope and overcome Aquaphobia?

Life with a phobia can be challenging and incredibly difficult, as not only is the fear debilitating but its impact on one’s well-being and quality of life can be crushing. Fortunately, there are a handful of treatments individuals can take part in and incorporate into their lives to cope and overcome a phobia like Aquaphobia.

Cognitive – Behavioral Therapy

One of the most common forms of treatment for phobias like Aquaphobia is Cognitive – Behavioral Therapy or CBT. While there are some techniques individuals can incorporate into their lives without a clinician, CBT is a therapeutic treatment that is done with a licensed clinician with the purpose for an individual to overcome a phobia.

This form of therapy works to identify negative thought patterns individuals have about the negative stimuli, such as drowning, unroot the reason for this association, and finally work to change the negative association to a neutral one. For the first step, identifying the negative thought patterns, several methods can be used like journaling or self-monitoring depending on what works best for an individual. Following this, finding the reason behind these negative associations is also done so that a discussion can be had about why these thoughts are illogical. For example, not every instance with water is going to end in the individual drowning. Once this is done, work can begin to change the negative associations to more neutral ones enabling individuals to not react intensely when exposed to the stimuli. Techniques used to change behaviors at this stage include role-playing, goal setting, and even problem solving


Another form of treatment includes medications, typically anti-anxiety and/or antidepressants for Aquaphobia. Because Aquaphobia is not only a phobia but an anxiety disorder, anti-anxiety medications are usually prescribed by a psychiatrist to manage and lessen the symptoms such as panic attacks or extreme anxiety. Other medications such as antidepressants can also be prescribed to an individual. This is also common due to Aquaphobia’s co-occurrence with depression. Many times, individuals also suffer with depression because of the impact the phobia can have on their lives such as tendencies to isolate oneself or avoid certain situations creating feelings of self-loathing or self-hate.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, June). Aquaphobia - The Fear of Drowning. Retrieved from

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