Dun dun. Dun dun. Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun…. Can you hear the theme song from “Jaws” in your head? Even if you’ve never seen this Hollywood blockbuster, “Jaws” has probably made an impact on you. Many people can trace their fear of sharks directly back to this movie!
In “Jaws,” a town is ravaged by a 23-foot shark. Sharks rarely, if ever, actually reach this length and wreak the havoc that “Jaws” depicts. The facts surrounding sharks haven’t changed the fact that half of Americans are terrified by these sea creatures. Some of these people even suffer from galeophobia, the fear of sharks.
What is galeophobia? How common is it? And can you overcome it to become a fearless swimmer and surfer? Let’s find out!
What Is the Fear of Sharks Called?
The fear of sharks is most commonly known as galeophobia. (Another name for the fear of sharks is selachophobia.) Galeophobia may develop after a traumatic event involving sharks, but is likely caused by observational learning. A surprisingly small number of people are killed by sharks every year.
Where Does the Term “Galeophobia” Come From?
Any time you see the suffix “-phobia,” you are reading or hearing about a fear. Phobia comes from the Ancient Greek word phóbos, which means “fear.” The Ancient Greek word galeós describes a specific type of shark that also resembles a weasel or a cat. Some people refer to the fear of cats as “galeophobia,” but for the purposes of this article, we will use galeophobia to refer to the fear of sharks.
A more general Ancient Greek term for sharks is sélakhos. The term selachophobia is also used to describe a fear of sharks.
Causes of Galeophobia
Not many people will disagree with the idea that sharks are scary. I’m sure you are humming the theme song to “Jaws” in your head right now! Hollywood movies have “trained” us to fear sharks. The movies and messaging around sharks in the media alone can lead many people to develop a fear of sharks.
For the handful of people that have been the victim of a shark attack, the trauma of said attack certainly could lead to a serious fear of sharks. But most people have never been, and will never be, the victim of a shark attack!
Does genetics have an impact on phobias? It could! A person is more likely to develop a phobia if a close family relative also has that phobia. Does this mean that phobias are passed down in our genes, or people are likely to be around the same content that preaches a dangerous message about sharks? We don’t exactly know the answer to that yet.
How Common is the Fear of Sharks?
Whatever causes the fear of sharks has a strong grip on society, particularly American society. Over half of all Americans claim to be “absolutely terrified” of sharks. This doesn’t mean that they have galeophobia. But if you get nervous at the beach thinking about Great Whites, you are not alone!
Interestingly enough, even though half of Americans fear sharks, most still understand a shark’s place in the ecosystem. 82% of Americans surveyed agreed that Great Whites are vital to the ocean ecosystem. Just because they are scary does not mean they aren’t important, or that they should be hunted!
Symptoms of Galeophobia
Having a phobia is more than just getting a little squirmy at the idea of going in the water or not liking movies where sharks eat people. A person with a phobia of sharks may experience symptoms looking at or thinking about sharks. Aquariums, beaches, or annual Shark Week programming might “trigger” this fear and cause the following symptoms:
- Trembling or shaking
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting
- Nausea or vomiting
- Chest pain or high heart rate
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilating
- Hot flushes
- Feeling like you are choking
- Panic attacks
Even if someone experiences these symptoms, they can live a productive, happy life. We don’t have to come into contact with sharks if we don’t want to! But if these symptoms describe your experience at the beach, museums, or anywhere that sharks may be present, it may be worth looking into your phobia and possible treatments.
Can You Be Diagnosed with Galeophobia?
Galeophobia is not a specific diagnosis. If someone’s life is severely impacted by the fear of sharks, they may receive a diagnosis of a “specific phobia.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (DSM-5) lays out the criteria for having a “specific phobia,” whether that phobia is the fear of sharks, the fear of ghosts, or the fear of cotton balls.
The criteria are as follows:
- Marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation
- The phobic object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety.
- The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger posed by the specific object or situation and to the socio-cultural context.
- The phobic object or situation is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for 6 months or more.
- The disturbance is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, including fear, anxiety, and avoidance of situations associated with panic-like symptoms or other incapacitating symptoms (as in agoraphobia); objects or situations related to obsessions (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder); reminders of traumatic events (as in posttraumatic stress disorder); separation from home or attachment figures (as in separation anxiety disorder); or social situations (as in social anxiety disorder).
Should You Be Afraid of Sharks?
Here’s an interesting fact about shark attacks: only a handful of people are killed by sharks around the world each year. In 2021, 73 unprovoked shark bites were reported worldwide. Out of those 73 bites, only nine people were killed. An additional 39 people were bitten by sharks, but those bites were considered “provoked bites.” It’s said that sharks only kill a person in the United States once every 1.7 years. Even if you are bitten by a shark, you are likely to survive.
(A provoked shark attack takes place after a person is bitten after initiating contact with the shark. The person may have tried to attack the shark themselves, unhook the shark from a net, etc.)
Over 100 shark bites a year can still be scary, but let’s put this into perspective. Cows kill around 20 people each year. Dogs kill around 30. Deer cause over 200 fatal car accidents. Bees kill up to 100 people per year.
This isn’t to say that you should develop a debilitating fear of deer (Elafiphobia) or a fear of bees (apiphobia.) And people experience fears of much less dangerous items, like cotton balls (sidonglobophobia) or balloons (globophobia.) But when you look at the statistics and think about how much time you actually spend at the beach, sharks become a little less scary.
How to Overcome Fear of Sharks
Reading information like this is a great first step to overcoming a fear of sharks. Take a moment and reflect on this statement: “sharks kill fewer people than cows every year.” Remember it the next time you go to the ocean or to an aquarium. If you find yourself starting to think about shark attacks in anticipation of a beach vacation, switch your mind to think about cow-tipping.
This sounds like a silly suggestion, but the sooner you start to shift your thinking and see galeophobia as a silly fear, the sooner your body will stop reacting when you think of sharks. Phobias, for the most part, are created in our minds. It’s up to our minds to overcome them.
There are plenty of other things you can do to overcome a fear of sharks on your own:
- Meditate on the idea that sharks are animals just like any other fish, and that they are important to our ecosystem
- Watch shark-themed programming (start slow and do not overwhelm yourself if you start to get anxious!)
- Visit an aquarium and ask questions about sharks’ interactions with humans
If the idea of these activities makes you anxious, you may want to seek out professional help for your fear of sharks. A therapist can help lead you through practices that address your phobia and keep you calm when thinking, watching, or looking at sharks. Approaches to overcoming phobias with a therapist include:
- Systematic desensitization
- Flooding therapy
The ocean is a wild, exciting, mysterious place. There is so much of it that even experts haven’t discovered! These unknown parts of our world invoke a lot of fears in people:
- Ichthyophobia - fear of fish (eating, touching, being near fish, etc.)
- Hydrophobia - fear of water (as caused by rabies)
- Aquaphobia - fear of water (as caused by traumatic events)
- Thalassophobia - fear of deep bodies of water
- Megalophobia - fear of large objects
Like galeophobia, these fears can be overcome! Reach out to a mental health professional for more information on treating your specific phobias.