Posted by: Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP
Shark! Does yelling “Shark” or “Fire” arouse the same level of reaction? I would suggest they both engender an extreme response to act, but hearing “Shark” instantly raises the hair on the back of your neck.
Why do we have such a strong fear of sharks?
Well, we respond to emotion and not statistics despite the many stats that are thrown our way over the subject as you are more likely to be struck by lightning or being in an accident on the way to the beach. Despite our capacity for logic, humans are stupid creatures, but we know how to survive. Our sensory system overestimates dangers so we survive.
Why do people fear sharks who have never encountered one?
Thanks to folklore, media, movies, and our evolutionary past, vicariously learning that sharks are dangerous (disproportionally), has led to shark phobia, galeophobia (meaning weasel or dogfish) or selachophobia (cartilaginous fish), for many people and mostly through vicarious learning rather than experiencing a shark trauma themselves.
Why do we have such a strong fear of sharks?
Humans are particularly prone to shark phobias due to the lack of control we sense in a water environment. We are not home in the water. We think we are more in control on land even though we cannot outrun a bear, giant cat, or rabid dog, all of which, we are also more likely to encounter.
My personal shark story.
I remember watching, against my parent’s wishes, Jaws, in the fourth grade (around 1984, the same year of Van Halen’s album, also 1984) while spending the night at a friend’s home. After that, I thought twice about diving into dark swimming pools for a few years. Seriosuly! Unfortunately, disproportional and irrational fears like that keep lots of people from experiencing the many pleasures and adventures our oceans bring. Surprisingly, despite my early fears, I became an avid scuba diver and spearfisherman with multiple harrowing shark encounters, yet all involved me dragging along bleeding and flailing fish. Never have I had a shark encounter when not spearfishing other than watching one of these majestic creates swim over a reef and keeping its distance from me.
Diagnosis of Shark or Specific Phobia.
If we are talking diagnosis, a shark phobia is considered a type of specific phobia. A specific phobia is an irrational fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation. The phobic object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety. It is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety, and the reaction is out of proportion with the actual danger that the situation or object poses. The pattern of fear and/or avoidance typically last longer than six months to meet the threshold for the clinical diagnosis. The phobia causes clinically significant distress or impairment, and the reaction to the phobic stimulus (shark or thought of one in this case) is not better explained by other disorders.
Categories of specific phobias:
There are five categories of specific phobias:
Features of phobias?
The most common phobia is social phobia but that is different from a specific phobia. It is quite common to have multiple specific phobias. The average individual with a specific phobia fears three objects or situations, and approximately 75% of individuals with a specific phobia fears more than one situation or object.
The key feature is fear or anxiety in the presence of the situation or object. The situation or object is considered the “phobic stimulus”. It is not a transient fear, it is not a proportional fear, and the danger is overestimated, and the reaction must be intense and severe to have the disorder. The fear is experienced either with proximity or in anticipation of being confronted with the object or situation.
If phobic, the individual actively avoids the situation. If they cannot avoid it, they have intense fear, anxiety, or panic about it. Active avoidance means the individual intentionally behaves in ways that are designed to prevent or minimize contact with the phobic object or situation. For instance, the person takes tunnels instead of bridges in their daily commutes, or they avoid accepting certain jobs, or they avoid boats, beaches, and swimming in the ocean in galeophobic.
Many people have suffered from phobias for many years and have changed their living situations because of them. It is common though that one with a phobia no longer experiences anxiety related to the phobia because they have avoided those situations altogether. They can recognize their reactions are disproportionate, and they tend to overestimate the danger in the feared situation, and they have set their life up to avoid it at all costs.
Most phobias including animal phobias like shark phobia, result in the strong sympathetic response of panic, while blood injection or injury phobias result in vasovagal fainting or a near fainting response where there is an increase in heart rate and blood pressure and then a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure.
Prevalence rates of phobias:
The prevalence rates of specific phobias are eight percent for individuals overall, but 16% for teens, and five percent for older people. Yes, teens are the most prone, and older and wiser people are less prone; however, females are more affected by phobias at a rate of two to one (animal, nature, and situational specific) which is likely due to evolutionary influences while blood injection and injury phobias affect both genders equally. It is not uncommon to see rather large men collapse after giving blood.
Development and course of phobias:
The development and course of phobias are complex and varied. Its expression may follow a traumatic event, the observation of others going through a traumatic event, or as a result of an unexpected panic attack in the situation or in the presence of the object, or from informational transmission (like watching Jaws or the news), and many people cannot recall or do not know why they have the fear.
The typical onset of a phobia is during the ages 7 to 11 with situational phobias occurring later. Phobias do tend to wax and wane in adolescence but if they are still present in adulthood, they tend to persist if not remedied. Bottom line, phobias can occur at any age.
Specific vulnerabilities to phobias like being human:
There are several vulnerabilities that make one more likely to have a phobia; however, we as humans are all wired for phobias.
Other issues related to phobias:
Those who suffer from phobias have higher suicide rates than those who do not. This higher rate is due to comorbidity with personality disorders and anxiety disorders. Moreover, those with phobias are more likely to have overlapping phobias and are more at risk for substance abuse disorders due to self-medicating to manage anxious symptoms.
It is not irrational to fear a shark if it is attacking or harassing you, but this is uncommon; and it is therefore unreasonable to believe that swimming in the ocean is inherently dangerous due to shark attacks. Because humans are so susceptible to fear and vicarious learning, often the fear of sharks happens spontaneously after hearing a report, and then becomes attached to other objects like fears related to the beach, wading in the water, and even swimming in a pool like what happened to this psychologist at a young age.
What negative reinforcement actually is:
Negative reinforcement is actually about increasing a behavior. It is not a punishment as so many people believe. It is important to understand the concept of negative reinforcement so one understands how phobias are learned, maintained, and strengthened. Phobias can be negatively reinforced. This means, when we have a phobia, the behavior of avoidance is strengthened or reinforced because we want to remove the unpleasant consequence (arousal) by avoiding the feared object. When we avoid the target object, we feel relief which is reinforcing. For example, if you fear sharks and you avoid diving, it reduces the immediate fear. You have now rewarded the avoidant behavior (thus increasing the tendency of it occurring) since you no longer feeling negatively aroused. The problem is that the fear becomes stronger, and the only way to manage it, is to avoid diving or swimming in salt water in this case.
How do I overcome my phobia?
If you want to address your phobia, there are cognitive behavioral techniques that work well with practice. The aim is to recondition yourself by changing your thoughts and behaviors to alter your physiological state and feelings. In essence, you want to move the body, and let the mind follow. You must have the motivation to chase the fear. Figuratively, you must have the mindset that you will chase the shark, versus it chasing you.
We teach patients the concept of staying in the middle of any emotional swings, not getting too excited or too nervous. Remain calm, focus on your breathing, and focus on each step in front of you is how a method to lessen your phobia reaction. That means, if you are diving and you are scared to death, the objective is to remain in the moment at each step of your dive which will begin from the night before in planning your dive to the drive to the dive boat, then in preparing your dive gear, and doing a buddy check and then getting in the water and listening and watching your bubbles. You must stay in each moment, one moment at a time. This is mindfulness, clear and simple. This helps one avoid anticipation. When you are anticipating, you have lost the moment. Only when you anticipate do you become anxious. If you stay in the moment only attending to what is in front of you, you gain a sense of control and purpose, and emotions can be managed. Other ways to gain a sense of control are learning about the sea life and type of sharks you may encounter on your dive. More and more information should help to override your over reliance on your emotions to dictate whether something is safe or not.
Why overcome the fear?
There are so many reasons to overcome your fear of the water and sharks. Although from a technical perspective, having galeophobia or aquaphobia are not impairing if you just avoid sharks and large bodies of water altogether; however, if you have an adventurous lifestyle or want to, then it is quite impairing because the quality of life, your social relationships, and your experiences are impacted especially if you live near water. Avoiding water due to fears of sharks is a functional consequence in my book. Having reasonable fear is healthy and normal, and some anxiety is good for you, but missing out on enriching and stimulating experiences that lead to growth is not.
Do you want to decrease your anxiety by avoiding enriching life experiences or learning to manage your anxiety? I hope you chose to learn to manage your anxiety! If you don’t address your phobia to sharks, water, or other, the pattern of stimulus-anxiety-avoidance will get stronger. Do not let phobias control your life. You can fix your phobia yourself, but for those stubborn phobias, consider consulting with a professional, like a psychologist, adept at treating them. You will learn to self sooth, get more comfortable with discomfort, and then break the chain. Dr. D’Arienzo and his team have provided exposure and response prevention treatment for individuals suffering from water and shark phobias, driving, highway driving, and bridge driving phobias, dog phobias, choking, germ and plastic phobias. It takes a significant commitment to overcome phobias, but it can be done with the right attitude, hard work, and for an individual who is sick and tired of missing out on a life free of irrational fears.