If we think of some of the most formidable predators in the seas and oceans, the first creature that comes to mind is probably the shark.
It is one of the deadliest and most efficient predators in the aquatic environment, which has thrived for millions of years. There are many legends and myths that tell us about his powerful jaws and reputation as a man eater, which entered our society and made us fear.
But while it is not uncommon for there to be restlessness and fear in the presence of these creatures (after all they are large predators), for some, the mere possibility that there may be something something that reminds them or even all of his vision in the photographs can lead to the onset of an anxiety attack. We are talking about selacophobia or extreme fear of sharks.
Selacophobia as a specific phobia
It’s called selacophobia phobia or panic in sharks or sharks. Like a phobia which supposes the existence of an irrational or excessive fear in relation to the potential danger that the appearance or the existence of a concrete stimulus can suppose. This fear generates a high level of anxiety which tends to cause physiological, cognitive and emotional symptoms.
The panic generated by the possible presence of the stimulus, or of any element associated with it, can lead to tachycardia, hyperventilation, hyperhidrosis and in some cases it can lead to anxiety attacks (in which thoughts of losing control of one’s own body, dying or suffering from cardiac arrest may appear).
Likewise, this fear and / or the anticipation of the appearance of the stimulus generates the need to escape the stimulus reminiscent of sharks, Or to avoid at all any situation or environment in which there may be a risk of occurrence of the feared stimulus.
In the case of selacophobia, fear of sharks is one of the specific phobias related to animals, and could in fact be considered a sub-specification of ichthyophobia or phobia in fish. So, the subject with this problem felt intense fear at the sight of sharks, whether directly in nature or from movies or even through photographs.
It should be noted that this is a phobia related to animals and, in this case, dangerous, so the existence of some worry about their presence can be natural. However, the phobic reaction to selacophobia is excessive or persistent in situations where there is no real danger that sharks may appear.
Affection generated by selacophobia
Although in everyday life and for most people contact with sharks is not common, selacophobia it can have a big impact on a person’s daily life, Especially with regard to the enjoyment of leisure activities in aquatic spaces or to slow down the development of certain professions.
Panic in this type of animal not only avoids the sharks themselves (difficult to find in everyday life), but this fear can become generalized and include associated stimuli, such as fin movements. The surface of the water, jaws or teeth reminiscent of a shark or even the sight or thought of walking along the shore, going to the beach, swimming or sunbathing near water or even in some cases to see bathers or even a surfboard.
At the professional level, subjects such as marine biologists or lifeguards may see their abilities severely limited in the face of fear of having to deal with sharks. Also surfers and swimmers they may end up developing a generalized fear of water by association with the risk of being attacked.
In this sense, a phobia that may appear to be associated with selacophobia or ichthyophobia is thalassophobia, or phobia in the ocean or swimming in large bodies of water. In this case the link would be given by the fact that it would be in this context in which a real contact with sharks would be possible, which makes it very meaningful and anxious for the subject with selacophobia. The presence of panic in sharks may also contribute to increased fear generated by large bodies of water in subjects with thalassophobia.
Causes of fear in sharks
The causes of selacophobia are not fully understood, although there are multiple assumptions and ideas in this regard, And it is considered that there is not a single original cause but that this fear comes from a set of factors.
One of the hypotheses studied in this regard is Seligman’s preparation theory, which states that certain phobias have a phylogenetically inherited component which allows us to fear certain stimuli more easily.
This theory is often associated with the fear of spiders, snakes or insects, because our ancestors had to learn that some of these creatures were dangerous and could cause their death. Those who avoided them would likely have a better chance of surviving, so the tendency to avoid them could be easily transmitted.
The same goes for sharks. Again they are not as aggressive as literature and cinema inspire them and the number of deaths they cause is relatively low, the truth is that they are really powerful predators with lethal potential. When our ancestors began to sail the seas and oceans, meeting these animals could mean death, so fear may have spread in the same way.
Another factor to consider is how they attack their prey: sharks usually attack from below, from the depths, so many of their prey cannot see the attack coming. The surprise and uncertainty of being harassed can increase the level of fear generated when approaching environments where these animals may exist.
In addition to this, another possible explanation or factor to consider is the existence of a shark-related traumatic event. Among them, there is having suffered an attack or having witnessed it, having seen a death caused by a shark or the circumstantial association of one of these beings with a moment of great pain or suffering.
In this way the role of cinema must also be taken into account (In fact, there has been an increase in this type of phobia due to the Shark movies) and romantic literature, which portrays the figure of these beings as murderers who seek to devour human flesh (an exaggerated and mistaken figure , as they generally do not attack humans except by mistake).
Exposure to such films and documents can lead to learning or an association between the shark and death or pain, which can be corrected into a cognitive pattern that wakes up with some sort of stressful event.
Selacophobia is a condition that, fortunately, can be successfully treated with therapy. Generally, phobias are usually treated through exposure therapy or systematic desensitization, Which rely on exposure to the phobic stimulus until the anxiety is reduced by itself or by the habit of performing behavior incompatible with it.
Both techniques assume that the subject is confronted with the phobic stimulus, albeit gradually, and does not seek so much to eliminate anxiety and fear as to achieve the ability to manage it successfully (which may eventually lead to its disappearance. ).
To do this, a hierarchy of stimuli is established which generates different levels of anxiety, which are negotiated between the therapist and the patient and then ordered according to the level of anxiety generated by each of them. Little by little and starting with those who generate moderate anxiety, the subject will be confronted with increasingly anxious stimuli (To switch from one stimulus to another, the subject must report at least two consecutive times the reduction of anxiety to minimum or no levels).
This type of exposure can be complex to perform live, which could complicate processing. However, if it is possible to make exposures to such situations as walking along the beach, swimming or sailing in the sea or even going to an aquarium to see these animals.
A more than that today, technological development has allowed them to be generated immersive and interactive environments thanks to the use of virtual reality, Which can greatly help in treating selacophobia or other phobias to which the phobic stimulus is difficult to access. Sometimes exposure in the imagination is also used, and sometimes hypnosis is helpful.
Another type of therapy relevant in these cases is cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular cognitive restructuring. Through this, all of the maladaptive or dysfunctional cognitions, fears, expectations and beliefs that can generate or sustain fear can be addressed.
They will also have to deal with situations that may have created fear, especially if we are faced with a traumatic event experienced by the subject. Information regarding the danger of sharks and existing myths about them should also be discussed.
Relaxation techniques can be helpful learn to control anxiety levels, in addition to being able to be used as an incompatible anxiety response in systematic desensitization. Finally, when needed, the use of anti-anxiety drugs can be used to reduce anxiety in situations generating excessive levels of anxiety.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.