It is quite common to be afraid of sharks (Galeophobia), but many times, individuals are even afraid of small and seemingly harmless fish. Such an irrational or persistent fear of fish is called Ichthyophobia. The word originates from Greek “ichthys” which means fish and phobos which means fear.
Many cultures, especially the Navajo tribes, are known to fear all kinds of aquatic animals, including fish. Thus the entire tribe is termed as “Ichthyophobic”, however, in this case, the fear is not psychological as much as it is cultural or mythical. They believe that all aquatic beings are taboos and hence they refuse to touch or eat them or even dive deep into water bodies where they may encounter these creatures.
In case of fear of fish that originates due to psychological factors, the phobia can cause the individual to be afraid of dead or living fish. Such people tend to have a full blown panic attack even at the sight or thought of fish. This can negatively impact one’s day to day life.
Causes of Ichthyophobia
As with all other specific phobias, Ichthyophobia also begins with a negative or traumatic episode involving fish, mainly in one’s childhood.
- As a child, the phobic might have been scared by pranks played by his/her siblings or friends who might have showed him a dead or wriggling fish. In one particular case, a phobic recalls being terrified by a chopped fish head placed on his bedding.
- Children with superior imagination tend to believe that small fish are as large as ‘Great White sharks’.
- Another phobic recalls having gone deep sea diving where he encountered a rather large fish that ‘appeared suddenly out of nowhere’. The individual recounts having ‘forgotten to swim’ momentarily
- Fish are slimy and smelly creatures. People with anxiety disorders tend to believe that fish are responsible for many diseases/ illnesses or can lead to mercury poisoning etc. This is one of the common triggers of Ichthyophobia.
- Certain varieties of fish jump out of water. A child (or an adult with nervous mindset or an overly anxious personality) is likely to be startled by such ‘flying fish’ while boating or swimming.
These seemingly scary episodes replay constantly in the individual’s mind leading to lifelong phobia about these creatures.
Symptoms of fear of fish
Ichthyophobia has various psychological and physical symptoms just like other phobias. These include:
- Screaming or crying after seeing a picture or image of fish or even simply thinking about them.
- Feeling nauseated or throwing up
- Passing out, feeling dizzy
- Trembling, shaking
- Feeling like being choked to death
- Running away from situations involving fish, hiding or conversely, being paralyzed or frozen to the spot.
Many phobics are afraid of swimming or even walking on or near bridges or beaches due to this phobia. Some refuse to go near aquariums or any theme parks with fish. In very severe cases, individuals might refuse to visit friends having pet fish kept in fish bowls or aquariums.
- Dr. John B. Watson, an expert in Behavior Therapy recommends gradual exposure/desensitization technique for overcoming the fear of fish.
- In children suffering from this Ichthyophobia, siblings and friends can help by showing how fish are harmless creatures. They can put their hand in a fish bowl to catch small gold fish. Likewise, phobics can also be exposed gradually to pictures or movies or aquariums having fish etc until they are comfortable enough to withstand the creatures without experiencing a panic attack.
- Hypnotherapy is another powerful mind technique that helps get the bottom of the phobia. This is helpful in case of older patients who can then learn to rationalize their fearful thoughts and change them into positive ones.
- Another effective, though slightly traumatic technique called Flooding is also known to have positive results though it must be done only in presence of experienced therapists. In this method, the individual is immersed in a tank containing harmless fish. This helps him/her understand that such fear is irrational. Relaxation techniques must be used when facing fish in this manner.
- In extreme cases, it is worthwhile taking anti depressants or other medication to reduce anxiety about fish. An experienced psychotherapist can also help one overcome Ichthyophobia for good.