Your Fear of Sharks - What It Is & How to Get Over It
Sharks are greatly misunderstood. Humans perceive the fish as ocean monsters, hiding behind reefs and waiting for their chance to chomp down on an unsuspecting swimmer.
Movies like the “Jaws” franchise turned the apex predators into horror movie villains, despite the reality that most of us will never interact with one.
We’re not saying that sharks aren’t dangerous – they’re one of the top predators in the ocean. Thus, it’s normal to be a bit afraid of sharks, but that fear can turn irrational and become a phobia.
So what is the fear of sharks? What causes it, and how do we move past it?
The dread is called galeophobia. It can be caused by a variety of factors, both environmental and experiential. Fortunately, the phobia is treatable by a variety of accessible means.
What is galeophobia?
Like we said, it’s normal to have a slight fear of sharks. They’re incredible animals with sharp teeth, powerful jaws, and a big appetite.
If your fear of sharks makes you panic or experience physical illness, you might have galeophobia. The word is derived from two Greek terms; galeos and phobia, the words for “shark” and “fear,” respectively.
The difference between a rational fear of sharks and galeophobia is situational. It's reasonable to fear shark-infested waters. However, strong reactions to pictures & videos of sharks in the ocean suggest that you may have an extreme phobia.
Why do I have galeophobia?
Sharks Killed by Humans per Year vs. Humans Killed by Sharks per Year
Very few of us spend enough time in the ocean to be at serious risk, so why fear sharks?
Galeophobia can be caused by several different things: trauma, a sense of not belonging in the ocean, news reports, and other media.
Shark Related Trauma
While shark attacks are statistically unlikely, they do happen. Anytime a human invades the territory of a natural predator, there is a chance of conflict.
Whether your close encounter led to injury or simply the possibility of violence, sharing close quarters with a shark can be a frightening and traumatizing experience.
“Jaws” painted a false narrative of sharks
You can thank Steven Spielberg for your galeophobia – “Jaws” has probably made more galeophobes than any real shark ever could.
The franchise ushered in an era of shark attack movies, ranging from high-quality to low-budget. While it's improbable that “Sharks of the Corn” is creating any deeply-seated phobias, movies like “The Shallows” and “47 Meters Down” present seemingly grounded horror stories about the giant fish.
Similarly, Shark Week has captured the public imagination since 1987. This aquatic extravaganza leans into the perception of sharks as ferocious predators.
These shows and movies aim to create a sense of anxiety; their entire purpose is to frighten, rather than educate. While some people enjoy the momentary thrill, others crystalize that dread into a deep-seated phobia, spurred by the belief that these movies and shows accurately represent sharks.
And the media continues this misinformation
The 24-hour news cycle necessitates alarmist headlines. Shark attack stories are compelling, human-interest stories. A brave surfer or swimmer triumphing over a vicious predator's bight makes for a riveting story.
Bethany Hamilton's story is ultimately a hopeful tale of survival. However, most news outlets focused on the frightening aspects, the utter horror of being attacked by a shark.
And even though her incident occurred in 2003, stories are still being written about her to this day. And though this was a high-profile attack, the attention being given to the attack nearly 20 years later makes these types of incidents seem far more common than they are. When in fact, there are just 72 attacks each year (most of which are provoked).
Galeophobes internalize the gory details and media saturation, creating a perfect storm of fear and certainty that somewhere out there, a shark is just waiting to attack them.
What are the symptoms of galeophobia?
There is nothing irrational about a healthy fear of sharks. But how do you differentiate proper respect from an actual phobia?
Galeophobes exhibit physical reactions to the sight of sharks - whether it's a fin at sea, the fish at the aquarium, or even a CGI shark on-screen. Even the word "shark" can trigger these reactions. If their fear is triggered, they may experience:
- Panic attacks
- Shortness of breath
- Elevated heart rate
- Stomach pain
- Chest pain
In extreme cases, victims will find it impossible to go near any body of water, even swimming pools.
How do I treat galeophobia?
Sharks are relatively easy to avoid in person; but, social media often keeps them front of mind.
Fortunately, it can be overcome with the right approach. Individual needs vary, and what works for someone else won't necessarily work for you.
The best ways to overcome this fear are education and exposure.
Galeophobes are frightened of sharks attacking and killing them. Through education, however, you’ll gain a better understanding of their behavior (which rarely includes attacking humans).
And eventually, you’ll come to understand that sharks are far more afraid of humans than we are of them.
With this new found appreciation, you’ll feel more confident facing your fear directly.
Undertake this process gradually - don't jump from avoiding swimming pools to swimming with sharks. Progress at your own pace.
Start by watching movies or television shows about sharks. These safe, controlled experiences allow you to determine just how deeply rooted your fear has become.
Once you feel comfortable watching sharks on a screen, take a visit to the aquarium. Though you’re facing your fear in person, you’ll be totally safe outside of the tank.
As you master your fear and realize that the sharks don’t pose a threat, you can make your way into the water again.
Start in the shallow water. After some time, gradually make your way out into the surf. Odds are, you won’t even see a shark.
If you really want to conquer your fear, try cage diving with sharks. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a totally safe way to interact with them in their natural environment.
Sharks are not a present danger. They mostly want to be left alone. While a reasonable fear of their power and strength is safe and well-founded, an extreme phobia can cripple your day-to-day life.
Trauma, news stories, and digital media all conspire to create deep anxiety that manifests itself in panic attacks, sweat, and nausea. Fortunately, with the right approach, you can conquer these fears and learn to appreciate these amazing animals.