If you experience fish phobia, you may avoid aquariums or fish markets. But strategies are available to help you cope.
Fish aren’t necessarily the most adorable creatures to look at (or smell). But for some people, encountering a fish is a real phobia known as ichthyophobia.
A person with ichthyophobia would likely avoid aquariums, seafood restaurants, fishing, and swimming in the ocean. They might also avoid movies or literature with fish in them.
Ichthyophobia is a persistent and irrational fear of fish. Individuals with ichthyophobia might fear seeing, smelling, touching, or eating fish.
Ichthyophobia isn’t recognized as a distinct disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR). But its symptoms fall under the diagnostic criteria for Specific Phobia: Animal Type.
Ichthyophobia vs. other fish-related phobias
Some features of ichthyophobia may overlap or be confused with other phobias. For example, a person who fears the ocean might also fear what’s under the ocean.
Or a person who fears sharks, classified as cartilaginous fish, technically fears a fish but may not fear all fish.
Ichthyophobia is distinct from the following phobias:
- Galeophobia: the fear of sharks.
- Thalassophobia: the fear of deep bodies of water, such as the ocean.
- Megalohydrothalassophobia: the fear of large underwater creatures or objects.
Ichthyophobia involves emotional, psychological, and physical symptoms similar to those experienced during a panic attack.
Emotional or psychological symptoms of ichthyophobia may include the following:
- sudden, intense anxiety or fear
- racing thoughts
- avoidance of any place with fish
- fear of losing control
Physical symptoms of ichthyophobia include the following:
- shaking or trembling
- confusion or brain fog
- rapid breathing or breathlessness
- racing heart
- chest pain
Depending on the person, these symptoms may range from mild to severe.
Among adults with Specific Phobia, in a given year, the
- 21.9% had serious impairment
- 30.0% had moderate impairment
- 48.1% had mild impairment
Like other phobias and anxiety disorders, ichthyophobia is likely caused by genetic, physiological, and environmental factors.
A person’s overall stress levels and a general feeling of not being in control may play a role in phobia development.
In addition, the brain plays a significant role in how we react to a threat. When we perceive a risk to our safety, our bodies engage in the “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” reactions via specific brain circuits and mechanisms.
Growing up in a fear-inducing family environment may contribute to the development of ichthyophobia. For instance, a child whose parent has a strong negative reaction to fish may inherit that anxiety and begin to fear fish.
Ichthyophobia isn’t recognized as a distinct disorder in the DSM-5-TR, but its symptoms fall under the diagnostic criteria for Specific Phobia: Animal Type.
According to the DSM-5-TR, a Specific Phobia diagnosis is given if symptoms meet the following criteria:
- Significant fear regarding a specific object or situation. In the case of ichthyophobia, this would be an extreme fear of fish.
- The trigger (fish) almost always triggers sudden, intense fear or anxiety.
- The fear is disproportionate to the actual danger of the specific object or situation.
- The phobia (fear of fish) results in clinically significant distress or impaired functioning.
- Triggers (e.g., aquariums, fishing piers, seafood restaurants) are actively avoided or endured with intense anxiety.
- The phobia (fear of fish) is persistent and lasts 6 months or more.
- The phobia (fear of fish) isn’t better explained by symptoms of another condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When left untreated, phobias can worsen and significantly impair your life. If you live with ichthyophobia and it interferes with your quality of life, consider seeking treatment.
Treatment for ichthyophobia and other phobias may include one or a combination of the following:
- Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT): CBT for specific phobias involves desensitization or exposure therapy, in which you’re gradually exposed to your triggers until your anxiety lessens. If you have ichthyophobia, you might begin CBT by looking at photos of fish and then progress to an aquarium and perhaps even go to a pier where people are fishing.
- Relaxation techniques: Meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness practices may help reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Medication: Beta-blockers, such as propranolol or benzodiazepines, like Valium or Lorazepam, may be prescribed to help ease anxiety. Particularly in specific situations such as going to a seafood restaurant.
This Psych Central article offers more information on treating phobias.
If you live with ichthyophobia, there are several things you can do to reduce your fear. These include visualization, meditation, and a plan for when you’re confronted with triggers.
Visualization is a good way to practice getting “closer” to fish without actually having to do so. Consider the following practice.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the middle of a zoo. In your mind’s eye, start walking toward the aquarium area. This part of the zoo has colorful fish and other sea animals.
As you “walk” toward this section, talk gently to yourself and tell yourself that you’re doing a great job.
Imagine standing in front of a big glass aquarium full of several types of fish. Count to 10 while “watching” the fish, and then open your eyes.
Do your best to sit with the anxiety and discomfort. If you become overwhelmed, try to observe your natural breath without controlling it.
If your phobia is severe and it isn’t easy to cope with overwhelming feelings, consider engaging in this exercise with the support of a mental health professional or trusted loved one. You’re not alone.
Meditation is a long-term strategy that can help reduce your overall anxiety levels.
Stress and anxiety are symptoms of your body’s fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.
Meditation reduces anxiety by training your brain and body to reach a calm state known as the “relaxation response.”
Achieving the “relaxation response” will help you overcome your phobia of fish.
Have a plan ready
It’s important to devise a plan for when you’re exposed to your triggers. For instance, if you have to go to an aquarium for your friend’s birthday, try the following tips:
- Visualize a place that makes you feel calm. Pull up a calming photo on your phone that you can look at.
- If possible, listen to soothing music through your headphones.
- Breathe deeply while counting to three with each breath.
- Soothingly talk to yourself as you’d talk with a loved one experiencing fear. Tell yourself it will be OK and you’re doing a great job.
- If possible, talk with a nearby friend who can help talk you through the experience.
If your fear of fish significantly impacts your quality of life, consider speaking with a qualified mental health professional.
For instance, if your friends regularly go deep sea fishing, but you decide not to go due to your phobia, then treatment could help you cope.
Phobias are highly treatable with various behavioral approaches, such as desensitization.
There are also several online resources available. Mental Health America offers an online support community where you can share your experiences with others. The Tribe is another online support group for people with various anxiety disorders.