What fear of sharks?

by Dr. Erich Ritter
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What fear of sharks?


Sharks unite all the typical forms and images of fear. What we don’t know, understand or being comfortable with, we are afraid of. Such is a typical and logical reaction e.g., the fear of water for many people. Besides not being able to swim, this fear revolves around the “things” that could come from the deep and dark, that can eat us alive, which can entangle our legs and most prominently the possibility of drowning. Our movements in water are mostly awkward, and in the face of the power of currents or waves, our ability to control the surroundings are nearly non-existing. The two primary fears originating from sharks seem to be getting bitten and the darkness. The latter is inherited and quite understandable considering that e.g. our eyes are less adapted during nighttime hours than the ones of nocturnal animals, consequently making us less capable of defending ourselves. This reality is closely connected to the fear of being eaten alive. The fear of getting eaten alive stems from a time where early humans were confronted with large predators and had to protect themselves. But compared to land predators, which mostly face us in a 2-dimensional scenario (both stand on the bottom), a shark is quite agile in the 3rd dimension as well during an encounter. This spatial component feels rather threatening to us. However, even when we consider all these factors, the fear of sharks must rationally be considered unfounded and can be labeled as a neurotic fear. The fear of sharks is also called selachophobia (selachos–shark– and phobos–fear–). These types of fears, like the one of sharks, are also called neurosis or phobias, as is the just mentioned selacho-phobia. On the other hand, the fear of sharks could also reflect what’s called a free-floating anxiety where no specific triggered situation or object is present. A possible scenario could be that you start feeling uncomfortable while submerged without knowing why. Or one feels tense during an interaction with a shark without an obvious trigger. However, the fear of sharks in not innate, similar to the fear from dogs, and can be overcome. Since emotions are learned we are receptive to behavioral therapy thus we can “un-learn” it. Probably the best path to counter the fear of sharks is to face one and register the shark’s own fear and cautiousness in the vicinity of us.

Then there is another fear that revolves around a shark encounter, the situational one: the fear of not knowing what to look for when a shark shows up, what the situation influences the most, how to react or how to interpret a shark. This situational fear is likely as prominent as the actual selachophobia, or even bigger. By understanding how a situation will likely develop itself, one can focus on the things that will likely happen down the road during the encounter. By being able to predict outcomes thus knowing what to look for, one stays in control because one knows (!) what to look for and act appropriately should a situation keeps developing itself.


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