Hydrophobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by an extreme fear of drowning. The panic is generally so intense that it can have a detrimental effect on a person’s quality of life. People with hydrophobia can sometimes find it uncomfortable to view a large body of water or a pool, and some may even be frightened by smaller things, like a filled bathtub or wash basin. Individuals with hydrophobia are actually in more danger of drowning than other people who cannot swim, because their panic can be so intense when they find themselves submerged. When someone has hydrophobia, she is generally so overcome by the extremity of her emotional response that she has trouble listening to rational arguments against the fear.
One of the differences between hydrophobia and a regular fear of water is the physical element in the reaction. People with hydrophobia have a fairly extreme adrenalin rush, which can cause several physical responses, including dry mouth, sweating and difficulty breathing. They may feel the urge to close their eyes to avoid looking at the water, and they may also have a hard time speaking to other people or understanding what someone tells them.
The cause of the disorder varies, but it usually happens because of some past experience, often one that took place during childhood. A common example would be someone who nearly drowned or fell into water when he was too young to understand what was happening to him. Extreme experiences like this can potentially cause a person to make permanent associations about cause and effect, and these associations can lead to irrational behavior later in life.
Dealing with hydrophobia alone can be dangerous because of the risk of drowning. Most treatments will eventually involve submerging an individual in water, and that will generally require supervision. Adults with hydrophobia usually don't seek treatment—this is often true with many phobias, because those who suffer are so afraid that even the thought of treatment can be too frightening to contemplate. Parents will often send their children for therapy, and because of this, the most effective treatment methods were generally designed with children in mind.
The most common approach is to gradually expose the person to water while helping him deal with the mental triggers that create his fear. Individuals may start with something like a sauna or bathtub and gradually work their way up to larger water sources, like pools and lakes. The therapist will try to develop a good comfort level at each step before moving on. Using this method, some people are able to completely rid themselves of the phobia, while others are only able to make the fear less crippling. Success rates can vary a lot because the intensity of phobias can be different from person to person.