Shaquille O’Neal is 7’1” and weighs 326 pounds. He’s a big guy — much bigger than a reef shark or a nurse shark. But even before he took part in this year’s Shark Week, O’Neal knew he couldn’t stop a shark attack by sitting on one. Besides, he was too worried about ending up as chum.
“I’m nervous about being eaten by a shark,” O’Neal deadpanned in Shaq Does Shark Week, in which the former NBA star took baby steps toward a goal of swimming with sharks. “I’m not going to lie to you. Because I’m not a strong swimmer and I’ve always suspected that I would be delicious.”
On the show, O’Neal went through a gradual process that eventually led to him confidently entering warm, Bahamian waters surrounded by easy-going reef sharks. It actually wasn’t a bad way to exterminate a fear of sharks, suggests Mitchell Schare, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and the director of the Phobia & Trauma Clinic at Hofstra University. What O’Neal went through looked like a fast-forwarded version of exposure therapy — a very real treatment for shark phobias.
“Not only could we help someone with a phobia of sharks with exposure therapy, I’m already figuring it out in my mind how we could do it,” says Schare tells Inverse. “To me, it’s no different that treating a fear of a dog or a bee. It’s a shark — okay, no big deal, you have to get over it and we can help.”
Schare explains that exposure therapy is the number one treatment for the general classification of anxiety disorder, whether it’s a phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Since the early twentieth century, exposure therapy has been used to help people to defeat panic and break patterns of avoidance and fear.
Exposure therapy is usually broken down into four parts that slowly and systematically expose a person to the fear stimulus, explains Mark Powers, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and the University of Texas, Austin, to Inverse. The pacing of the therapy is highly specific to the person, adds Schare.
“First of all, a program of therapy always requires an assessment phase where you have to find out what what a person’s background is and you ask them to explain their fear,” he says. “What I need to understand is how this person’s life has mutated over time because of that fear.”
It’s important to establish the parameters of the fear to figure out how to beat it, says Schare. For example, if the patient is afraid of sharks, he might ask where they are afraid and what exactly they are afraid of. Using shark-related stimuli — like a photograph of a shark, a shark tooth, a model of a shark, a dead shark, and so on — would allow him to better characterize the nature of the fear. A crayon-sketched drawing of Jaws? That could get a scariness rating of 15 out of 100. A fin flickering in the water near the shore? That could be a 95.
Once people can rate their fear within the 30 to 40 range, they can be exposed to physical stimuli. It may start with holding a shark tooth or touching a dead shark at a museum, which may give way to viewing small sharks and subsequently big sharks at an aquarium. Graduation could look like a person with a shark phobia confidently going out on a friend’s boat, knowing there could be sharks below. The penultimate win, he says, would be getting a person into something like the Shaq Cage.
In the Shark Week special, O’Neal initially refuses to interact with the cartilaginous fish but is convinced by comedian Rob Riggle and a team of scientists to pet a docile nurse shark. Later, he is persuaded to swim around in an aquarium filled with ambivalent reef sharks, though he’s allowed to exit whenever he wants. In the end, O’Neal makes it into the open sea, surrounded by even more shark, in his “Shaq Cage.” That experience goes so well that the Kazam star takes it one step further: He dives out of the cage and swims among the sharks.
“Exposure therapy can really be used to help people alleviate fears like sharks because the thing that maintains a phobia is avoiding the thing that you’re afraid of,” Georgia State University psychology professor Page Anderson, Ph.D. explains to Inverse. “People with a phobia know that their fear is irrational, but knowing the fear is irrational doesn’t make it go away.”
Exposure therapy, Anderson explains, is particularly helpful in challenging people to deal with irrational thoughts. These thoughts typically hinge on a probability bias (overestimating you’ll be bit by a shark) or on a cost bias (that if you go into the ocean, you’ll die from a shark bite). To defeat these thoughts, studies demonstrate that people need to face their fears as many times as possible and in as many different ways as possible. What matters most is that the fear is faced more than once.
“If Shaq feels like he has been helped, then he should schedule a few trips to the beach in the near future,” says Anderson.