Everybody worries about death and dying at one point in their lives. After all, it’s natural to feel some dread towards the fact that one day we will die and leave our loved ones behind. However, when this worry turns into an intense fear and begins to affect how you live, then you might have thanatophobia or fear of death.
What is fear of death?
Thanatophobia refers to the intense fear of death or dying. Unlike other phobias, it is quite complex in that the fear is rooted in a number of things like being dead, the process of dying or leaving family and friends behind when you die. Moreover, thanatophobia can also be caused by other fears like:
Fear of losing control: It is natural for humans to fear what they don’t know. This fear can carry over to how they feel about death since nobody who is alive knows for certain what comes after a person has died.
Fear of poor health: Some people with thanatophobia are more terrified of what comes before their death. They could be afraid of a specific illness, pain, and may even fear what they perceive to be the loss of dignity that comes when one suffers from a crippling disease.
Fear of the unknown or Xenophobia: There are also people who fear death simply because they don’t know what comes after the fact. It is part of our nature as humans to seek understanding of everything that surrounds us and to fear what we don’t know. For some people, not knowing for certain what comes after we die can be terrifying.
To be clear, thanatophobia is different from necrophobia which is the fear of the dead, dying things, or anything related to death.
Symptoms of thanatophobia
Regardless of the exact reasons for someone’s fear of death, a person with thanatophobia will experience increased dread over thoughts of dying. At its worst, a person may even refuse to leave their home in fear of dying or more specifically, encountering situations that may result in death.
Thanatophobia also shares plenty of physical symptoms with general anxiety including:
- Panic attacks
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
Is death anxiety common?
Fear of or anxiety over death and dying is natural and pretty common. Everybody has feared death to a certain extent. For some people, the fear can even push them towards living healthier or becoming more hygienic. Fear of death only becomes a problem when it begins to interfere with your life and wellbeing.
Thanatophobia risk factors
According to a 2017 survey by Chapman University, up to 20.3% of Americans are afraid or extremely afraid of dying. The UK shares similar figures in regards to the prevalence of fear of dying, approximately 20%. Although death anxiety is common, certain demographics are more prone to developing the phobia. These include:
Young people. A study in 2007 revealed that death anxiety peaks for both men and women during their 20’s and declines as they age.
Women in their 50’s. The same study showed that women in their 50’s often experience a resurgence of their fear of death. Men however, do not.
People with health issues. People who struggle with their health, geriatrics in particular, also have a deeper fear of death.
Children of aging parents. While the elderly tend to be anxious about the process of dying, it is actually their children that fear actual death (theirs and their parents) more. The study also suggests that the children project their own fear of death on their parents.
Fear of death in children
Some children may become afraid of death and this is considered to be normal childhood fear up to the age of 16. Although it may be distressing for the parents to deal with a child who is afraid of dying, it is not always considered a mental health emergency. Nevertheless, if a child displays multiple symptoms of extreme anxiety due to thoughts of dying or anything else, a mental health professional must be consulted to assess the situation.
It’s important to remember that children grapple with the idea of death in a different manner than adults. To begin with, children lack life experiences, religious beliefs, and defense mechanisms to face the concept of death.
Does death anxiety go away?
The good news is fear of death fades as a person ages. Men who experienced thanatophobia in their 20’s usually overcome their fear and are less likely to feel dread towards the subject later on. Women on the other hand, have a higher chance of experiencing a re-emergence of the problem in their 50’s. To date, there are no conclusive studies as to why this is the case.
A psychosocial theory by Erik Erikson explains that people go through several stages of crises as they get older. In the later stages of life and after going through many experiences, a person may develop ‘ego integrity’. This refers to an individual learning to accept death as a natural part of life. He also suggests that people who have achieved ego integrity have found meaning or purpose in their lives.
Inversely, people who feel like their life is a series of misfortunes and failures do not attain this integrity and acceptance of death that comes with it, thus they fear dying more.
Fear of death and depression
Thanatophobia is often linked to depression and a host of other disorders like panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and hypochondria among others. Managing death anxiety or fear of dying may require a person to address and treat their depression. A person who has a strong sense of self worth or holds the belief that they are leading a meaningful life is less likely to develop thanatophobia.
The reverse can also be true in that thanatophobia may result in depression. This can happen especially if the affected individual has started isolating themself from family and society. It is important for a person with death anxiety to seek professional help if they are worried that their condition is getting worse. Early intervention can prevent the problem from compounding.
Fear of death and anxiety
Because thanatophobia isn’t recognized as a specific disorder, it is clustered with phobia and anxiety (thus the term death anxiety) and is diagnosed as either. For fear of death to be classified as a phobia, the individual must experience key symptoms:
- The condition has persisted for 6 months or more
- The fear has started to affect personal relationships and daily routines
- The thought of death or dying induces extreme fear or anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Avoidance of topic even when it is necessary
As evidenced by the list above, thanatophobia shares similar symptoms with anxiety which is why it is often treated in the same way general anxiety is addressed.
Fear of death therapy
Treatments for thanatophobia aren’t much different from treatment for anxieties and phobias. Talking therapies, behaviour therapies, and medication can help a person overcome their death anxiety. Some of the common therapies for fear of death include:
Psychotherapy: Talking about your thoughts, feelings, and fears with a mental health professional can help you get to the root cause of the phobia. A psychotherapist is trained to guide you in unpacking thought patterns and recognizing the emotional responses that come after them. Medication for anxiety such as benzodiazapine and SSRIs may also be used in conjunction with talking therapy.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT): CBT can be thought of as a way to rewire the brain. In this type of behaviour therapy, the person will understand how their thoughts lead to feelings of extreme anxiety or fear. From there, the therapist will teach the patient how to challenge these thoughts so they can eventually eliminate their extreme reaction to it.
CBT for thanatophobia can look different for every individual but it will be focused on addressing the anxiety caused by thoughts of death and dying.
Relaxation techniques: Learning mindfulness, meditation, and breathing techniques can be effective in managing the physical symptoms of death anxiety. These are also helpful in increasing a person’s well-being which is key in treating anxiety.
A note on religion and fear of death
Religion has a rather huge impact on how a person views death. However, it is worth noting that support from religion to help a person accept death may not always yield the desired outcome. While religious beliefs can offer peace or some form of answer for a person’s fear of the unknown, the idea of salvation can sometimes induce more fear in an individual instead of relief.
A therapist who is treating a patient with thanatophobia that is rooted in religion may advise the individual to seek a separate counseling with the religious organization that they belong to address specific concerns.
Last updated on: 2022.03.07
Author: Monica Macaraeg