Understanding prolonged, excessive fear of death
Thanatophobia is a persistent and irrational fear of death or dying. The fear may focus on your own death or the death of a loved one. In extreme cases, these thoughts may be so terrifying that you end up isolating yourself completely, avoiding leaving the house in case something terrible happens.
In the Greek language, the word “Thanatos” refers to death and “phobos” means fear. Thus, thanatophobia translates to the fear of death.
Many of us will feel scared of death and dying at some point in our lives. If you have a phobia of death or dying that is persistent and longstanding, causes you distress or anxiety, and is so extreme that it interferes with your daily life, you may be suffering from thanatophobia.
This article takes a close look at thanatophobia, or death anxiety, to explore the symptoms, causes, and treatments for this phobia.
While thanatophobia is not specifically listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), there are symptoms of a specific phobia that could be applied in assessing whether someone has a typical fear of death or something more.
- Unreasonable, excessive fear:The person exhibits excessive or unreasonable, persistent, and intense fear triggered by a specific object or situation.
- Avoidance of situations in which thinking about death or dying may be necessary: In severe cases, this can lead to the person avoiding leaving home altogether.
- Life-limiting:The phobia significantly impacts the individual’s work, school, or personal life.
- Duration:The duration of symptoms must last for at least six months.
The panic you experience with thanatophobia is often attributed to general anxiety, which could produce the following physical symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heart
Death Anxiety in Children
A child’s fear of death may be a healthy part of normal development. Children generally lack the defense mechanisms and understanding of death that help adults cope. Whether the fear qualifies as a phobia depends on its severity and the length of time it has been present.
Thanatophobia isn’t a clinically recognized condition, so there is no specific test healthcare providers can use to diagnose this phobia. But a list of your symptoms, the length of time you’ve been experiencing the fears, and their severity will give healthcare providers a greater understanding of what’s going on.
It is important that thanatophobia is diagnosed by a trained mental health professional. They will try to determine whether the fear is part of a specific phobia, an anxiety condition, or a related mental health disorder
Thanatophobia may be linked to:
- Specific phobias: Death anxiety is associated with a range of specific phobias. The most common objects of phobias are things that can cause harm or death, including flying, heights, animals, and blood.
- Panic disorders: During a panic attack, people may feel a fear of dying or impending doom.
- Illness anxiety disorders: Death anxiety may be linked to illness anxiety disorders, once known as hypochondriasis. Here, a person has intense fear associated with becoming ill and excessively worries about their health.
A 2019 study linked death anxiety to more severe symptoms across 12 different mental disorders.
The exact cause of thanatophobia is unclear. However, the condition is a specific phobia with a focus on previous experiences with death.
Some of the risk factors that expose people to a higher risk of thanatophobia include:
- Age: Studies found death anxiety peaked in people during their 20s and declined significantly thereafter.
- Sex: Although men and women both experience death anxiety, women experience a secondary spike of thanatophobia in their 50s.
- Parents nearing the end of life: Children of elderly or sick parents are more likely to fear death. They’re also more likely to say their parents are afraid of dying because of their own feelings.
- Personality and temperamental factors like being prone to anxiety may increase your risk of death anxiety.
- Personal health: People with chronic illnesses are more at risk of developing an extreme fear of death.
- Traumatic event: Those who have experienced death-related, traumatic events are more likely to develop death anxiety.
Medical literature on death anxiety is limited and often conflicting, but one study found that fear of death is uncommon in people with:
- High self-esteem
- Religious beliefs
- Good health
- A sense of fulfillment in life
- Intimacy with family and friends
- A fighting spirit
Your healthcare provider may recommend that you receive treatment for an anxiety disorder, phobia, or for a specific underlying cause of your fear of death.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for many anxiety conditions and for symptoms of thanatophobia. During a course of CBT, you and your therapist will work together to determine the cause of your anxiety and focus on creating practical solutions to problems.
The goal is to eventually change your pattern of thinking and put your mind at ease when you face talk of death or dying.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to reduce anxiety and feelings of panic that are common with phobias. Medication is rarely a long-term solution, however. It may be used for a short period of time in combination with therapy.
Social networks and support groups may help you to deal with death anxiety. Some people may come to terms with feelings of death through religious beliefs, though for some, religion increases feelings of death anxiety.
Self-help techniques include activities that help you feel calmer and more relaxed, such as breathing exercises and guided meditations, as well as other activities that help you improve your overall mental health, such as eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, and regular exercise.
They may not help you overcome your fears in the long term but can help you to reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety you are experiencing and feel better able to cope.
Frequently Asked Questions
How common is thanatophobia?
Everyone will experience a fear of dying at some point in their lives. If you find yourself worrying about death a lot, the first thing to do is to remind yourself that you’re not alone. But if this fear is persistent and is impacting your daily life, seek medical help.
Death anxiety peaks for people in their 20s and seems to get better with age.
Why can’t I stop thinking about death?
Anyone can experience obsessive thoughts about death or dying, and unfortunately they can worsen when a triggering situation arises or can even appear suddenly. While there are many strategies you can try on your own, if you continue to experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts about death, it’s best to reach out to a mental health professional for help.
How do I talk to someone about my fear of dying?
It can be daunting to seek help for death anxiety, but asking for help and learning how to handle these fears in a healthy way can help you manage your condition. It can also keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
A therapist will work with you to examine your thoughts and behaviors and improve how you feel. Your therapist will also give you the tools to help you open up to loved ones about your fears.
Is necrophobia the same as thanatophobia?
Necrophobia is different from thanatophobia. Necrophobia refers to an intense, often irrational, fear people exhibit when confronted with dead “things,” such as the remains of a deceased human being or an animal, or an object typically associated with death, such as a casket, cemetery, funeral home, or tombstone.
A Word From Verywell
Worrying about your own death, or the death of a loved one, is normal but can be distressing and concerning when the feelings linger. If the worry turns to panic or feels too extreme to handle on your own, seek help.
If your worries about death are related to a recent diagnosis or the illness of a friend or family member, talking with someone can be helpful.
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