Understanding Thanatophobia, Also Known As Death Anxiety

Updated

Western societies have bred a fear of death for many years. It can be taboo to talk about what death can be like, as well as being able to understand and accept it. With the advent of the death positive movement, things are changing as people seek to understand the end of life.

People who feel as if they've lived a full life and have accomplished the things they've set out to do for themselves, accept death and are less likely to fear it.

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These are usually people who are in overall good health, and those with high self-esteem who are open to talking about death. This group makes up part of the death positive movement gaining momentum in American society. Death positivity focuses on encouraging people to talk openly about death, dying, and what happens after we die.

But there are also people who may not be able to address death with positivity. They may have a very intense fear, verging on becoming a psychological condition that can affect their daily lives, like a phobia. Which is how the term “thanatophobia” was created.

What is Thanatophobia? 

Thanatophobia is an extreme or irrational fear of death or the process of dying. It’s a psychological condition attributed to anxiety and depressive disorder. In the most basic terms, thanatophobia amounts to the fear of the unknown.

It's very normal in our society to feel some anxiety about death or dying. This is typical where death is not talked about, or where people aren't educated on the topic. 

Examples of thanatophobia

People can exhibit a fear of death and dying in many ways. You might have a full-on panic attack at the thought of entering a hospital. You might refuse to attend funerals. Or, you might avoid the topic when a loved one is dying. These are some of the more common ways that people allow their fear to come through.  

Sometimes people avoid visiting their friends and relatives who are ill or dying because the thought of death alone causes them great anxiety. In contrast, you may be fully aware that human life ends at some given point, and this may be the very thing that causes you fear. Some other ways that people exhibit a fear of death are:

  • Fear of others who are dead or dying
  • Fear of entering funeral homes
  • The thought of death
  • Fear of being harmed
  • Knowledge of the human life cycle
  • Fear of their own death
  • General anxiety lasting all day long
  • Constantly worrying about everything that could go wrong
  • Fears about their own health
  • Fears about their loved one's health
  • Looking to the past to gauge the future

Why Do People Have Death Anxiety? 

Death anxiety is triggered in different ways for different people. It’s not the same for everyone. Uncontrolled and racing thoughts are the main culprits for the onset of this form of anxiety. Some of these fears follow you from childhood and other instances of past traumas.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) also may cause an irrational fear of death. The following are some examples that can cause someone to have death anxiety.

Near-death experience

When you've suffered a traumatic event such as a near-death experience (NDE), you’re more likely to develop death anxiety. The reality of dying and facing your own mortality sets in now that you’ve experienced a very close call with death. You might begin obsessing over when it will happen next, and if the next time will be when you finally die.

Some people lose the fear of death after experiencing an NDE because they have the ability to anticipate what comes next when they die. 

Illness leading to death

If you are suffering a chronic or long-term illness, the fear of dying has had time to develop as you contemplate what happens next. You may be considering if there is an afterlife, or if there is a heaven and hell.

If you have a spiritual and religious background, it can come into play as you prepare to face your own death. The stronger your faith or your belief in God is, the less likely you are to develop this fear when faced with illness. Spiritual texts can prepare you for what comes next, and it’s then a matter of what your beliefs are, and what you accept as being true for the afterlife. 

Automobile accidents

When you have experienced being in a car accident, the fear of death may be triggered by it regardless if the accident was a minor one with no injuries or a major one with life-threatening ones.

The possibility of death or the thought of “I could’ve died” is what causes that fear to set in — not necessarily the severity of the accident. It may take months for you to finally feel safe getting behind the wheel again or riding in an automobile after an accident. 

Aging

Getting older and facing the end of your life span can create a lot of panic and fear in you about dying. Science tells us that the human body is only built to last a certain number of years. Mentally, most of us take that age range and place ourselves toward the end of that lifespan curve. Lots of us rarely stop to contemplate that we may die before reaching the “end” of that span.

As we look in the mirror and see our aging image staring back at us, or when we see our children and grandchildren reaching an age of maturity, the reality that we are getting “old” sets in. This might send you into panic mode as the end of the scale gets closer to our current age. 

Exposure to death

Being exposed to death on a regular basis can trigger death anxiety. People who work as EMTs, police officers, and in the healthcare industries are constantly around those who are dead or dying.

Some natural reactions may be to accept that dying is a part of life, to develop a sometimes irrational fear of death, or to become unfazed by it. Again, it all depends on the person who is being affected. 

Skirting around the topic

The more you ignore death, or choose to call it anything other than what it is, the more likely you are to develop an unhealthy fear of it. When you use euphemisms for death when talking about it, you aren’t being open and direct about what it is. You may have been brought up by parents who spoke in code when the children were around, or who couldn’t themselves accept that death is a natural part of life.

Regardless of how your family talked about death, using flowery language to mask the truth may contribute to fearing it later in life.

Pandemics like COVID-19

National and global pandemics also create a lot of fear in people. The fear of germs or “catching” whatever disease is plaguing the world becomes very real as you obsess over the negative news reports.

Constant updates with the latest facts and figures, death rates, and the number of people who have been affected in your immediate area and worldwide contribute to this anxiety. You may start to think that the moment you walk out the door or touch a “contaminated” surface, the germs are going to get you.

This way of living in constant fear of death is unhealthy for you and may cause you to go into a panic attack whenever you go out and face the world around you. 

Can People Overcome Thanatophobia?

Thanatophobia is linked to depression and other anxiety disorders. It’s not a disorder that falls within its own category. However, because it’s considered a medical condition, there are diagnoses and treatments available to both categorize and lessen its effects.

Like any other anxiety disorder, it can be overcome with a carefully outlined treatment plan. While there is no cure for this type of fear, both natural and pharmaceutical treatments are available to lessen its overall effect. Death anxiety can last longer than six months when treated, and a lifetime if left untreated. 

There are many choices now in caring for those who suffer from this disorder. Because it’s categorized as such, treatments can include cognitive-behavioral therapy (talk therapy), anti-anxiety and depression medication, and self-care techniques such as meditation and relaxation.

A combination of these treatments or remedies can be used to reach an overall healing for people suffering from this. If you’re also experiencing depression caused by the fear of dying, ask your therapist if antidepressant medications are right for you.

Some ways in which you can take control over your fear of death are to:

  • Do some death planning
    • Have a will drawn up
    • Assign a healthcare proxy
    • Endorse a living will and healthcare directive
    • Pre-pay for your burial and/or cremation and funeral services
  • Have a financial plan in place
    • Set aside sufficient money to cover your expenses if you should face a long-term illness
  • Practice your spirituality
    • Attend religious services
    • Read spiritual texts
    • Discuss the afterlife
  • Keep your mind and body healthy
    • Meditate
    • Exercise 
    • Eat balanced and nutritious meals

Or course, your course of action will change depending on your circumstance. Please consult with a professional before you start changing your routine.

When Should People Seek Help For Thanatophobia?

Death anxiety tends to peak for both men and women when they're in their twenties, with women experiencing a second wave in their fifties. Encountering a fear of death is a normal part of life. There are many triggering events that can cause individuals to have a fear of dying.

A younger person may associate their fears with worrying about their future or the future of a sick or aging loved one. This fear begins to naturally subside as a person gets older and becomes more mature and experienced in life. 

There's generally no great concern when experiencing symptoms of death anxiety as they tend to resolve on their own. However, when that fear becomes debilitating, making it difficult to function in everyday life, it may be a good time to seek therapy to help ease the symptoms and effects of your worries.

A grief counselor or behavioral therapist can help you learn ways of coping with your fears by showing you healthy ways of redirecting your feelings when they're too overwhelming to handle on your own.

If the fear of death is stopping you from living, you can begin some at-home self-care routines to help ease your worries and anxieties. Taking time out to meditate, listen to calming and soothing music, or going out for a walk are all great ways to help you calm your fears. Breathing exercises are also very effective in redirecting your thoughts from the fear of dying to something more soothing. 

Death anxiety can be a perfectly normal part of life, with no need to resort to outside intervention. But, when nightmares are keeping you up at night, you have full-blown panic attacks, or you're afraid to step out the door for fear of facing certain death, a trained professional can help. 

How to Get Help With Thanatophobia

Getting help with your fear of death is relatively straightforward. There are many different avenues to pursue when reaching out for help. You can try at-home therapies, or the more traditional methods such as seeking the use of a psychologist, grief counselor, or therapist.

Then there are the more modern approaches to overcoming death anxiety, such as participating in death cafes where groups of people sit together talking about death and dying while sipping on coffee. 

Other methods may include taking part in the death awareness movement and attending conferences related to discussions about dying. Some of the more popular events are those put together by the death positive movement organization known as The Order of the Good Death. The following suggestions may help you narrow down the choices to what suits your needs best.

At-home therapies 

If you are already prone to suffering from stress and anxiety, you're more likely to develop death anxiety. Thoughts about death and dying are often linked to an obsessive-compulsive disorder where you obsessively think about how things can go wrong. Death anxiety is exhibited by frequent and obsessive hand-washing, obsessively going over disaster plans, or checking in on the children several times during the night to make sure they're breathing.

You can help control these fears within you at home by going over the things that cause you anxiety. Try calming exercises to ease your worries, educate yourself on the process of death, or seek the support of others to help you understand your fears. 

Counseling or medical intervention

Deciding to seek professional help to overcome your fear of death is sometimes one of the last resort for people who have thanatophobia. Although having a fear of death isn’t a clinically recognized condition, the medical community still distinguishes the extreme thoughts, behaviors, and reactions to the fear of dying as those needing special care and attention. 

A medical doctor may diagnose your worries as a general anxiety condition stemming from a broader anxiety disorder. They may refer you to a psychologist, mental health therapist, or psychiatrist for further evaluation and treatment. 

Participation in death cafes

The popularity of death cafes and death salons where people gather to talk about death and dying openly has seen an uptick in the past few years. The topics surrounding aging, illness, death, and dying are slowly becoming less taboo in our society. Advocates for promoting death awareness are growing in numbers across the country, thanks, in part, to the organizers of the death positivity movement.

Now more and more people are joining in these discussions to help them learn about what to expect when nearing death, the dying process, and what happens after death. Individuals of all ages are finding comfort in joining these conversations and learning about death. You can find out about events in your area by doing an online search on death cafes or death salons.

Understanding Death Anxiety 

The more you learn about death and the dying process, the less anxious you can feel when confronted with it. Some people, more than others, may develop this irrational fear of death. If you suffer from this disorder, you can lessen the effects of it by reading books, articles, and blogs to educate yourself on what happens when you die.

Birth is a big moment in life, and so is death. These both require education to address them fully and to accept any changes that can come our way.

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