Thanatophobia refers to an extreme, intense, and irrational fear of death or the process of dying. For people suffering from this disorder, the concern relates to either the process of dying or the actual death of ‘self’ or a loved one.
This is regarded as a phobia because the fear response causes extreme dread and terror. The person feels consumed with anxiousness and cannot function normally in daily circumstances.
Thanatophobia: definition and meaning
Thanatophobia is an excessive dread related to death. It could be fear of death of oneself or someone else. Thoughts of death cause intense fear that is crippling and frightening.
We know that phobia simply means extreme fear. In psychology, a phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It refers to excessive and unrealistic fears related to a certain object or situation. Phobias are generally very long-lasting.
Psychologists classify phobia into three types. These types are specific phobias, social phobias, and agoraphobia.
A specific phobia refers to an irrational fear of a particular object or situation. But in reality, this object or situation poses little or no actual threat.
There are many examples of specific phobias. Thanatophobia is one of them.
Many people commonly refer to thanatophobia as death anxiety. The person who has thanatophobia faces an intense fear of death or dying.
The American Psychiatric Association writes and maintains a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – edition, called the DSM-V. But they have not included thanatophobia under the category of phobias in this manual.
In spite of this, the symptoms of thanatophobia accurately fit the criteria of phobia. So, we can safely say that thanatophobia is indeed a type of phobia.
Types of Death Anxiety
American psychologist Robert Langs stated that death anxiety can be of three types. We will talk about them in detail below.
1. Predatory death anxiety
This comes from the fear of being harmed. This is the oldest and most basic type of thanatophobia.
Exposure to one or more dangerous or life-threatening situations can trigger this type of thanatophobia in humans.
2. Predator or predation death anxiety
One can easily get confused by the name and think that this is the same as the previous type. But this is quite different.
This type of thanatophobia occurs after an individual harms, attacks, or kills someone else. The guilt from their actions drives them to worry about their own death.
If the individual is religious, their faith may accelerate or worsen this.
3. Existential death anxiety
This type of thanatophobia is just an extreme case of the thought that all human life must eventually end.
We all know that humans are not mortal. It is okay to worry about what happens when you die. But when this worry reaches an extreme level, it leads to existential death anxiety.
A notable contribution of other psychologists in understanding the concept of Thanatophobia
Apart from Langs, other psychologists have also done notable work on thanatophobia. Sigmund Freud had proposed that thanatophobia may come from unresolved childhood conflicts.
Freud first used the term Thanatophobia in 1915 in his noteworthy book ‘Thoughts for the Time on War and Death’.
Freud believed that the fear of death is an unconscious fear of immortality. Humans feel that they are immortal and thus fear the unknown ending of their own life.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson coined a term called ‘ego integrity.’ He described this as the acceptance of the inevitability of life.
He stated that if an individual does not achieve ego integrity, death anxiety may occur.
So far, we have understood that thanatophobia means an extreme fear of dying.
Readers should remember that it is normal to be afraid of anything. This includes death. But when this fear becomes so intense that it affects the daily life of an individual, and then it becomes a phobia.
Let us now discuss in detail the psychological symptoms of thanatophobia.
- People who experience thanatophobia tend to be afraid of dying. Readers can easily infer that this is the most obvious symptom.
- These people also try to avoid any situation that mentions discussions about death. For example, a person suffering from thanatophobia or death anxiety may be afraid to go to a funeral of a deceased relative.
- These people may avoid any places or activities that they find threatening. For example, a patient with thanatophobia may not drive his car anymore for fear of getting into an accident and dying.
- Excessive worries about death may lead to other mental health disorders like panic disorder or anxiety disorder.
- In some cases, patients become obsessed with their own health. They repeatedly keep checking themselves for any illness. This leads to another mental health condition called hypochondriasis. Many people often use the term illness anxiety disorder to describe this condition.
Thanatophobia often leads to other mental health conditions like panic attacks or anxiety attacks. In turn, this may lead to various physical symptoms. What are these symptoms? Let us have a look below.
- Excessive sweating or hyperhidrosis
- Dizziness and light-headedness
- Chills or shivering
- Heart racing or palpitations
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Stomach upset or indigestion also called dyspepsia
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Insomnia or irregular sleep patterns.
But remember that just the presence of these symptoms does not guarantee that someone is suffering from thanatophobia.
If you have a panic attack when you face a situation that involves death, seek professional help. A qualified mental health professional can provide the required help.
We will discuss the diagnosis and treatment of thanatophobia in a later section.
Behavioral manifestations of thanatophobia
A person with a crippling fear of death may show some typical behavioral manifestations.
- Avoiding funerals or visiting the house of the deceased
- Seeks reassurance from friends and family that they are keeping in good health
- Goes for health checkups to ensure that their body parameters such as blood pressure, and glucose levels are all normal
- Avoiding TV shows that describes death incidents
- Sometimes they fear talking to others lest anyone gives them death news of someone else
- General agitated and restless mindset
- Lack of clarity in doing daily chores because the person is obsessed with thoughts of death
- Social isolation
Causes of Thanatophobia
Scientists are uncertain about exactly what causes thanatophobia. But we do know that it can occur both in children and adults. But it is less common in elderly people.
Research suggests that thanatophobia is a common phobia. According to one study, as much as 3% to 10% of people may experience it.
But most people do not tend to report it to a medical professional. This may be because of stigma. They may also be wary of being ridiculed. Sometimes they may also think that they are overreacting.
Some of the major causes contributing to the illness are as follows:
1. Traumatic life experiences
In most patients, some traumatic experience usually triggers thanatophobia symptoms. This can be a specific situation involving death, or the death of a loved one.
For example, if someone witnesses their friends and family members dying, this can leave a lasting impact on their mental health.
2. Age-related issues and thanatophobia
One study suggests that older people are less likely to fear death than younger people. Instead, older people tend to be more afraid of the process of dying.
These people have lived a long life and become old. So, they easily accept that death is a natural process.
They know that death is inevitable. But they do not want to feel pain and suffering while dying. This is why they are not afraid of death itself, but rather, the process of dying.
On the other hand, younger people have the majority of their lives yet to live. They have many ambitions and goals in life. They do not want to die before achieving these goals.
Thus, younger people may be more likely to develop thanatophobia as well.
Research studies related to age and death anxiety
According to another study, children whose parents have become old are more scared about their parents dying, than the parents themselves.
These children may also project their feelings. They claim that their parents are scared of death. But this may not be true.
In 2007, a team of researchers from the University of North Florida in the United States of America published their research on the relation of death anxiety to age and gender. They stated that death anxiety in an individual peak during the age of 20-30. Then it fades away.
But in women, death anxiety spikes for a second time in the mid-50s.
Another 2014 study by the American Psychological Association claimed that people who are more humble experience less death anxiety.
This study claimed that humble people feel less self-important. So, they can easily accept the journey of life and the inevitable death equally well.
A 2010 study found that individuals suffering from serious physical illnesses were more prone to death anxiety.
3. By observing others fearing death or the process of dying
Children or adolescents may develop thanatophobia if they see their parents always worrying about death. Some genetic factors and family history may also contribute to children inheriting it from their parents.
4. Religious beliefs
Some studies also claim that death anxiety is related to religion. Some people’s religious beliefs may cause them to be afraid of death.
They may be afraid of going to hell and being punished for their sins. This leads to a fear of death.
According to some other studies, a lack of any clear religious belief makes individuals weak. They cannot pray to any higher power when they are facing difficulties in life. This may make them afraid of death also.
Risk factors for Thanatophobia
Generally speaking, the risk factors for thanatophobia can be:
- A severe traumatic experience or accident
- Death of a family member or other close person
- Extensive discussion about death
- Age and gender
- Presence of other mental disorders like anxiety or depression
- Religious beliefs and faith
This list of risk factors is not extensive. Other causes may also lead to thanatophobia in an individual.
Before we know about the treatment of thanatophobia, we must first know how to detect it.
Unfortunately, there is no particular test to diagnose thanatophobia. When an individual feels like he or she is suffering from a medical condition, he or she should report it to a healthcare professional.
The healthcare professional usually refers the person to a psychologist, if they feel that it is a case of phobia.
The psychologist interviews the client. They ask several questions to the client. In the case of thanatophobia, these questions focus on the fear of death.
Then, the psychologist has to analyze the client’s response to those questions.
Medical professionals say that phobia has developed when the following conditions are met:
- The symptoms must last for at least six months. They can also be present for a longer period of time.
- The symptoms occur as soon as an individual experiences a traumatic event or situation. If the symptoms occur much later, then it may be a case of post-traumatic stress, not a phobia.
- Individuals are afraid of a particular thing or process. For thanatophobia, patients are afraid of death or the process of dying.
- The fear of a particular thing leads to problems in the individual’s daily life.
- Individuals go to any lengths to avoid the thing they are afraid of. For example, if an individual has thanatophobia, he or she may not want to go to funerals, even if their loved one has passed away.
Many symptoms of phobia are similar to symptoms of other mental disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Some symptoms of thanatophobia are particularly similar to panic disorder or anxiety disorders. As a matter of fact, many people also call thanatophobia death anxiety.
The psychologist should analyze the client’s answers very carefully to rule out the presence of other mental disorders. They should ensure the correct diagnosis of thanatophobia as much as possible.
After the diagnosis is completed, the doctor and patient should together decide on a treatment method. This depends on the seriousness of the phobia in the affected individual.
Generally, psychotherapy is the best long-term solution to treat thanatophobia. Many people also call this ‘talk therapy’.
This is because this therapy requires clients and clinicians to have talk sessions. During these sessions, the client discusses their problems with the therapist.
Both of them work together to resolve those unconscious issues that are causing excessive fear.
Sometimes CBT works best for treating phobia patients.
2. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective among the different types of psychotherapy.
This therapy helps individuals overcome their own negative thoughts. Changing the client’s thoughts, helps them to gradually overcome their fears.
Clinicians also sometimes use psychodynamic therapy instead of CBT in treating unconscious fears.
Remember that CBT does not provide immediate results. Instead, the affected individual achieves gradual improvement. But the result is long-lasting.
3. Exposure therapy
Some psychologists may also use exposure therapy. They mostly apply this as part of CBT. Otherwise, they may apply this as a standalone therapy as well.
In exposure therapy, the clinician gradually exposes the client to their object of fear.
Before the exposure, the psychologist teaches different relaxation techniques to the client. These include deep breathing, muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and some others.
In thanatophobia cases, psychologists may begin the exposure by discussing death with the client. They may ask the client to read obituaries from the newspaper.
Then, they gradually increase the level of exposure. In the final stage, they may ask the client to attend a funeral or visit a morgue.
In severe cases, doctors suggest medication. These medications cannot treat the root cause of the phobia. Thus, they are not a permanent solution. But they help the client deal with difficult symptoms.
Examples of these medications can be benzodiazepines, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or beta-blockers.
Remember that you should never take any medication without consulting with your doctor. Medications have side effects and should never be taken without medical approval from a certified psychiatrist.
5. Other treatment options
Many modern researchers also suggest hypnotherapy and homeopathy as potential ways to treat phobia. But they lack strong evidence to support their ideas.
Sometimes patients benefit from engaging with a support group of similar sufferers. Sharing coping styles with others helps in faster recovery.
Impact of thanatophobia
Thanatophobia can have a serious impact on an individual’s daily life.
Being afraid of death is not uncommon. But when this fear is so extreme that it impacts an individual’s normal functioning, it becomes a phobia.
- Having thanatophobia makes it difficult for an affected individual to function normally in their home, school, or workplace.
- They keep worrying about death or dying all the time. They may avoid interaction with other people in case the topic of death comes up in conversations.
- In some cases, the thought of death leads to physical symptoms like shortness of breath, heart palpitations, etc. We have discussed these symptoms in a previous section.
- In their daily lives, they may avoid potentially threatening situations, even if it causes difficulty.
Consider this example. Suppose it takes a man 30 minutes to travel from his home to his office on a straight road. But what if there is a new graveyard constructed on that route?
To avoid going past that graveyard, the man would take a new route to go to work. This may take him more than an hour and cost him more money. But he still keeps doing this to avoid seeing the graveyard.
Other mental health issues related to thanatophobia
Thanatophobia may lead to the development of other phobias in some individuals. This is because their fear of death leads them to excessively worry about the different processes or ways of dying. These may include
- Claustrophobia or the fear of confined places
- Aerophobia or the fear of flying
- Arachnophobia or the fear of spiders
- Necrophobia or the fear of dead bodies (we will discuss this in detail in the next section)
- Aquaphobia or the fear of water (readers should not confuse this with hydrophobia; hydrophobia occurs as a result of a rabies infection, which may be due to biting by a dog, fox, bat, raccoon, or other similar animals)
- Agoraphobia or the fear of not being able to escape from an unfamiliar place.
Readers need to be aware that this is not a complete list. Thanatophobia can lead to other uncomfortable situations as well such as fear of accidents, getting hurt, etc. They avoid threatening places, and never enjoy the adventure in their daily life.
Death anxiety in children
The fear of death is not uncommon in children as you may think. Children are immature tender souls. For them, the mere thought of death is scary because they do not know what it is, how it happens, and where do the departed souls go after death.
Thus, they have many unanswered questions in their mind. This leads to more fear in return.
The chief signs are:
- Fear of dying themselves
- Death of parents and grandparents
- Death of the family pet
- Avoiding discussions about death
- Intense anxiety if seeing a dead body on television or in reality
- Avoids visiting houses where someone has passed away
- Fear of separation from parents who are viewed as a source of safety and security
How can parents help?
If your child is suffering from death anxiety or Thanatophobia, do not leave the issue to become bigger in course of time. Rather think of good ways to help your child in the most sensitive, honest, and healthy way.
- Talk about death in an honest way. Let them understand that death is a natural process of the life cycle.
- Keep them busy with pleasurable activities so that their mind becomes more creative. In this way, rumination and irrational thinking will not surface in their consciousness.
- Listen to your child about what is bothering them. Communicate as much as you can.
- Never judge their feelings.
- Reassure them that you will always support them whenever they need you.
- Keep yourself calm and try to eliminate if you are carrying an extra load of fear in you. Remember that children model their parent’s behavior as well.
- Keep your discussions short and age-appropriate.
- Children who fear death are emotionally sensitive. Thus, use your words carefully.
- Seek help from a professional child psychologist if you feel their symptoms are getting worse over a period of time.
Necrophobia vs. Thanatophobia
Many people commonly get confused between thanatophobia and Necrophobia. The reason for this is that both are associated with death.
But, if we look closely, thanatophobia is quite different from Necrophobia.
Look at the table below to see the differences between the two.
|Thanatophobia is the fear of death itself or the process of dying.||Necrophobia is the fear of dead bodies or corpses.|
|The word ‘Thanatophobia’ originates from the Greek words Thanatos meaning ‘death’, and Phobos meaning ‘fear’.||The word ‘Necrophobia’ derives from the Greek words nekros meaning ‘dead body, and Phobos meaning ‘fear’.|
|Thanatophobia may occur from a traumatic experience involving death, or from genetic factors. It may also develop in children if they see their parents being afraid of death.||Necrophobia can also arise after an individual’s traumatic experience involving death, from genetic factors, or by observing parents in the case of children. Additionally, many cultural beliefs and stories which entertain the idea of spirits or ghosts can lead to Necrophobia.|
|Thanatophobia can occur in both children in adults. Studies have found that old people are more afraid of the process of dying, not death itself. Instead, younger people are more afraid of death as they do not want to die early.||Necrophobia has no correlation with age. It can occur in people of all age groups. Some studies suggest that young children who listen to or read about ghost stories may be more prone to developing Necrophobia.|
|According to some studies, the risk factor for thanatophobia is at its peak in the mid-20s for both men and women. However, in the case of women, there is a second spike in the risk during the age of 50s.||there is no evidence found that suggests y relationship between Necrophobia and an individual’s gender. This condition can happen to both sexes and in any age group.|
|Thanatophobia can lead to the development of other phobias like agoraphobia, arachnophobia, claustrophobia, etc. This is because individuals may be afraid of the way they are going to die.||Necrophobia generally does not cause any further phobias.|
How to get rid of Thanatophobia? (Self-help tips)
Getting rid of any phobia is not easy. But the following tips may help you manage your symptoms well.
- Practice slow and controlled breathing techniques. This can help during panic attacks or anxiety attacks.
- Remember to exercise regularly. If your physical health is in a good condition, you may be less affected by physical symptoms like nausea or heart palpitations.
- Practice mindfulness techniques.
- Try to get into a healthy sleep cycle. Go to bed early, and at the same time every day. This keeps the body’s biological clock running smoothly. It also helps to maintain a regular sleep pattern and ensures sufficient sleep.
- Avoid intake of food, drinks, or other substances which can cause anxiety. This includes alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco.
- Practice hobbies that help to keep your mind diverted from topics of death.
- Share your fears with friends and family. Remember that they may not be able to help solve your problems. But sharing your thoughts can make you feel better.
At any point in time, if you feel like your symptoms overwhelm you; please consult your doctor or healthcare provider.
Does death anxiety go away?
Death anxiety or thanatophobia is a treatable condition. Just like any other specific phobia, this condition should be treated early for complete recovery.
Summing Up from ‘ThePleasantMind’
Being afraid of death or the process of dying is quite normal. We often ponder the question of what will happen after death, and we worry about it.
But when this fear leads to difficulties in an individual’s daily life, it becomes a case of thanatophobia.
If you feel like you are facing any of the symptoms that we have mentioned in this article, do not hesitate to contact a healthcare professional.
They can correctly diagnose your condition and provide you with the treatment necessary to overcome thanatophobia.
Are you interested to know more about ‘Androphobia’ then click here?
A Psychologist with a master's degree in Psychology, a former school psychologist, and a teacher by profession Chandrani loves to live life simply and happily. She is an avid reader and a keen observer. Writing has always been a passion for her, since her school days. It helps to de-stress and keeps her mentally agile. Pursuing a career in writing was a chance occurrence when she started to pen down her thoughts and experiences for a few childcare and parenting websites. Her lovable niche includes mental health, parenting, childcare, and self-improvement. She is here to share her thoughts and experiences and enrich the lives of few if not many.