Sometimes the fear of dying can turn into an irrational fear. The notion that we will one day no longer exist can be so crippling for some people that it begins to interfere with their daily quality of life. This specific phobia has a name. This intense anxiety about dying, or about the process of dying, is known as thanatophobia, or death anxiety.
The extreme fear of dying can be debilitating for many people. While it’s normal and healthy to have some fear of death, a devastating fear that ultimately prevents you from fully engaging with your life isn’t healthy for obvious reasons. Fortunately, treating this anxiety disorder is entirely possible with the right therapy.
Symptoms of Thanatophobia
A 2018 study found that there are certain psychological factors associated with thanatophobia. It observed that thanatophobia is more common amongst patients who have:
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of Religious belief
- Health issues
- A lack of fulfillment in life
- Intimacy issues with family and friends
The study concluded that there’s a lack of uniformity across the globe when it comes to helping people manage an intense fear of dying.
Symptoms of thanatophobia can develop in both physical and emotional ways.
Physical symptoms of thanatophobia can include:
- Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
- Crying spells
Emotional symptoms of thanatophobia can include:
- Panic attacks
Someone who has thanatophobia may end up feeling isolated or alone. Additionally, thanatophobia may manifest with depression or anxiety. In that case, you may experience symptoms of those conditions as well.
What Causes Thanatophobia?
Although every case is unique, the development of thanatophobia is often triggered by a near-death experience. It can also emerge after:
- The passing of a loved one
- A sudden or unexpected loss
- As the result of a situation that brings about a loss of control
Anyone can experience thanatophobia, regardless of gender, from young adulthood onwards.
Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings says having a fear of dying and experiencing thanatophobia are actually often two different things. She notes that “some people may think that they’re experiencing thanatophobia, but in reality they’re afraid of the unknown, of leaving their family, of losing control, and of pain and illness.”
How to Cope with Thanatophobia
A helpful and empowering way to address this mental health condition directly is to educate yourself about death, dying, and the fear surrounding the end of life. You may dread your own impending death or the death of your loved ones. You can often combat either of these by learning about the topic via readings, podcasts, or videos. The more you know about the subject, the easier it is to begin to accept that death is a natural process — something that every previously living thing on earth has gone through.
One of the resources that Catchings recommends to her clients is the book The Rising Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Dr. Irvin Yalom. The book reflects on how confronting our own morality can inspire us to alter our priorities, communicate more effectively with our loved ones, and experience a deeper appreciation for the beauty of life.
“Making peace with the fact that we are going to die someday has the power to bring great meaning into our lives. Having a sense of our own mortality allows us to feel gratitude for the people and things that bring us joy. Knowing that life is limited can motivate us to take action on our goals.”
Catchings also recommends several coping strategies, in particular, living well and focusing on a healthy lifestyle.
“Living well can create less fear and anxiety because you are taking care of yourself.”
Other coping strategies for dealing with thanatophobia include:
- Eating well
- Making sleep a priority
- Spending time with loved ones
- Finding social networks
- Joining support groups
- If you’re religious, relying on your faith or church leaders
- Making room for self-care
- Practicing relaxation techniques, like guided meditation and breathing exercises
- Planning for the end of life
Some of these coping skills might not actually alleviate all of your fears, but they can help you reduce many of the physical symptoms of anxiety that you might experience due to
Planning for the end of life can be beneficial whether you’re making arrangements for yourself or your loved ones. This is yet another way to address debilitating fears, and it can ultimately be an empowering and poignant experience.
One way to plan for you or your loved ones’ end of life is to search for resources that address the topic directly. Catchings recommends a book and accompanying workbook that guides you on living with joy while preparing for the inevitable. It’s called You Only Die Once: Preparing for the End of Life with Grace and Gusto. “The information included is helpful, educational, and engaging,” she says. “Being informed and better prepared decreases our anxiety about the unknown and educates us about the dying process. As a result, we fear death less and accept it more.”
How is Thanatophobia Treated?
So how do you overcome a debilitating phobia like thanatophobia? Thanatophobia can be treated in several ways. A mental health professional might use a variety of approaches to treat someone.
Psychotherapy (talk therapy) has proven effective in treating symptoms of thanatophobia and other phobias.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that focuses on identifying negative thought patterns contributing to your extreme anxiety and phobia. You’ll then learn how to challenge those unhealthy thoughts and create new, more productive ones.
Exposure therapy is a type of CBT that offers gradual exposure to something that causes you extreme fear or discomfort in a safe space. As your exposure increases, you begin to overcome your fear.
Relaxation techniques can include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, music, and art therapy. The more you practice relaxation techniques, the more powerful they can become.
For severe cases, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication to reduce anxiety or depression. They will typically recommend you also include therapy services while taking medication to ensure the best results.
“The fear of death or dying is not uncommon. There are a lot of reasons why we might have that fear, such as concern for our loved ones who would be left behind, not being able to have new experiences or reach goals, anxiety about what might happen to our body when we die, or having uncertainties about the death process or the afterlife. Reflecting on why we fear death, and facing those fears, can be really empowering because we can then take action. Taking action might look like creating an advanced directive or putting together a bucket list of experiences that you want to have during your life.”
The fear of dying is, in many ways, fear of the unknown. It’s perfectly normal to feel fearful about facing death. However, when that fear starts to take over your life, it can have a crippling effect not only on you but on your loved ones, too.
If this specific phobia is impacting your quality of life, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional to work on reducing your symptoms and working towards a better acceptance of mortality. If you’re experiencing any extreme fears like thalassophobia, arachnophobia, or claustrophobia, then looking into online therapy might be the next step. With Talkspace, you can speak to a licensed therapist all online within the comfort of your own home.