Thanatophobia: The One Fear Everyone Has
What is Thanatophobia?
There is really only one certain thing about life, and that is that it ends. However, constantly keeping this thought in mind can stop you from actually living life! The extreme and often irrational thought or fear of death is known as thanatophobia. The word thanatophobia is derived from the Greek god of death, who was called Thanatos. It is also commonly referred to as “death anxiety.” For anyone who has seen the Final Destination film series, this concept is already familiar. In the first one, the main character shut himself up in a remote cabin, completely isolated, bundled up and fearing for his life.
Though that is an intense dramatization, for many people the fear of death does carry similar consequences. A sufferer of thanatophobia can refuse to leave his/her house, drive, fly, or any number of other daily activities that could be seen as (irrationally) dangerous or potentially life-threatening. Even though thanatophobia is not on its own a distinct clinical disorder, this phobia can occur simultaneously with other phobias or psychological or behavioral issues. If left untreated, the phobia may get much worse, so it is important to seek professional help.
Freud was the first to theorize about thanatophobia and said that death anxiety was the representation of unresolved conflicts from childhood, and humans are unable to accept their own mortality. Another theory that has been widely researched is the Terror Management Theory, which states that people have the essential will to live life fully, but are constantly aware that death is inevitable. People then try to manage this conflict by seeking meaning in their life, with personal goals and fulfillment. However, a person with a lower tolerance, lower self-esteem, and lessened management of this internal conflict will experience greater anxiety about death.
Author Stanley Hall established that children are born with no fear of death, just like animals, but with child development, the consciousness of dying becomes more and more viable.
Causes of Thanatophobia
Many people are afraid of dying, because of the unknown question that every human is faced with: what happens after you die, and what is dying actually like? We may never be able to know the answer until we actually die, and these thoughts can lead to severe anxiety symptoms at just the mere thought of death. But like all phobias, there are a number of contributors to the development of thanatophobia:
A traumatic experience – A near death experience can bring the fear of death to the forefront of your mind. This could be a severe accident, a serious illness, a violent attack, or even a natural disaster. The loss of a loved one could also trigger the symptoms of thanatophobia, or if someone close to them has a near death experience.
Constantly being surrounded by death – Similarly, emergency room nurses and doctors who are often surrounded by death and dying are constantly reminded of their own mortality and are at risk of developing death anxiety.
Religion – Religion tries to give a reason and explanation of death. Most religions believe that salvation in the afterlife only comes from following strict rules and any deviations will lead to condemnation. However, when someone is questioning their faith, their confusion can intensify the fear of being wrong about the afterlife.
Fear of the unknown – Similarly, a deep fear and confusion of not knowing what happens after death will contribute to thanatophobia. This fear of death mostly affects those who are highly intelligent or questioning their beliefs, philosophical or theological.
Fear of loss of control – Everyone wants to feel like they are in control of their own destiny. However, as of now, there is no possible way that you can completely prevent death. The thought of not being in control is enough for some people to onset the symptoms of thanatophobia.
Fear of ghosts – For those whose thanatophobia is rooted in religious beliefs, the fear of being stuck on earth as a ghost can be terrifying, and control your life and actions if you try to prevent that outcome by any means possible.
Other related fears – People that fear death often also extend that fear to anything that can remind them of death. This could include funeral homes, burials, tombstones, ghosts, skeletons or skulls, or any other symbol of death.
Symptoms of Thanatophobia
Symptoms of thanatophobia can be brought on by just the thought of death, and are comparable to symptoms of extreme anxiety. This can include physical symptoms like dizziness, nausea, sweating, palpitations, chest pain, or stomach pain. There can also be mental symptoms, which can be constant thoughts of death or dying, uncontrollable reactions, repetition of gory or distressing thoughts about dying loss of control, or even delusions, and the inability to tell reality from fantasy. Emotional symptoms involve the sufferer constantly worrying about the prospect of death, a strong desire to flee the situation that reminded them of death, anger, guilt, and extreme avoidance of anything that reminds them of death or dying. All of these symptoms are similar to anxiety symptoms.
Since there are so many causes and possible complications of thanatophobia, it is important to consult a mental health professional. Depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD can often be mistaken for, or be happening concurrently. Other conditions that could be related to thanatophobia include Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, psychotic episode, epilepsy, or strokes. Since thanatophobia is not on its own a clinical diagnosis, the sufferer will need to discuss with their mental health practitioner if their symptoms are interfering with their daily life. Your doctor will be able to discuss any possible related symptoms and disorders to prescribe the best possible course of treatment.
Like other phobias, the most widely used and effective treatment for Thanatophobia is cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is aimed at understanding the underlying thoughts that are the basis of the person’s fear of death and changing those thoughts to be more realistic and positive so that the person is able to function in their everyday life without the constant fear of death. Religious counseling could also be helpful if the fear is rooted in their religious beliefs. Relaxation techniques can be useful to employ during a phobic episode, which could look like a panic attack. Medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications may also be prescribed, especially if the phobia is occurring with those emotional disorders. With thanatophobia, peer groups can be particularly helpful, where you can discuss feelings about death, and coping processes that have helped others.
The main point is not to lose hope and seek treatment if you think you are suffering from thanatophobia. The fear of death or dying can be a persistent struggle, and can constantly be in the back of your mind, but there is always help available from mental health professionals, and peers.
Do you have any questions? Leave me a comment below!
Brady, M. Death anxiety among emergency care workers. Emergency Nurse. 2015; 23, 4, 32-37.
Dadfar M, Lester D, Bahrami F. Death Anxiety, Reliability, Validity, and Factorial Structure of the Farsi Form of the Arabic Scale of Death Anxiety in Iranian Old-Aged Persons. Journal of Aging Research. 2016;2016:2906857. doi:10.1155/2016/2906857.
HealthyChildren.org: Understanding Childhood Fears and Anxiety. 2015.
Milosevic, I., McCabe, RE. Phobias: The Psychology of Irrational Fear. 2015. ABC-CLIO.
Elsie is a public health professional working in education and research. She is a lifelong learner, and is especially interested in mental and behavioral health. She loves travelling and spending time with her dog.