Thanatophobia: What is Death Anxiety and How to Overcome It

Amber Murphy

Most of us probably don’t like to talk about death. Although we all know that death is inevitable, there can be a great deal of fear and anxiety surrounding this topic. Even hearing the word may make us feel uncomfortable. You may even want to try and avoid thinking about death. However, trying to avoid the topic of death can affect your mental and physical health. In this article, we’ll take a look at what thanatophobia is all about and how to cope with death anxiety if you’re experiencing it right now.

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What is thanatophobia?

Thanatophobia is the fear of death. We may experience it after a near-death experience or when diagnosed with a terminal illness like cancer. Death anxiety is a phrase used to describe the feeling that people experience when they become aware of death. What’s interesting is that death anxiety may be a significant feature in any number of anxiety-related disorders.

Even though we all know that we’re all going to die one day, death anxiety still scares us. We want to be alive as long as possible to enjoy everything we have in this world. And to be close to our family and friends for as long as we can. We want to take a deep breath in while standing outside on an autumn day. Dreaming of vacations, paid off mortgages, and retired life where we don’t slave away at work anymore are all things we want to experience. Unfortunately, we aren’t all so lucky. And it sucks.

Death anxiety is normal. Having a fear of the unknown is certainly a legitimate concern. After all, we don’t really know what’s on the other side. Do we have flashbacks of a lifetime? Will we be dragged through the fires of hell for our mistakes? Does heaven exist? Is everything all black like in space? Is death a unique experience in and of itself?

However, it becomes a problem when death anxiety starts to interfere with how you live your life. For people who can’t find the proper coping mechanisms, that can cause emotional pain and stress. You’re going to need a loving support system and tools in place to help you cope with the reality of your mortality.

death anxiety

How Does Death Anxiety Display?

While this is a serious concern, death anxiety is not a distinct disorder but often appears as part of other disorders. How exactly do you know if you’re experiencing this problem? Let’s examine some of the common ways where it can show up.

1. Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety disorder is a disorder that children may have. It involves having a fear of losing people who are important to them from an accident or death. Children with this disorder may be afraid of being alone or not knowing where the parent is at any time. They may not always articulate what they’re scared of, but it’s relatively common. Adults can also experience separation anxiety when they have a history of breakups, loss of family members or friends, or a trauma that involves separation, such as divorce.

2. Compulsive Disorders

People who have compulsive behaviors may not realize that they’re displaying death anxiety, but ultimately, this is a fear. For example, compulsive checkers often will have to check that they’ve turned off the stove, locked the door, and done other activities that will keep their home safe. This behavior is to prevent harm or death. Many people with post-traumatic stress disorder often display signs of compulsion for safety, especially if their trauma was a near-death experience, sexual assault, or other traumatic experience.

Compulsive behaviors can be more specific to certain medical conditions or just general wellness. A person who has to wash their hands multiple times shows a fear of developing a life-threatening disease. These individuals may also see their doctor regularly and request body scans or medical tests to identify severe illnesses, even without having any significant symptoms. What’s driving this behavior is a fear of death and dying.

3. Specific Phobias

Many phobias are related to a fear of a specific item, animal, or condition. For example, a person with a family history of heart disease may constantly think they have a heart attack. Other phobias could be a fear of heights, spiders, snakes, or other animals. These are all legitimate since they could cause harm. However, their fears are excessive and ultimately grounded in an association with death.

4. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Following a traumatic event, people often experience death anxiety, though sometimes only subconsciously. Some folks temporarily experience death following a trauma, which scares them. A person is likely to have recurring PTSD nightmares after a traumatic event. They become obsessed with safety and staying alive as a result. It’s as if a bubble bursts, and now their mortality becomes a possibility rather than something they previously ignored. Death anxiety is likely the main fear in PTSD.

fear of death

What Causes Death Anxiety?

Since this is not a distinct disorder, it may be challenging to understand the cause of death anxiety. Phobias are often triggered by a specific event in the past, even if it’s not remembered. If a person experienced a traumatic event related to their being at risk of dying or having a loved one die, they might be reliving this anxiety.

Individual health can also be a risk for developing death anxiety. For example, a person who has a significant illness will likely be thinking about the end of life and may be more anxious. Older adults tend to have higher levels of anxiety, which is understandable. Women are also more likely to experience death anxiety, although it’s not well-understood why they would. However, women may fear death more due to media stories about the lack of safety women experience, heightened anxiety levels overall, or a difference in brain chemistry compared to men.

How to Treat Death Anxiety

There are many ways to manage death anxiety. Social support networks are often an excellent way to help prevent or reduce anxiety. Some people may also find that their religious beliefs are a helpful tool. People who have good self-esteem, good health, and believe that their lives are fulfilling are less likely to struggle with this concern.

If you find that your anxiety in this area keeps you from living a healthy life, then it may be best to seek out treatment. While your doctor can recommend a personalized solution, there are a few options available. Depending on the symptoms and severity, it may be best to use one or multiple of these treatments. Ultimately, if your fear of anxiety is due to a terminal illness, it may be a good idea to find a therapist.

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of therapy that works by altering a person’s behavior patterns. In short, it helps people to form new ways of thinking. A doctor, social worker, or psychotherapist are licensed professionals working with individuals to help them restructure their thoughts. Psychiatric illnesses like anxiety and depression are often called thought disorders. These practical solutions work by overcoming feelings of anxiety. They may also help individuals develop coping strategies that allow them to be calm and not afraid when talking or thinking about death.

2. Psychotherapy

This type of therapy is talk therapy. It involves talking through anxieties and fears with a psychotherapist or a psychologist. A professional in this field will explore the cause of that fear and then develop coping strategies to deal with the anxieties that a person faces. Depending on your symptoms, just talking about how you feel may help you feel more in control. Many people see a therapist regularly for this reason. Sometimes, all you need is a sounding board to prevent you from experiencing ruminating thoughts that spiral your death anxiety out of control. A psychotherapist will perform thought exercises to help you look at the likelihood of your worst fear happening right now. They may also share some practices to deal with your impending death if the possibility of death is near.

3. Exposure Therapy

This type of therapy is also carried out by a licensed professional. It focuses on helping a person to face their fears instead of burying or avoiding their concerns. By not hiding what they feel, they’re encouraged to expose themselves to their death anxiety. A therapist will work with individuals by gradually telling them to experience the fear in a safe environment. Over time, the anxiety response will reduce itself, and the person will be able to confront the thoughts without feeling overwhelmed with fear.

facing death anxiety

4. Medication

If you’re diagnosed with a specific mental condition such as PTSD or generalized anxiety disorder, your doctor may recommend an anti-anxiety medication. Medication could include an anti-depressant or a beta-blocker. When people use medications simultaneously as psychotherapy, they tend to be most effective at eliminating their death anxiety. Medication may provide benefits by relieving feelings in the short term. However, long-term use of some of these medications may not be ideal. Always talk to your doctor about long-term management strategies for the best results.

5. Meditation

Guided meditation can help you deal with your death anxiety. Meditation is a healthy, non-invasive way to deal with your thoughts when you’re alone with them with no support. If your negative thoughts keep taking over your mind and you don’t want to make yourself sick faster, it’s good to practice a calming meditation. Guided meditation allows you to have prompts that help prevent you from getting overwhelmed by thinking while trying to calm the mind. Check out this YouTube video:

What Is the Research About Death Anxiety?

Unfortunately, research on the effects of treatment for death anxiety are somewhat limited. However, there have been some findings from related areas, primarily when the treatment is for individuals with chronic diseases. One review from 2018 looked at the effect of various therapies on individuals who had advanced cancer. The review’s findings suggested that interventions focused on helping people find meaning in their life were the most effective at treatment for death anxiety.

For example, doing acts of kindness every day for the remainder of your life can be a fun, easy way to add meaning to your life while battling a terminal illness. You can mail cards to friends and family explaining why you love them. Wish all your friends on Facebook a happy birthday every time the notification comes up. You can spend quality time with loved ones on a short nature walk.

Another meta-analysis was done in people who did not have severe diseases. They found that cognitive-behavioral therapy was one of the most effective treatments. Group desensitization was also found to reduce death fears compared to other types of treatments. However, these studies were pretty limited as they had a broad range of individuals with various mental health conditions.

Both of the reviews found that research in this area is still very much in the early stages. There was also a lack of research with samples from people who had mental health diagnoses, making it hard to know which treatment would pair best with each person. This problem led the researchers in both studies to conclude that there was very little you could say about the effectiveness of one particular intervention when it comes to death anxiety.

Conclusion

While additional research and studies are needed, most people will experience death anxiety at some point in their life. Our awareness that we’re all going to die is a central part of existence. Evidence suggests that fears are often displayed with mental health conditions but that anyone can and likely will have some anxiety. Many of the standard treatment approaches may not work for those who struggle with this disorder. It may take time to find a successful therapy, leading many people to be frustrated in the process. While we can’t prevent or stop death from happening to us, we can participate in meaningful activities that enrich our lives while we’re alive. And a life well-lived will help us overcome our death anxiety.

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