Thanatophobia, or death anxiety, is a form of anxiety disorder that involves an intense fear or death. It can lead to an overwhelming anxiety about a person’s own death or the process of dying.
Death anxiety is not defined as a distinct disorder, but it may be linked to other depression or anxiety disorders. These include:
- post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD
- panic disorders and panic attacks
- illness anxiety disorders, previously called hypochondriasis
Thanatophobia is different from necrophobia, which is a general fear of dead or dying things, or things associated with death.
In this article, we take a close look at thanatophobia, or death anxiety, to explore the symptoms, causes, and treatments for this fear.
In the Greek language, the word ‘Thanatos‘ refers to death and ‘phobos‘ means fear. Thus, thanatophobia translates as the fear of death.
Having some anxiety about death is an entirely normal part of the human condition. However, for some people, thinking about their own death or the process of dying can cause intense anxiety and fear.
A person may feel extreme anxiety and fear when they consider that death is inevitable. They may also experience:
- fear of separation
- fear of dealing with a loss
- worry about leaving loved ones behind
When such fears persist and interfere with daily life and activities, this is known as thanatophobia.
In their most extreme, these feelings can stop people from conducting daily activities or even leaving their homes. Their fears center on things that could result in death, such as contamination or dangerous objects or people.
Doctors do not classify thanatophobia as a distinct condition, but it can be classified as a specific phobia.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a phobia is an anxiety disorder relating to a specific object or situation.
The fear of death is considered a phobia if the fear:
- arises almost every time a person thinks about dying
- persists for more than 6 months
- gets in the way of everyday life or relationships
Key symptoms that a person may have a phobia of dying include:
- immediate fear or anxiety when thinking about dying or the process of dying
- panic attacks that can cause dizziness, hot flushes, sweating, and a raised or irregular heart rate
- avoidance of situations where thinking about death or dying may be necessary
- feeling sick or getting stomach pains when thinking about death or dying
- general feelings of depression or anxiety
Phobias can lead to a person feeling isolated and avoiding contact with friends and family for extended periods of time.
The symptoms may come and go over an individual’s lifetime. Someone with mild death anxiety might experience heightened anxiety when they think about their death or the death of a loved one, such as when they or a family member is seriously ill.
If death anxiety is linked to another anxiety or depressive condition, a person may also experience specific symptoms related to the underlying conditions.
While thanatophobia is defined as a general fear of death, there are many types and causes of this anxiety, and the particulars of what an individual focuses on can vary.
Phobias are often triggered by a specific event in a person’s past, though the person does not always remember what this was. Particular triggers for thanatophobia could include an early traumatic event related to almost dying or the death of a loved one.
A person who has a severe illness may experience thanatophobia because they are anxious about dying, though ill health is not necessary for a person to experience this anxiety. Instead, it is often related to psychological distress.
The experience of death anxiety may differ, depending on individual factors. These include:
- Age. A 2017 study suggests that older adults fear the dying process, while younger people more commonly fear death itself.
- Sex. According to a 2012 study, women were more likely than men to fear the death of loved ones and the consequences of their death.
Medical professionals link anxiety around death to a range of mental health conditions, including depressive disorders, PTSD, and anxiety disorders.
Thanatophobia may be linked to:
Death anxiety is associated with a range of specific phobias. The most common objects of phobias are things that can cause harm or death, including snakes, spiders, planes, and heights.
A fear of dying plays a role in many anxiety disorders, such as panic disorders. During a panic attack, people
Illness anxiety disorders
Death anxiety may be linked to illness anxiety disorders, previously known as hypochondriasis. Here, a person has intense fear associated with becoming ill and excessively worries about their health.
Social support networks may help to protect a person against death anxiety. Some people may come to terms with death through religious beliefs, though these may perpetuate a fear of death in others.
Those with high self-esteem, good health, and a belief that they have led a fulfilling life are less likely to have a fear of death than some others.
A doctor may recommend that a person with thanatophobia receive treatment for an anxiety disorder, phobia, or for a specific underlying cause of their fear.
Treatment involves a form of behavioral or talking therapy. This therapy tries to teach the individual to refocus their fears and to work through them by talking about their concerns.
Treatment options for death anxiety include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT works by gently altering a person’s behavioral patterns so that they can form new behaviors and ways of thinking.
A doctor will help a person to come up with practical solutions to overcome their feelings of anxiety. They may work to develop strategies that allow them to be calm and unafraid when talking or thinking about death.
Psychotherapies, or talking therapies, involve talking through anxieties and fears with a psychologist or psychotherapist. These professionals will help someone find out the cause of their fear, and come up with strategies to cope with anxieties that occur during the day.
Sometimes, even just talking about the anxiety can help a person to feel more in control of their fear.
Exposure therapy works by helping a person face their fears. Instead of burying how they feel about death or not acknowledging their concerns, they are encouraged to be exposed to their fears.
A therapist will carry out exposure therapy by very gradually exposing a person to their fear, in a safe environment, until the anxiety response reduces, and a person can confront their thoughts, objects, or feelings without fear.
If doctors diagnose a person with a specific mental health condition, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or PTSD, they may prescribe anti-anxiety medication. This may include beta-blockers or antidepressant medication.
When people use medicines alongside psychotherapies, they are often most effective.
While medication can be beneficial by relieving feelings of panic and stress in the short term, long-term use of such medication may not be the ideal solution. Instead, working through fears in therapy is more likely to provide long-term relief.
Practicing self-care can be powerful for boosting overall mental health, including helping a person feel more able to cope with their anxieties. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine, getting a good night’s sleep, and eating a nutritious diet are some ways to practice self-care.
When a person is experiencing anxiety, specific relaxation techniques can help clear their mind and de-escalate their fears. These may include:
- doing deep breathing exercises
- focusing on specific objects in the room, such as counting the tiles on the wall
meditation or focusing on positive imagery
While it is natural to have concerns about the future and the future of loved ones, if the anxiety around death persists for more than 6 months or hinders daily life, it may be worth someone speaking to a doctor.
There are many ways that a person can overcome their fear of death, and a mental health professional will be able to offer guidance and reassurance during this process.