What Is Thanatophobia? Exploring the Fear of Dying

As the old adage goes, there are two things in life that are inescapable: death and taxes. 

While filing taxes in a timely manner is within our control, knowing how long we have on Earth isn’t. The notion that one day we will no longer exist can be so crippling for some that it can interfere with their daily quality of life. 

The intense anxiety of dying or the process of dying is known as thanatophobia or death anxiety; it can be debilitating for the mental health of many. While it’s normal and healthy to have some fear of death, a crippling fear or one that does not allow the sufferer to fully engage with life can be debilitating. 

Fortunately, with the right therapy, treating this condition is entirely possible. 

How Does Thanatophobia Manifest?

While every case is unique, the development of thanatophobia is often triggered by a near death experience. Thanatophobia can also emerge after the passing of a loved one, sudden loss, or as the result of a situation that brings about a loss of control. Anyone can experience thanatophobia, regardless of gender, from young adulthood onwards. 

A 2017 study, examined how the children of parents in acute geriatric care wards coped with the concept of death. It found that, while the elderly had low levels of anxiety, their children scored higher for themselves and their parents. It also found that while the elderly feared the process of dying more than actual death, their children feared death and extrapolated their own emotion onto that of their parent. 

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings says having a fear of dying and experiencing thanatophobia are two different things. “Some people may think that they are experiencing thanatophobia, but in reality, they are afraid of the unknown, leaving their family, losing control, pain, and illness,” she says. 

Symptoms of Thanatophobia

A 2018 study found that there were certain psychological factors associated with thanatophobia. It observed that thanatophobia was common amongst patients who didn’t have the following: 

  • High self-esteem
  • Religious beliefs
  • Good health
  • A sense of fulfillment in life
  • Intimacy with family and friends
  • A fighting spirit

The study concluded that there was lack of uniformity across the globe when it came to managing the fear of death amongst patients. 

The symptoms of thanatophobia can develop in both physical and emotional ways. 

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Vertigo
  • Headache
  • Paralysis
  • Crying spells

Emotional symptoms can include: 

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Sadness 
  • Depression
  • Frustration
  • Panic attacks 

Someone who suffers from thanatophobia may end up feeling isolated or alone. Additionally, thanatophobia may manifest with depressive or anxiety symptoms, in which case the sufferer would experience symptoms of those conditions. 

When Should You Seek Professional Help for Thanatophobia?

Catchings says anyone who’s struggling should look for help as soon as they feel that it interferes with their daily life. “If we cannot sleep or eat as usual or constantly think about our phobia, it is important to look for help,” she says.

Recognizing the phobia is the first step. The second step is accepting that you need help. If you are experiencing severe anxiety or depression due to the symptoms, it is time to seek treatment.

How is Thanatophobia Treated?

Thanatophobia can be treated in several ways. A mental health professional might use approaches like psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, or relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques can include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or music and art therapy.

For more severe cases, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication to reduce anxiety or depression. They will typically recommend the client include therapy services while taking medication to ensure the best results.

What are Ways to Help Calm Fears Of Death?

A helpful and empowering way to address Thanatophobia directly is to educate yourself about death, dying, and the fear surrounding the end of life — for you or loved ones you may worry about. This can be done by learning about the topic via readings, podcasts, or videos. The more you know about the subject, the easier it is to learn 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.

Catchings also recommends focusing on living a healthier lifestyle. This includes eating well, exercising, spending time with loved ones and making room for self-care. “Living well can create less fear and anxiety because you are taking care of yourself,” she says. 

Planning for the end of life, whether for yourself and your loved ones, is another way of addressing debilitating fears. Doing this work can 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 this topic directly. Catchings recommends a book and accompanying workbook, which guides readers 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.”

The fear of the unknown is perfectly normal when it comes to facing death. However, when that fear starts to overtake the quality of our lives, it can have a crippling effect not only on us, but on our loved ones, too. If thanatophobia is impacting the quality of your life, it’s important to seek professional mental health help to work on accepting the notion that death and dying is a natural, universal part of living. With Talkspace, you can speak to a licensed therapist as soon as today.

You May Also Like