Thanatophobia, the medical term for the fear of death, may not be a word that everyone is familiar with, but it’s something that many people can understand. Feeling anxiety over dying is about as natural a part of the human experience as any other concern over our own wellbeing. Death anxiety is the fear that underlies our most basic survival instincts, the part of our unconscious that prioritizes self-preservation above anything else.
Of course, as with most phobias, our fear of death can exist anywhere on the spectrum ranging from mild and manageable fear to extreme, even debilitating fear. Thanatophobia is the term used to describe the kind of consistent fear of death that can make it difficult to function in day-to-day life. The American Psychological Association defines it as a “persistent and irrational fear of death or dying,” which can be focused either on our own death or on our friends and loved ones. In either case, the key difference between a regular, healthy fear of death and serious thanatophobia is that the latter poses a distinct, negative impact on your mental well-being and quality of life. Are thanatophobia and taphophobia the same? These two terms have different meanings. Thanatophobia is the fear of death while taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive.
The idea of death can be scary for most people, and this is natural. However, when the prospect of death starts to feel completely overbearing, here are some tips and strategies for dealing with those feelings.
Understanding Your Fear
In its most severe forms, thanatophobia can be responsible for panic attacks, insomnia, or feeling generally agitated or uncomfortable. Death anxiety often appears in conjunction with other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Often, an excessive fear of death is an unconscious reaction to an underlying condition. Research has shown that patients experiencing one of the conditions mentioned above are much more prone to report death anxiety. This means, in order to cope with our fear, it’s important for us to first try and understand where it’s coming from.
Analyzing our fear is usually not a pleasant experience. More often we’d prefer to look away from the things that frighten us. And while distraction does have its benefits, it doesn’t do much to address the root causes of our phobias. In the case of thanatophobia, this means looking at what experiences or beliefs might be responsible for our fear. These causes can range widely from person to person.
There are several ways to begin exploring the root of your anxiety. If you feel like trying to go it alone, journaling can be an effective strategy. Writing about your experiences, memories, and emotions surrounding death can help give you some insight, and even relief. Focus on simply describing those thoughts, rather than dwelling on them. At the very least this can help you approach thanatophobia from a place of self-reflection, rather than irrational worry.
But if you feel like your fear of death is something that you can’t face alone, then it may be wise to look for a therapist to help you address your anxiety.
Most therapy for thanatophobia is going to take a CBT-based approach. CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, and is an approach to psychological treatment that focuses on fixing faulty or unhelpful thought patterns. In case of thanatophobia, this treatment would take aim at reframing the anxiety that death is something imminent, inherently bad, or a worthwhile cause for constant concern. One of the benefits of going to therapy is that you can get professional guidance and an objective viewpoint to help you reorient your thoughts about death.
However, if you aren’t yet in treatment for your anxiety, or aren’t sure if you’re ready to make that commitment yet, there are still CBT exercises you can practice without the assistance of a therapist.
For example, people experiencing thanatophobia may find themselves in thought patterns that make it harder for them to enjoy their lives. Thoughts like:
- “If I am focused on death, then I can control it.”
- “It’s important for me to be worried about death. I never know when it’s going to happen, so I must always be on the lookout.”
Now, those might not be your literal thoughts, but they’re common messages underlying anxious thinking, and it’s easy to see how someone experiencing those thoughts could begin to spiral deeper into anxiety and maybe even panic. The point of CBT is to recognize when those thought patterns are arising and to consciously try to reorient them, rather than just ignore them. CBT isn’t about avoidance or trying to lie to yourself, but trying to make your thoughts work for you, rather than against you. Some alternatives might look like:
- “Death is a fact of life, and I can’t control that. However, I can control the way I live and use the time that’s been given to me.”
- “Death is not a good reason to spend my days worrying. Instead, I can use those days for more worthwhile things and make the most of living.”
Death is a tricky subject because, unlike some other phobias like a fear of heights,fear of flying, or fear of the sea (thalassophobia) it’s ultimately unavoidable. Through accepting that, while also acknowledging that it’s not useful or healthy to fixate on things that you can’t control, you can begin to practice self-correcting those negative thoughts when they arise. Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge that CBT practices can take time to get used to, but that they’re proven to be effective in treating phobias and have helped countless patients.
Building A Tolerance To Death Anxiety
Next to CBT, exposure therapy is another commonly successful treatment for phobias. Exposure therapy helps the patient, to put it bluntly, “face their fears.” The point is to engage with the phobia in a safe enough environment that you can build a tolerance for your fear, in this case death. Some possible routes to take for thanatophobia would be to visit a cemetery or a hospital, to talk to someone who’s recently lost someone close to them, or to simply spend time engaging calmly with your phobia through meditation or journaling.
If you’re open to trying exposure therapy, you may consider taking the time to talk to a therapist for advice on how to best proceed.
In situations in which the fear begins to feel overwhelming, it can be crucial to have some calming techniques in your toolbox. Sometimes even a simple breathing exercise can help you center yourself. Knowing how to calm yourself down is especially important if you find yourself struggling to operate when you feel stuck in a bad headspace or if you feel a panic attack coming on. Here are some simple relaxation strategies:
- Focus on your breathing: Breath in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, breath out slowly for four seconds, hold with empty lungs for four seconds, then repeat the cycle between five and ten times.
- Focus on relaxing your muscles: Not just one or two muscles, all of them. Start from your head and work down. Focus on completely relaxing your face muscles, neck, shoulders, chest, core, arms, hands, etc. all the way to the tips of your toes.
- Focus on calming imagery: Try to find an image in your mind’s eye that you find relaxing. Something in nature is usually helpful, like a tree gently blowing in a breeze, or a placid lakefront. Focus on that image, and when you find your mind wandering to another topic, try to calmly bring yourself back to your calming scene.
Having techniques like these in your back pocket can be crucial to getting through a time when your phobia feels like too much to handle.
Can Therapy Help With Thanatophobia?
As we mentioned early, an extreme fear of death rarely crops up on its own. Most often, there are underlying factors which then manifest themselves on the surface as a severe fear of death. Therapy can be a very helpful tool in not just helping you cope with your phobias, but also to treat the kinds of thinking that lie beneath them. Talk therapy and CBT-based treatments like the one mentioned above can both be very helpful for people struggling with problems like thanatophobia and can even be undergone online. Online therapy helps make those treatments reachable and affordable, giving anyone easy reach to the help they deserve.
Online therapy can be an effective way to receive CBT, and research has demonstrated that CBT is just as effective when delivered online as through in-person platforms. Those studies have shown online CBT interventions to be a useful tool in addressing anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions that often underlie thanatophobia. If you’re having a hard time coping with thanatophobia, or any similar phobias, it’s worth looking into therapy—either online or in-person.
Frequently Asked Questions
For examples of questions that might be beneficial to explore in therapy, please see below.
Why do people get thanatophobia?
Does thanatophobia go away?
How do I stop thanatophobia?
How can I stop my fear of "the end"?
Is fear or phobia of dying common?
What is fear of death called?
Is fear of passing away common?
What can trigger anxiety?
Why am I so scared of dying?
Is it normal to think about dying?
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