7 Steps To Overcoming Your Fear Of Death, Necrophobia Or Thanatophobia | Is Your Fear Of Death Thanatophobia? Find Out

By: Jon Jaehnig

Updated March 08, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Stephanie Deaver, LCSW

 

Attitudes toward death can come from a variety of sources. The most common ways that we learn about death is when we are young children. Our friends and family either proactively educate us about death or we may learn by experiencing the death of a loved one as young children.

The attitudes that we develop about death as young children inevitably follow us through middle age. Being unprepared for the death of a loved one can cause young children to experience thanatophobia, which occurs when healthy adults and children develop an abnormal fear of death and fear the dying process.

Fear of death comes in many forms, with one of them being thanatophobia. Some people are afraid of everything associated with death: bodies, graves, funeral parlors. Others aren't scared of skeletons or the dying but fear their mortality instead. When the fear of death or the dying process becomes an obsession, this irrational fear can develop into an anxiety disorder and begin to affect your mental health.

Following are anxiety disorders that are related to excessively thinking about death related to mortality salience and common symptoms of thanatophobia.

Necrophobia and thanatophobia are two separate death-related generalized-anxiety disorders that plague the living and can be present in children as young as five years of age and can affect any gender; both men and women can struggle with these types of phobias.

Though they differ in the way that they affect the person suffering, these extreme fears can interfere with daily life and have an effect on how people deal with death. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome a fear of death and to relieve the symptoms of religiosity and death anxiety.

Step number one in finding ways to cope with your feelings and why you fear death is to gain a greater understanding of why we are averse to death in the first place.

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Necrophobia

The term 'necrophobia' originates from the Greek words for death (necro) and fear (phobia). A person with necrophobia scores high on the death-anxiety scale and is afraid of dying themselves as much as they are afraid of dead things -(human or animal corpses) or associations to dead things (coffins, graveyards, etc.). In these cases, necrophobia is a fear of the dying, rather than fearing the actual act of dying happening to them.

In a sense, necrophobia encompasses two separate fears related to human mortality. Although fear of these things is common and somewhat normal, men and women with necrophobia become fixated on death and develop unhealthy death attitudes in response to experiencing high levels of death anxiety ( according to the death anxiety scale.)

They often go to extremes to avoid it. Even the thought of being near something dead can send a necrophobic's anxiety through the roof by causing physical symptoms like stomach pain. Experiencing higher levels of anxiety peaks while understanding that death is inevitable can also cause extreme disgust.

Symptoms of Necrophobia

Specific signs and symptoms of necrophobia include:

  • An overwhelming fear of dead things
  • Obsession with death/dead things
  • Nausea, vomiting, or dry mouth
  • Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Hyperventilation and fainting
  • Extreme sweating or trembling
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Difficulty thinking or speaking
  • Dread when leaving the house
  • Constantly seeking medical reassurance

Because of the high level of fear and increased anxiety that results from necrophobia, other mental health issues can develop like agoraphobia (fear of certain places) and insomnia (trouble falling/staying asleep). These thoughts can become especially traumatic when the thought of death or the death of a close family member.

Causes of Necrophobia

Although necrophobia can develop in adults, it often starts in childhood and if left untreated can require behavioral therapy in adulthood. Usually, this phobia can be traced back to a particularly traumatic event experienced with close friends or family.

Death anxiety stems from experiencing the death of a loved one that causes high levels of anxiety on the death anxiety scale. Feelings of panic left unaddressed in children can compromise their ego integrity and result in a lasting psychological condition.

Terror management theory proposes that a stress disorder can develop from something as simple as attending a funeral or something troubling like witnessing an animal being killed. It's not always possible to identify death anxiety peaks and triggers, but pinpointing the underlying cause of necrophobia can help with resolving issues later during treatment and change death attitudes by reducing levels of death anxiety and the fear of dying.

Thanatophobia

Thanatophobia is a disorder characterized by an extreme fear of dying. Because necrophobia and thanatophobia are similar phobias, many people get the two confused.

Although they do have a lot of similarities, the two disorders have a significant difference. People struggling with thanatophobia may not be afraid of dead bodies, coffins, and can even attend funerals. Their fear isn't centered around the death of others but the possibility of dying themselves. People with thanatophobia have related symptoms like the fear of flying and also the aging process.

There might also be an underlying fear of being buried or cremated after death. In a medical setting, thanatophobia is commonly called "death anxiety " and requires behavioral therapy to help restore a client's trust and ego integrity.

Symptoms of Thanatophobia

The signs and symptoms of the two forms of death phobia overlap in some ways. Thanatophobia can also cause frequent panic attacks, dizziness, sweating, and nausea. It can also bring about some unique physical, mental, and emotional challenges like:

  • Sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures
  • Feeling as if one is choking
  • Seeking out ways to stay young/immortal
  • Inability to distinguish reality from fantasy
  • Obsessively imagining ways that you might die
  • Severe emotional symptoms

The last symptom can be especially challenging since extreme anxiety can cause some people to feel agitated or angry, sad, or even ashamed and develop related irrational fears like fear of women or inanimate objects.

Religiosity and death anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Intense fear of death can also cause sufferers to avoid family and friends as well as places where they fear they might die. Some may have trouble leaving the house at all. Seeking mental health resources on the net and getting talk therapy can help.

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Causes of Thanatophobia

According to mental health management theory certified by health professionals who specialize in the study of death-related mental health issues individuals can deal with, the origins of necrophobia are somewhat cut and dry. That's not the case with fear of death that is categorized as thanatophobia.

Death management theory also states that not everyone will develop death anxiety like a fear of flying, but there are specific risk factors that make it more likely. A great deal of scientific and medically-reviewed research has been done on this topic by the net foundation, and through these studies, a set of risk factors have emerged.

These risk factors include:

  • Age: Surprisingly, young people have more issues with death anxiety than the elderly. Studies show that people under the age of 20 are most at risk of developing a fear of dying. In fact, the anxiety surrounding death usually fades as we age. The only exception to this is with some women. Studies suggest that some women will have spikes of thanatophobia that appear after 50.
  • Traumatic Event: Those who have experienced death-related, traumatic events are more likely to develop death anxiety. For example, a person who witnessed a stranger die in a car wreck might begin to worry about dying themselves.
  • Parents Near Death: Having a parent that is dying increases the chance of a person developing their fear of dying. As they help their parents move through the process of death, their fear of death may increase.
  • Personal Health: People with chronic illnesses are more at risk of developing an extreme fear of death. Forced to face their future, issues with health can aggravate underlying fears about the afterlife and lead to a full-blown death phobia.

Overcoming Your Fear of Death or Dying: Necrophobia and Thanatophobia

Necrophobia and thanatophobia are both life-altering phobias, but those suffering shouldn't give up hope. There are several things you can do to reduce your symptoms and overcome your fears.

1) Seek Help from a Professional

Hiring a professional to help is usually the first step. Because of the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of death phobias, those suffering shouldn't walk the journey to recovery alone. Finding a qualified therapist with experience dealing with phobias can be the difference between failure and success.

One of the best places to start is this page. Here you can take a short questionnaire that will provide some general background information. Using this information, BetterHelp can assist you in finding the best counselor to help you. This platform is one of a kind because it gives you access to over 4,000 licensed, trained, and experienced psychologists (Ph.D./PsyD), marriage and family therapists (LMFT), clinical social workers (LCSW/LMSW), and licensed professional counselors (LPC) all in one place. Once you've chosen a partner to help you overcome your fears, the process will become a lot easier.

2) Try Therapy

One thing your counselor might try is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This tried-and-true treatment regimen has been used to help people overcome depression, anxiety, and phobias of many different types.

This is important since the medically-reviewed DSM-5 handbook by the American Psychiatric Association used by healthcare professionals doesn't categorize anxiety related to death or dying as a distinct disorder, therefore you won’t receive a thanatophobia diagnosis. However, you might receive one for Specific Phobias, which is in the DSM-5, and you can receive medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment for this by a doctor or psychiatrist who can provide you with additional information.

Nonetheless, during the CBT process, you will discuss your fears and eventually be exposed to them. You will talk about not only death in general but also places and situations that cause anxiety or fear of death. For example, you may go to a cemetery, mortuary, or a funeral. Exposure to these "trigger" places and circumstances will counteract unhealthy thinking habits and reduce death anxiety. Learning relaxation and breathing techniques is also an essential part of the CBT process so that you will be able to deal with death anxiety should it arise during or after therapy.

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3) Explore Spirituality

Several different studies have shown that those who have strong faith and belief systems are far less likely to suffer from fear of death or dying.

Such was the case with Tanishia Pearson-Jones, a wonderful mother and writer who passed away at the age of 36 after a two-year battle with a rare form of cancer. Never wavering in her religious beliefs, she fought to the end but did not fear death when it arrived. Many people who knew her or heard of her battle through social media were encouraged by her dignity and grace, even in the face of death. If you are like Tanishia and were raised with a strong faith system, embrace it. If not, research and explore different religious beliefs and spiritual practices that resonate with you.

If you find that a specific religion is not for you, rituals can be another solid option for dealing with a fear of death. When you read the word 'ritual,' you might have imagined something as elaborate as an altar with incense, but your ritual doesn't have to be that intricate. This ritualistic routine can be something as simple as lighting a candle when you wake or go to bed, taking an afternoon walk, or writing about your feelings in a journal.

4) Explore Philosophy

Spirituality isn't for everyone. If you find that belief in an afterlife or a higher power to be a little superstitious, it doesn't mean that you need to be without comfort. For thousands of years, philosophers have been talking about the topic of death with all of the vigors of religious thinkers.

For example, while trying to calm a friend who was afraid of death, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote, "Death is nothing to us because when we exist death is not and when death exists we are not."

For a more complete and optimistic view of death for the philosopher, consider Plato's dialogue, Phaedo. Reading like a play script, Phaedo describes the last conversations of Socrates and his friends before the great philosopher carried out a death sentence by drinking poisoned wine.

If you're feeling something more recent, the great 20th-century philosopher Paul Edwards wrote extensively on the topic of death and the common misconceptions that lead to fear of it. You can find free creative commons material on the topic of spirituality online.

5) Make Death a Part of Your Life

The ultimate goal of death phobia-related therapy isn't to rid you of all thoughts of death, but to stop these ideas from negatively impacting your life. Instead of seeing death as a negative event, you will see it as positive. The Order of the Good Death is an organization striving to do just that.

The Order's "Death Positive" movement embraces many goals. One, in particular, is to break the culture of silence around death "through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship. The founder hopes to do the following:

The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.

Check out some of the Order's latest blog posts here.

6) Prepare for Your Parting

One basis of fear of death or dying is a lack of control. Because we know that we will have little control over how or when we will leave this world, we feel anxious. A way to combat this is by grabbing the reins and taking control of what you will leave behind. The how is much easier than you might think.

  • Designate a Power of Attorney (POA). If you've ever been to the hospital, you've likely been asked the question "Do you have a durable power of attorney?" A POA allows you to appoint a trusted loved one to handle your affairs if you can't. Your POA will be able to make medical and financial decisions for you and can make sure your wishes are carried out.
  • Prepare Your Memorial Service. Do you want a funeral with a showing of your body or would you prefer to be cremated? Do you want an upbeat celebration of life or a traditional service with a eulogy and sermon? Which decisions matter to you and which don't? Few people sit down to make decisions for their final going, but taking responsibility for these choices means you can leave a lasting legacy while taking some of the pressure off of your loved ones who will be forced to make these decisions in your absence.
  • Have a Will in Place. The last wills aren't just for the wealthy. Make sure your family knows what you have, who you want to have it, and any final wishes you might have. Again, this will make things easier for your family in the long run.
  • Use Tech Tools. If you suffer from a fear of death, starting preparations for your passing might seem impossible. Thankfully, in this tech age, we have so many great apps to help us with the task. Some starters to search for in an Appstore include Funeral Advice, Asset Lock, and Living Will.

7) Focus on Wellness

One final way to lose your obsession with death and dying is to focus on the here and now. Therapy can help you let go of some of the preoccupations that come along with a fear of death. Then, you will be able to turn your focus to what you can do to live your life to the fullest. Eating right, exercising, taking care of your mental and physical health, and focusing on things you enjoy can help you overcome your obsession with fear and enjoy the present.

One of the best ways to move this step from thought to action is by creating a 'bucket list.' By focusing on the things you want to accomplish instead of dying, you can shift your life to a place of happiness instead of anxiety.

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How BetterHelp Can Help

In some parts of the country, finding access to a counselor or a therapist can be difficult - and expensive. That's particularly true if you're looking for help with something very specific like a phobia. Online counseling can help to broaden your options while increasing flexibility and decreasing cost.

By giving you access to thousands of online therapists and counselors, online therapy helps to give you a private, convenient, and affordable method of addressing your problems and learning ways to cope. Take the first step.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know if you have Thanatophobia?

People who experience thanatophobia have an excessive (and abnormal) fear of death and dying. It's normal to have some anxiety or concerns about the subject of death. However, if worrying about death or dying is consuming your life -- this may be a sign of thanatophobia. Speak with a licensed therapist for an assessment and treatment options.

How can I stop my fear of death?

The first step to ridding yourself of thanatophobia is to be honest with yourself about what you're feeling. If you find that fear of death and dying is taking over your life, the best thing that you can do is to seek counseling from a licensed professional. A licensed therapist can help you to identify where your fear of death began and develop strategies for overcoming your fears through psychotherapy.

Is the fear of death common?

Many people fear the unknown -- especially death. It's only when this fear becomes all-consuming that death anxiety or thanatophobia can develop into more problematic concerns. Counseling can help people with an abnormally high fear of death to learn coping skills and a healthy attitude about death and dying.

What is a fear of death called?

Fear of death is called thanatophobia. Thanatophobia can be defined as an abnormal and excessive fear or preoccupation with death and dying.

Is Thanatophobia common?

Thanatophobia is more common in younger people than in the elderly who have developed a different perspective on death and dying. While having some concerns of fears about death and dying is natural, an excessive preoccupation with the subject can be a sign of a larger issue.

What Can Trigger Death Anxiety?

The fear of death is something that most people fear every once in a while, but some people, especially those who have a generalized anxiety disorder, have some form of death anxiety. Some factors can lead to making your death anxiety worse, such as:

  • Events in the news that remind you of death. A good example is the COVID-19 pandemic. You may fear to die of that. News of other deaths in the world can happen as well.
  • Certain fears being triggered can also trigger your fear of dying. If you fear flying, your fear of death can heighten.
  • Dying relatives may trigger your death anxiety. You may start to question your own mortality and wonder when your time is next.
  • Getting older can trigger your fear of death. Once you enter middle-age or reach another milestone in your life, you may start to question how long you have.
  • Certain beliefs may give you more death anxiety. If you're religious, you may wonder if you'll be rewarded or punished after your death. On the other hand, If you don’t hold religious beliefs, you may believe that when you're dead, you're dead and this idea is one that is hard to fathom.

Why Am I So Scared of Dying?

People can fear death to varying degrees, but there are some common themes that people have regarding it.

Typically, people who are afraid of dying are also afraid of uncertainty and a loss of control. Some people struggle with the idea of not existing whereas others are unsure if there is an afterlife and divine judgment. People also worry about how it will happen - will there be pain and suffering or will it be peaceful?

Additionally, people can have a fear of dying because they have a persistent worry about how their loved ones will cope with their death.

Is it Normal To Think About Dying?

Everyone has thought about death, but some people will think about it more than others. However, there are healthy ways to do it, and there are unhealthy ones.

People who think about death and value their lives might become more careful with their actions and be concerned about the safety of others too. Additionally, without thinking about dying, it’s impossible to find acceptance.

However, if people develop irrational fears regarding death, and develop anxiety disorders like thanatophobia, their thoughts dictate their lives. If people are too afraid and obsess over death, they miss out on living.

Can Mindfulness Help With the Fear of Death?

Incorporating mindfulness of your life can help you in many different ways. It focuses on being in the present. Keeping your mind grounded in the moment can stop you from worrying about death or dying, or anything else in the future. Thoughts about the fear of death are accepted and you learn how to dispose of them.

Mindfulness also incorporates many relaxation techniques such as meditation, which can help you calm down as well.

What is A Fear of Losing A Loved One Called?

While it’s not it’s own phobia in itself, having the fear of your loved ones death can be considered part of necrophobia, rather than thanatophobia because it concerns other people.

In general, though, necrophobia most often refers to the fear of things that are already dead, like corpses and animal carcasses, as well as objects or places that concern death, such as coffins, caskets, funeral homes, and cemeteries.

On the other hand, thanatophobia describes the fear of dying in an existential sense, such as being unable to process and accept that they will cease to exist, and it mainly involves the individual alone.

How Can I Keep My Mental Health Up When I Have a Dying Family Member?

A family member or other loved one who is going through the dying process can have a strain on your mental health. For one, you may start to fear death yourself watching them die. You may especially fear the dying process if their death is slow and agonizing. During this time, it's important to keep your mental health up in addition to helping them. Here are some ways you can do so.

  • There is no shame in taking a break from being a caretaker. Have other friends and family members take care of them when you need a mental health break.
  • Keep your health up. Make sure you exercise, eat right, get plenty of sleep, and get assistance when you need it.
  • Speaking to a mental health professional is nothing to be ashamed of. Do not feel like it's selfish to talk to someone about how you're feeling. This is a time where you may experience generalized anxiety disorder, the fear of death, and other problems with your mental health. Not only that, but a therapist can also help your friends and family during the grieving process. A therapist has a strong privacy policy, so feel free to speak to them about any thoughts you have about death. You will be glad you did.

What Other Fears Are Linked to the Fear of Dying?

The fear of death or dying is closely linked to most fears. Here are some fears that you could argue stem from the fear of dying.

  • This is, as you probably know, the fear of spiders. Some people may fear spiders because of how they look and because they don't like crawly creatures. However, some people may fear spiders because they think they'll be bitten by a poisonous spider that can cause death or dying.
  • Acrophobia, or the fear of heights. This one is fairly obvious. You fear death or dying when you're high up because you fear to fall to your death, even if there's protection.
  • Claustrophobia, or the fear of close spaces. This one can remind you of the dying process, specifically when you're in the coffin. You may also worry about getting stuck in a tight space and not being able to get out.
  • Somniphobia, or the fear of falling asleep. You may worry about not waking up once you fall asleep. In many cases, this fear is a tough cycle. You may find it hard to fall asleep because of the fear of sleeping, and thus your mental state deteriorates.
  • Gerascophobia, or the fear of aging. This one is obvious as well. You may fear being closer to the dying process and death itself.

Is Thanatophobia Curable?

Even if you’ve been struggling for long periods of time, anyone can overcome thanatophobia, and like treating other anxiety disorders and phobia, it requires you to change your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, which can be done by working with a therapist who is experienced with treating people with cognitive-behavioral therapy.

In addition to professional help and therapy, people can also come to terms with dying and learn how to accept it in their own way. Some people find solace through religion and spirituality, and others might consider reading philosophy.

By changing how you feel and behave towards your thoughts about death, it can have less of an impact on your life, and you can begin to have a more fulfilling one instead.

Why You Shouldn’t Be Scared of Death

Death is a certain aspect of life, and it can’t be avoided. While we can try to take control of certain aspects of our lives, death is ultimately something that is outside of your control, and that in most cases, we don’t know when, where, or how it will happen.

These thoughts can be uncomfortable to have, but by understanding that it’s inevitable and it will happen to every single person that you know at some point too, you’ll realize that you’re not alone and hopefully, find reassurance that way.

Conclusion

If your fear of death has been keeping you from living life the way you want to, help is available, and you can overcome it. By connecting to licensed and professional counselors and therapists at BetterHelp, you can find acceptance and experience greater understanding of death and start living a healthier and more productive life without being limited by a fear of dying instead.

Therapy Is Personal

Therapy is a personal experience, and not everyone will go into it seeking the same things. But, keeping these nine things in mind can ensure that you will get the most out of online therapy, regardless of what your specific goals are.

If you’re still wondering if therapy is right for you, and how much therapy costs, please contact us at contact@betterhelp.com. BetterHelp specializes in online therapy to help address all types of mental health concerns. If you’re interested in individual therapy, please reach out to contact@betterhelp.com. For more information about BetterHelp as a company, please find us on 

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