How To Overcome Thanatophobia
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 or fear of flying, 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:
How do you know if you have this?
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 "the end"?
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 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 began and develop strategies for overcoming your fears through psychotherapy.
Is fear or phobia of dying common?
Many people fear the unknown -- especially death. When this fear becomes all-consuming, 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 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 fear of passing away 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 anxiety?
Most people fear death every once in a while, but some people, especially those with 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 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 worry about 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 dying 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 worry about 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?
A 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 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 personal space policy, so feel free to speak to them about any thoughts you have about death. You will be glad you did.
What Are Other Fears Linked To this?
The fear of 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.
- 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 It 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; 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
Death is a certain aspect of life that 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.
If your fear of dying 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 death instead.
Therapy is a personal experience; 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 your specific goals.
If you’re still wondering if therapy is right for you, and how much therapy costs, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com. For more information about BetterHelp as a company, please find us on
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