How To Overcome Thanatophobia

By Jon Jaehnig|Updated June 24, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Stephanie Deaver, LCSW

Being afraid of or having a phobia or fear towards death and dying, aka thanatophobia, can come from a variety of sources. Most of us learn to fear or experience anxiety about death and dying, aka thanatophobia, when we are young children. Our friends and family either proactively educate us about death, leading us to develop a phobia or being afraid; 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. Online therapy is one way to move past such fears.

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 own mortality instead. When the fear of dying 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.

Anxiety Disorders Related to Death

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 No. 1 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.

anxiety, phobia

Fear Of Death Can Come In Many Forms - But You Don't Have To Be Afraid

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. The thanatophobia 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 thanatophobia often go hand-in-hand. Intense fears around 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.

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.

Thanatophobia 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 Anxiety & 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 dying. 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.

Fear Of Death Can Come In Many Forms - But You Don't Have To Be Afraid

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 dying. 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 It 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 dying. 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.

BetterHelp Is There For You: Death Fears

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.

Some common questions about Thanatophobia can be found below:

Is thanatophobia a mental illness?
Does thanatophobia go away?
How do I get rid of thanatophobia?
What is Frigophobia?
Is thanatophobia rare?
Do I have thanatophobia test?
Why do I constantly think about death?
What are the two fears we are born with?
What is a Glossophobia?
What is aviophobia?

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