What is thanatophobia?
Thanatophobia is an intense fear of death or the dying process. Another name for this condition is “death anxiety.” You might be anxious about your own death or the death of someone you care about.
What is a phobia?
A phobia is an intense sense of worry or panic about certain activities, objects or situations. A specific phobic disorder, such as thanatophobia, is a type of anxiety disorder. Other examples of phobic disorders include claustrophobia (fear of small, confined spaces) and aerophobia (fear of flying).
What’s the difference between thanatophobia and necrophobia?
Thanatophobia is different than necrophobia. Necrophobia is a fear of dead things (corpses) or places that contain dead things, such as graveyards.
Is thanatophobia normal?
It’s natural to feel some sense of worry about death or dying. After all, it’s normal to fear the unknown. You might think dying will be scary, painful or lonely. But if you have thanatophobia, your fear of death affects your daily life. It may make it difficult to function at school, work or in social situations. You may experience physical symptoms, such as a panic attack, when you think about dying. Or you might go out of your way to avoid talking about death or the dying process.
How common is thanatophobia?
Research suggests that death anxiety is common, though people tend not to report their feelings. One study shows that between 3% and 10% of people feel they’re more nervous than others about the thought of dying.
Symptoms and Causes
Who is at risk for thanatophobia?
Thanatophobia can affect adults and children. It’s more common in people who:
- Are in poor health or receive a diagnosis of a serious illness.
- Don’t have religious beliefs.
- Feel a sense of dissatisfaction with their life.
- Have low self-esteem.
- Have other phobias or mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety.
- Have parents or loved ones who are elderly, ill or dying.
- Lack close family members or friends.
- Witness illness, trauma or violence in their jobs, such as healthcare providers or social workers.
One study suggests that elderly people are more likely to fear the dying process, while young adults are more likely to fear death itself. Another study found that the children of elderly parents actually had a higher level of death anxiety than their parents, peaking at around middle age.
What causes thanatophobia?
It’s possible for a specific event or experience to trigger thanatophobia. For instance, you may develop death anxiety if you:
- Have a traumatic experience related to death or dying.
- Lose a parent or loved one.
- Witness someone having a difficult or painful death.
A fear of death can also be at the root of many other phobias like:
- Aerophobia (fear of flying).
- Agoraphobia (fear of not being able to escape from an unfamiliar place).
- Aquaphobia (fear of water).
- Arachnophobia (fear of spiders).
- Claustrophobia (fear of crowded, confined spaces).
What are the symptoms of thanatophobia?
If you have thanatophobia, thoughts of death may cause intense feelings of panic, fear, dread or depression. You may avoid places or situations that seem dangerous. You might also become obsessed with your health, constantly checking for signs of illness. It’s not uncommon for people with death anxiety to spend a lot of time looking for abnormal moles, checking their blood pressure or researching medical information. They can develop hypochondriasis, which is a disorder that causes excessive worry about becoming ill.
Other symptoms might resemble those of a panic attack. Intense thoughts of death may trigger:
Diagnosis and Tests
How is thanatophobia diagnosed?
There isn’t a test for diagnosing thanatophobia. Your healthcare provider will carefully review your symptoms and ask a variety of questions about your fear of death. They rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or other anxiety disorders.
Healthcare providers typically diagnose specific phobic disorders when:
- Symptoms last for six months or longer.
- Symptoms occur as soon as you encounter the feared object or situation.
- The fear is about a specific object or situation, such as death or the dying process.
- You go out of your way to avoid the object or situation you fear.
- You have trouble functioning in your daily life due to your fear.
Management and Treatment
How is thanatophobia managed or treated?
If a fear of death affects your ability to function at school, work or in social situations, seek treatment from a healthcare provider. You may benefit from psychotherapy, which helps you talk through your fear and anxiety.
Types of psychotherapy include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help you change the way you think about death so it isn’t so scary. You may need to address unrealistic beliefs about death, such as feeling that death is “unfair” or that the dying process is always painful. CBT also gives you techniques to better manage how you react to thoughts of death, such as deep breathing.
- Exposure therapy: This type of therapy gradually exposes you to places, thoughts or situations that relate to death. You might start by writing about how you picture your own death or the death of a loved one. Other exposure techniques could include visiting a hospital, writing a will, reading obituaries or talking with someone who has a terminal illness.
Medication for thanatophobia or other specific phobic disorders hasn’t proven very effective. But your healthcare provider may recommend anti-anxiety drugs if you have to be in a stressful or fearful situation, like a funeral.
Is there a way to prevent thanatophobia?
There’s no way to prevent thanatophobia. But you can reduce its effects on your life by:
- Avoiding things that can make anxiety worse, like caffeine, drugs or alcohol.
- Forming a supportive network of family members, friends and healthcare providers.
- Getting help as soon as you notice symptoms.
Outlook / Prognosis
What’s the prognosis (outlook) for people with thanatophobia?
Most people with thanatophobia respond very well to treatment. In fact, studies show that exposure therapy helps most people living with specific phobic disorders.
When should I call the doctor?
Contact your healthcare provider if you experience:
- Difficulty functioning in your daily life due to fear of death or the dying process.
- Symptoms of a panic attack.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
- Are there support groups for thanatophobia?
- How long does psychotherapy last?
- Will my fear of death ever go away?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Thanatophobia is an intense fear of death or the dying process. While it’s natural to feel anxious about death from time to time, thanatophobia is an anxiety disorder that can disrupt every aspect of your life. Don’t be afraid to talk to a healthcare provider about your fears. They can connect you with a mental health professional who can help you find healthy ways to overcome this condition.
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