Coping With the Fear of Dead Things

An image of a cemetery

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Necrophobia is a type of specific phobia that involves a fear of dead things and things that are associated with death. A person with this type of phobia may be afraid of dead bodies as well as things such as coffins, tombstones, and graveyards.

The word necrophobia comes from the Greek nekros ("corpse") and phobos ("fear").

While necrophobia is not a distinct disorder recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a person who has this fear may be diagnosed with a specific phobia. A specific phobia is defined as an irrational and excessive fear of a specific object or situation.

There are no statistics on the prevalence of necrophobia, but specific phobias are quite common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 9.1% of adults in the United States had some type of specific phobia in the past year.

Causes, Triggers, & Risk Factors

Researchers are not entirely sure of the exact causes of specific phobias such as necrophobia. They do believe, however, that genetics, life events, and even culture can play a role in the development of these fears.

Some cultures, for example, believe that spirits may return and haunt the living. Such beliefs may play a role in contributing to necrophobia. In other cases, having been exposed to a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one, might contribute to an obsession with or fear of dead things and death.

Situations that might be linked to necrophobia include witnessing a death, attending a funeral, coming into contact with a dead animal or human body, attending a funeral, or even seeing dead bodies depicted in popular media.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America suggests that specific phobias are likely the result of a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

Researchers have also found that insects and aquatic animals exhibit necrophobic behaviors such as avoiding dead members of their own species, possibly as a means of avoiding disease.

Signs & Symptoms

The symptoms of necrophobia are similar to the symptoms of other kinds of specific phobias. While those who have necrophobia may recognize that the source of their fear poses no real threat, they still experience extreme fear when they see, or sometimes even think about, corpses or other things associated with death.

People with necrophobia may experience:

  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Rapid breathing 
  • Dry mouth 
  • Shaking 
  • Nausea 
  • Uneasiness 
  • A sense of dread 
  • Sweating 
  • Trembling
  • Feelings of unreality
  • A preoccupation with death or dead things
  • Fear of dying

In some cases, this fear reaction can become so severe that people experience a panic attack. A panic attack is an abrupt fear response that is characterized by symptoms such as a pounding heartbeat, shortness of breath, shaking, feelings of choking, tingling sensations, feelings of unreality or detachment, chills, and a fear of losing control or dying.

Panic attacks are often extremely unpleasant, so people who may begin to avoid any situation where they might encounter the fear source that triggers an attack. For example, a person with necrophobia might avoid taking a certain route so that they do not have to pass by a cemetery or funeral home.

Diagnosis

It is important to remember that a specific phobia such as necrophobia is not the same as a normal fear. Many people have a fairly normal amount of fear or anxiety related to death, dying, and dead things. Normal fear of dead things might involve feeling a little queasy or uneasy when you are around something associated with death. But if you have a serious fear reaction when you see a dead animal on the side of the road, then you might have necrophobia.

If you suspect that you might have necrophobia, you should talk to a doctor or mental health professional. Many mental health professionals and physicians use the criteria outlined in the DSM-5 when diagnosing mental disorders. In order to be diagnosed with a specific phobia, you must experience the following:

  • Significant fear or anxiety related to the fear object
  • The object immediately and consistently triggers the fear response
  • The fear and anxiety is disproportionate to the actual danger the fear object presents
  • You go out of your way to avoid the fear object; if forced to endure the fear, it creates extreme distress
  • Your distress has a significant impact on your life
  • Your symptoms must be present for six months or longer
  • Your symptoms must not be better explained by another disorder, such as an anxiety disorder

A doctor or mental health professional will start by asking you questions about the type of symptoms you are having, how long you have been having them, and how severe they are. Your doctor may also ask you questions about other things that are happening in your life, such as recent events that may have played a part in triggering your symptoms. You should also let your doctor know about any medications or supplements you might be taking.

Treatments

There is no treatment specifically designed for necrophobia, but the treatments commonly used for other types of specific phobias are likely to be effective. Some of the most common treatment options for this type of phobia include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, medications, and relaxation techniques.

CBT addresses the irrational thoughts and behaviors that maintain the fear response. Through CBT, a person can learn to identify the automatic negative thoughts that lead to a phobic reaction. By changing the way that you think about the situation, you can then replace fearful feelings and behaviors with more adaptive, calm, and realistic reactions.

In vivo exposure therapy, which may include gradual exposure or flooding (exposure to the greatest fear), has been shown to be effective when used to treat specific phobias.  

In some cases, doctors and psychiatrists may prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications to help treat some of the symptoms associated with the physical and emotional reactions that people experience. In many cases, a combination of psychotherapy and medication may be used.

Other techniques that might be used to treat phobias include cognitive restructuring, systematic exposure, mindfulness training, and virtual therapy (which involves exposure to the fear object via a computer screen or virtual reality device).

Complications

Specific phobias such as necrophobia can have a serious impact on a person's ability to function and cope. The fear reaction may make it difficult for the individual to function in settings such as school and work.

Potential complications of necrophobia:

  • Isolation: Because the condition often leads to avoidance of any situations that might put the individual in contact with their fear, it can lead to social isolation. In some cases, people may isolate themselves from others.
  • Other disorders: It is not uncommon for people with specific phobias to have co-morbid conditions including depressive or anxiety disorders.
  • Substance use: People may sometimes try to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances in order to try to reduce their feelings of fear.

Prognosis & Prevention

The prognosis for people with specific phobias like necrophobia is good with appropriate behavioral treatments, support, and medications.

While there is no way to eliminate all of the risk factors for necrophobia, getting early treatment is important to prevent the condition from seriously impacting a person’s life and functioning.

Coping

There are also things that you can do that might help make your fear of dead things easier to cope with. Some steps that you can take include:

  • Practice relaxation techniques. Learning how to control your fear response can help you remain calm when confronted with the source of your fear. Strategies such as mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing may be helpful for calming your body’s reactions.
  • Avoid avoidance. While it may be tempting to just avoid the source of your fear, doing this can lead to complications like isolation and life disruptions. Instead, work on dealing with your fears, even if it means having to cope with some distress.
  • Utilize distractions. If you find yourself faced with your fear, look for ways to distract yourself from the object and your body’s fear response. Focusing your mind on something, playing a game on your phone, or going for a quick walk around the block might help get your mind off of your fear.

Necrophobia can lead to serious symptoms that can potentially interfere with many aspects of your daily life. With appropriate treatment, you can cope with or even overcome your feelings of fear.

If your fear interferes with your daily life, creates significant distress, and has lasted for six months or more, talk to your doctor. You can also call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) at 1-800-950-6264 to get support and referrals to mental health services in your area.

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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Specific phobia. Updated November 2017.

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