Thanatophobia Diagnosis and Treatment

Fear of Death

Crosses in the American Cemetery, Tuscany, Italy.

Axel Fassio/Photolibrary / Getty Images

Thanatophobia, or fear of death, is a relatively complicated phobia. Many, if not most, people are afraid of dying. Some people fear being dead, while others are afraid of the actual act of dying. However, if the fear is so prevalent as to affect your daily life, then you might have a full-blown phobia.

The Role of Religion

Many people's fear of death is tied to their religious beliefs, particularly if they happen to be going through a period of questioning. Some people think that they know what will happen after death, but worry that they may be wrong. Some believe that the path to salvation is very straight and narrow, and fear that any deviations or mistakes may cause them to be eternally condemned.

Religious beliefs are highly personalized, and even a therapist of the same general faith may not fully understand a client's beliefs. If the fear of death is religiously based, it is often helpful to seek supplemental counseling from one's own religious leader. However, this should never be used to replace traditional mental health counseling.

Types of Fears

There are numerous reasons for thanatophobia, some of which commonly include the following.

Fear of the Unknown

Thanatophobia may also have roots in fears of the unknown. It is part of the human condition to want to know and understand the world around us. What happens after death, however, cannot be unequivocally proven while we are still alive.

However, at least one study has found that increasing your emotional intelligence can help you deal with your fear of the unknown, thereby lessening your fear of death.

Fear of Loss of Control

Like knowledge, control is something for which humans strive. Yet the act of dying is utterly outside anyone's control. Those who fear the loss of control may attempt to hold death at bay through rigorous and sometimes extreme health checks and other rituals.

Over time, it is easy to see how people with this type of thanatophobia may be at risk for obsessive-compulsive disorder, illness anxiety disorder (formerly called hypochondriasis), and even delusional thinking.

Fear of Pain, Illness, or Loss of Dignity

Some people with an apparent fear of death do not actually fear death itself. Instead, they are afraid of the circumstances that often surround the act of dying. They may be afraid of crippling pain, debilitating illness, or even the associated loss of dignity.

This type of thanatophobia may be identified through careful questioning about the specifics of the fear. Many people with this type of fear also suffer from nosophobia, illness anxiety disorder, or other somatoform disorders.

Fear of Abandoning Relatives

Many people who suffer from thanatophobia are not nearly as afraid to die as they are of what would happen to their families after their death.

Fear of Death in Children

A child's fear of death can be devastating to the parent, but may actually be a healthy part of normal development. Children generally lack the defense mechanisms, religious beliefs, and understanding of death that help adults cope. They also do not fully understand time, making it difficult for them to accept that people sometimes leave and come back again.

These factors can lead children to a muddled and sometimes terrifying concept of what it means to be dead. Whether the fear qualifies as a phobia depends on its severity and the length of time it has been present.

Phobias are generally not diagnosed in children until they have been present for more than six months.

Related Fears

It is not uncommon for people who suffer from thanatophobia to develop related phobias as well. Fears of tombstones, funeral homes, and other symbols of death are common, as they can serve as reminders of the main phobia. Fear of ghosts or other entities is also common, particularly in those whose thanatophobia is based on religious factors.

Thanatophobia Diagnosis

As there are so many possible causes and complications, it is important that thanatophobia is diagnosed only by a trained mental health professional.

He can ask guided questions and help the sufferer figure out exactly what is going on. She can also recognize the symptoms of related disorders and prescribe the appropriate course of treatment.

Treatment for Thanatophobia

The course of treatment largely depends on the client's personal goals for therapy. Is she trying to resolve a religious conflict? Does he simply want to be able to attend Halloween events without panicking?

The therapist must first determine the client's expectations before designing a treatment plan.

Depending on the circumstances, a variety of talk therapy solutions may be appropriate in the treatment of thanatophobia. These may range from cognitive-behavioral to psychoanalytic therapies. Supplemental religious counseling, medications, and other therapeutic alternatives may also be used in conjunction with therapy.

When to Seek Help for Thanatophobia

Whether or not to seek treatment for any phobia is a very personal decision. Regardless of whether you choose to get professional assistance, coping with the fear of death can be an ongoing daily struggle.

Unlike many phobias that are triggered by specific incidents, such as seeing a spider, thanatophobia may be constantly at the back of your mind. You may be interested in discussing this phobia with others who share your fear.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.