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Thanatophobia: Being Deathly Afraid of Dying

Thanatophobia is observed to be more common among women/ Photo By fizkes via Shutterstock

 

Fearing death is found to be healthy in mild cases, since it may cause a person to be more careful with their health and lifestyle says Verywell Mind. However, an excessive fear of it may cause a person to develop anxiety. It has been noted that a majority of people around the world fear death in different degrees. Some individual’s fears of it have reached a severe point. When they experience this intense fear of death, they have come to develop a condition known as Thanatophobia.

Thanatophobia is observed to be more common among women than men. Although the symptoms for both start appearing in their 20s, women have a second spike of it around their 50s.

 

What is Thanatophobia?

Thanatophobia is the excessive fear of death or the process of dying, Healthline states. Since it is not officially listed as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, it is sometimes diagnosed as general anxiety.

It comes from the two Greek words “Thanatos”, after the Greek god of death, and “phobos” meaning “fear.” Medical News Today says it also clinically known as death anxiety.

 

Kinds of Death Fears

According to Angela Morrow, a certified hospice and palliative care nurse, the fear of death has many subtypes. The types of death fears include:

1. Fear of Pain and Suffering

Those who are affected by Thanatophobia may fear that when they face their death, they will feel intense pain and torture.

2. Fear of the Unknown

Since it is natural for humans to have an inherent desire to make sense of the world and what is happening around them, it is understandable that the concept of death which is never fully understood can be scary for most people. No one has ever been able to emerge from death and narrate what actually happens after a human’s last breath.

 

some individuals who fear death because they believe it will totally erase their existence/ Photo By Sementsova Lesia via Shutterstock

 

3. Fear of Non-existence

There are also some individuals who fear death because they believe it will totally erase their existence. This type of death fear is commonly linked to atheists or those who do not practice a religion. However, there are some religious people who may fear that there is actually no such thing as an afterlife. They may also fear that with the kind of life they have lived, they would not be entitled to have eternal life after death.

4. Fear of Eternal Punishment

This type of death fear is usually associated with religious people, but those who do not have spiritual beliefs may also have this fear. Some people are afraid of death because they believe that after dying, they may receive punishment for what they did on earth or what they were unable to do.

5. Fear of Loss of Control

It is human nature to want to be able to gain control over circumstances. The fact that death is one of the things they are unable to manage may induce extreme fear in some individuals. Certain people may try to obsessively control the occurrence of death in a few ways. They may act extremely cautious by avoiding risks or going through incessant health check-ups.

6. Fear of the Future of Loved Ones

The thought that they will have to leave the people they have formed attachments with may also scare individuals. They may fear that no one will be able to look after their children when they die and may cause them to worry. If they are assigned to take care of a certain family member, for example, their elderly grandmother, they may have the apprehension that nobody will be able to provide their needs and demands once they are dead. Others who are involved in romantic relationships may fear the idea that their lover or spouse will be left alone after their death.

 

Causes and Risk Factors of Thanatophobia

There are various triggers that may cause a person to have Thanatophobia. Some of the reasons a person may suffer from an extreme fear of death are:

Parents approaching the ends of their lives

Elderly people are noted to be less afraid of death than the young ones. Their fear of death may come more from their deteriorating health or the process of dying. Children are said to be more prone to having Thanatophobia.

Being Less Humble

People who have more self-importance are said to be more anxious about dying. Those who are more humble or have less self importance tend to be more accepting of death.

Having Health Issues

People who are currently diagnosed with physical health conditions may feel an increased fear and may have anxiety when they think about what may happen to them in the future.

Childhood Trauma

Sigmund Freud said that the fear of death may caused by childhood trauma that an individual was unable to adress.

Terror Management Theory (TMT)

Ernst Becker, the proponent of the Terror Management Theory, claims that it is normal for people to have death anxiety when they find the concept of death and dying unacceptable. He further expounds that goals people set, their hobbies and all the other activities they do are merely coping strategies to distract them from worrying about facing death.

Becker also stated that people have a basic desire to oppose the inevitability of death. He explains that people want to attain their personal goals because they know that there will come a time when their lives will end.

 

Post Traumatic Growth Theory (PTG)

This theory explains that when a person experiences a distressing event it can have a positive effect on them. Seeing a loved one die or worrying about their health problems may cause them to become more goal-oriented.

 

Symptoms

It is noted that the signs and symptoms of Thanatophobia do not manifest often, except for when the person has to confront the thought of death or the way of dying. People who are affected by this condition may experience dizziness, continual panic attacks and rising anxiety. They may also have irregular heartbeats or heart palpitations, become sweaty and feel nauseous. Other symptoms include experiencing stomach pain being sensitive to hot or cold temperatures.

Some symptoms may be more emotional in nature. As Thanatophobia patient’s symptoms become worse, they may start to avoid their loved ones for long durations. They may also continually worry about death. In addition they may feel sad about the thought of dying or feel anger, guilt and agitation.

 

Treatment

To be able to recover from Thanatophobia, the phobic must get help from a trained mental health professional. There are many treatment options that they can use. They may choose to undergo therapy, use relaxation techniques, take medication or use a combination of these methods.

Therapy

The suggested therapies for someone who suffers from Thanatophobia are:

1. Talk Therapy

If the patient decides to go through talk therapy, they may be able to consult a therapist and talk about their problem. This may help them manage their feelings and in the process learn more strategies to cope with their negative emotions.

2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This helps the patients look for efficient solutions to their problems. This treatment method aims to alter wrong patterns of thinking and make them more comfortable with talking about death or dying.

It is specifically suggested by Dr. Patricia Furer and Dr. John Walker, authors of the study Death Anxiety: A Cognitive Behavioral Approach that they undergo a six-step CBT. This therapy covers:  

First, being exposed to their fear such as attending funerals or visiting cemeteries.

Second, reducing reassurance seeking behaviors or helping them to cease from constantly checking their body for alarming changes by consulting their mentors or peers about their worries on death.

Third, reviewing their own personal experiences by reflecting on the death of a loved one.

Fourth, they are advised to switch their focus on feeling pleasure in life by pointing out their goals which may be short-term, medium-term or long-term and dwell on the best way they can attain them.

Fifth, they will also be encouraged to practice a healthy lifestyle and deal with their stressors.

Last, the therapist will help them prevent their anxiety from relapsing by creating coping strategies for them.
 

 

meditation could help the anxiety brought by thanatophobia/ Photo By Ditty_about_summer via Shutterstock

 

Self - Help

Relaxation Techniques

The individual affected by Thanatophobia may try meditation, imagery or use breathing techniques to aid them in lessening their anxiety which springs from their fear.

Medication

Some doctors may recommend Thanatophobia patients to take medication that helps them manage their anxiety and panic, although this will only be taken for a short duration.

Additional Ways of Dealing With Thanatophobia

Aside from the previous methods mentioned, if the cause of fear is leaning more towards spiritual beliefs, they may seek the counsel of their religious leader and discuss their experiences with them.

They may also try other therapeutic alternatives or educate themselves about death-related activities. Participating in events as ones organized by The Order of the Good Death, a group professionals who teach the public about death-related practices may help reduce their fear of death. Attending the Death Cafe, an event where people meet to talk about themes of death, may also increase their awareness about dying and help them live a productive life.

 

The Conflict of Avoiding Death and Facing It

Presently, there are several healthcare professionals who contend over how to manage the fear of death. Some of them may also suffer from Thanatophobia and other experts struggle with discussing topics associated with death.

As a result of this fear, there are technologies made as an attempt in the preservation of human life.  One example is cryonics, where a person’s body is frozen when the current medical technology cannot support their body or cure their health problem anymore. The body is frozen in hopes that  it can be revived by a more advanced medical technology that may be developed in the future. Another example is augmented eternity, where a person can have digital heirs by allowing them to “borrow” their digital identity after they die.  This digital identity of theirs may come in the form of a chatbot which responds in a similar manner as the person would while they were alive.

With the ongoing debate of whether one must avoid death or face it, people are forced to find ways of managing the mortality of their own and others to be able to live a fulfilling life.

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