Fear of Death or Thanatophobia

Fear of death or thanatophobia refers to pathological anxiety about the experience of dying. We'll take a closer look in today's article
Fear of Death or Thanatophobia
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 11 March, 2023

Everyone feels some degree of uncertainty, rejection, or misgivings regarding death. This is considered normal and is part of the ignorance of what the process itself will be like, as well as what happens after it. However, some people reach pathological borders in this regard. In these cases, we’re talking about fear of death, death anxiety, or thanatophobia.

The term thanatophobia was first used by Sigmund Freud in a 1915 collection of essays titled Thoughts for the Time on War and Death. He related it to the unconscious belief about the idea of immortality. Anxiety regarding death is a very complex phenomenon, with many facets and multiple implications in a person’s life.

The characteristics of the fear of death

A woman dressed in a black dress placing a flower on a casket.
There are many traumatic experiences that can occur throughout life and that are capable of leading to fear of death.

As experts point out, the fear of death can be conceptualized in two ways: fear of the idea of death or fear of the process of dying. Although together they make up thanatophobia, they’re not similar manifestations.

The first case refers to the experience of ceasing to exist and the uncertainty that this involves. In the second case, it refers to the way in which it happens and its implications (for example, dying from an agonizing illness, in a car accident, in a fire, and so on).

Depending on the way in which death anxiety is conceptualized, it’s characterized by many things. For example, the uncertainty about what happens to the body after death, the fear of lost time during the course of life, the panic of suffering during the process, the fear of the unknown, and the fear of loneliness. As a person approaches the last hours of their life, this thanatophobia intensifies.

There are many factors that affect the development of the fear of dying. According to specialists, feelings of this type are more common in people who lack the following:

  • High self-esteem
  • A good state of health
  • Entrenched religious beliefs
  • A good circle of friends and family
  • A feeling of fulfillment in life
  • A fighting spirit

The fear of death is significantly common in people with emotional disorders and health problems. Experts caution that it’s common in people with an anxiety disorder, and most people with advanced cancer are known to develop it. There’s also evidence that those who lack a life project have a higher risk of manifesting anxiety about dying.

It’s important to keep in mind that thanatophobia can also develop in relation to others. That is, expressing anxiety about the death or death process of people that a person’s close to.

Thanatophobia is something that we find in all cultures, although it’s true that in some, it may be more common than in others. This phenomenon is different from necrophobia, the fear of things related to death (corpses, cemeteries, tombstones, coffins, and so on).

The consequences of the fear of death

The fear of death causes pain
On many occasions, the fear of death can be disabling, especially if you suffer from other psychiatric problems.

The day-to-day consequences of thanatophobia vary greatly. This is because not all people develop the same degree of intensity or have the ability to deal with anxiety. We’ve already established that the fear of the idea of dying and the fear of the process of dying are different manifestations. Based on these, the phenomenon will have different consequences in life.

For example, those who have developed a fear of dying are prone to somatizations. In very simple terms, somatization consists of transforming psychological conflicts into physical symptoms that affect the health of the body. Some of them may even manifest signs of illness anxiety disorder, known until recently as hypochondriasis.

On the contrary, those who have developed a fear of the idea of dying are prone to affective or emotional disorders. For example, anxiety disorders and depressive disorders.

They can also be prone to problems with self-esteem, experiences of loneliness, anguish over their life project, and more intense mourning. In both cases, a person may avoid doing things thinking that there’s a risk of dying involved or that they don’t make sense because, eventually, death will come.

The treatment for fear of death

Thanatophobia is not a clinical diagnosis. In fact, the very term phobia is debatable. This doesn’t imply that there are no ways to address it, as psychological therapy is considered the best available strategy for those who’ve developed the phenomenon. Talk therapies, exposure therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy, and others may be considered for support.

In the same way, the accompaniment of family and friends can also make a radical difference. In the process, medical support may be considered in the event that illness or poor health have triggered death anxiety. Depending on its causes and the intensity of the symptoms, the use of medications to address anxiety can be considered.

Uncertainty about the future, and specifically death, is very common. In general, when the thoughts about it don’t interrupt the psychological well-being and the daily life of a person, it’s considered normal. If this isn’t the case for you, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Este texto se ofrece únicamente con propósitos informativos y no reemplaza la consulta con un profesional. Ante dudas, consulta a tu especialista.