Everything You Should Know About Thanatophobia

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP, ACRN, CPH on September 27, 2017Written by Kimberly Holland on September 27, 2017

What is thanatophobia?

Thanatophobia is commonly referred to as the fear of death. More specifically, it can be a fear of death or a fear of the dying process.

It’s natural for someone to worry about their own health as they age. It’s also common for someone to worry about their friends and family after they’re gone. However, in some people, these concerns can develop into more problematic worries and fears.

Thanatophobia isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a disorder. Instead, the anxiety someone may face because of this fear is often attributed to general anxiety.

Signs and symptoms of thanatophobia include anxiety, dread, and distress. Treatment focuses on learning to refocus the fears and to talk about your feelings and concerns.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of thanatophobia may not be present at all times. In fact, you may only notice signs and symptoms of this fear when and if you start to think about your death or the death of a loved one.

The most common symptoms of this psychological condition include:

  • more frequent panic attacks
  • increased anxiety
  • dizziness
  • sweating
  • heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats
  • nausea
  • stomach pain
  • sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures

When episodes of thanatophobia begin or worsen, you may also experience several emotional symptoms. These may include:

  • avoidance of friends and family for long periods of time
  • anger
  • sadness
  • agitation
  • guilt
  • persistent worry

What are the risk factors?

Some people are more likely to develop a fear of death or experience dread at the thought of dying. These habits, behaviors, or personality factors can increase your risk for developing thanatophobia:

Age

Death anxiety peaks in a person’s 20s. It fades as they get older.

Gender

Both men and women experience thanatophobia in their 20s. However, women experience a secondary spike of thanatophobia in their 50s.

Parents near end of life

It’s been suggested that elderly individuals experience thanatophobia less often than younger people. However, the elderly may fear the dying process or failing health. Their children, however, are more likely to fear death. They’re also more likely to say their parents are afraid of dying because of their own feelings.

Humility

People who are less humble are more likely to worry about their own death. People with higher levels of humility feel less self-importance and are more willing to accept life’s journey. That means they’re less likely to have death anxiety.

Health issues

Individuals with more physical health problems experience greater fear and anxiety when considering their future.

How is thanatophobia diagnosed?

Thanatophobia isn’t a clinically-recognized condition. There are no tests that can help doctors diagnose this phobia. But a list of your symptoms will give doctors a greater understanding of what you’re experiencing.

The official diagnosis will likely be anxiety. Your doctor, however, will note that your anxiety stems from fear of death or dying. Some people with anxiety experience symptoms longer than six months. They may also experience dread or worry about other issues, too. The diagnosis for this broader anxiety condition may be generalized anxiety disorder.

If your general practitioner is unsure of a diagnosis, they may refer you to a mental health specialist. This could include a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. If the mental health specialist makes a diagnosis, they may also provide treatment. Learn more about finding and choosing a doctor to treat anxiety.

How is thanatophobia treated?

Treatment for anxiety and phobias like thanatophobia focus on easing the dread and worry associated with this topic. To do this, your doctor may use one or more of these options:

Talk therapy

Sharing what you experience with a therapist may help you better cope with your feelings. Your therapist will also help you learn ways to cope when these feelings occur.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

This type of treatment focuses on creating practical solutions to problems. The goal is to eventually change your pattern of thinking and put your mind at ease when you face talk of death or dying.

Relaxation techniques

Meditation, imagery, and breathing techniques may help reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety when they occur. Over time, these techniques may help you reduce your specific fears in general.

Medication

Your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce anxiety and feelings of panic that are common with phobias. Medication is rarely a long-term solution, however. It may be used for a short period of time while you work on facing your fear in therapy.

What’s the outlook?

Worrying about your future, or the future of a loved one, is normal. While we can live in the moment and enjoy one another, the fear of death or dying can still concern anyone.

If the worry turns to panic or feels too extreme to handle on your own, seek help. A doctor or therapist can help you learn ways to cope with these feelings and how to redirect your feelings.

If your worries about death are related to a recent diagnosis or the illness of a friend or family member, talking with someone about what you’re experiencing can be helpful.

Don’t let this fear or worry overwhelm you. Ask for help, and learn how to handle these feelings and fears in a healthy way.

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