Thanatophobia: How Does It Feel? Main Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
The fear of death has always been known to mankind, from ancient times to today. Among all other phobias, it stands somewhat apart and certainly has its own characteristic features. Fear of death in its phobic manifestation is called thanatophobia. For a long time, scientists and researchers have been arguing about whether the fear of death is irrational. Still, it is clear that thanatophobia, as well as death itself, means for any person much more than it seems.
What Is Thanatophobia?
It’s not a secret that every person thinks about death from time to time. But there are people who have these thoughts constantly. They suffer from thanatophobia.
There are no people who are not afraid of death. But the paradox of thanatophobia is that a person doesn’t know what they are afraid of. If ordinary fear arises in situations of threat to the existence of an individual and is directed at the source of a real or imagined danger, thanatophobia arises without a source of a real threat, and its semantic essence is always associated with death.
Thanatophobia (the fear of death) is a person’s phobia expressed in an obsessive, uncontrollable fear of sudden death or reflection of worries in front of the unknown, something incomprehensible and uncertain. A lot of people admit that they are afraid of death but such recognition does not mean that they are afraid of life or this fear somehow prevents them from living happily. Often educated, inquisitive people have thanatophobia, which is caused by the desire to control their lives in everything. But what concerns death, as well as birth, people cannot do anything about it. So what’s the point of thinking about it, being afraid of it if a person cannot change anything?
About the Illness
In general, the fear of death is a normal phenomenon for absolutely any living being. It is born on the level of instincts. However, among all living beings, only a man is able to realize that death is ultimately inevitable. Depending on the characteristics of one’s own nature and psyche, each individual can look at their own death differently. Scientists believe that the fear of death should be considered not only as a phobia but also as an important part of the mental life of any person. Attempts to avoid the outcome of one’s own existence in any way is already considered a hypochondria, a delusional idea, an obsession which requires special psychotherapeutic or medical treatment. It can be said that to some extent thanatophobia is inherent to every person.
The paradox of the pathological fear of death lies in the fact that a person who suffers from thanatophobia is constantly afraid, even without a source of danger. Although the logical direction of anxiety is a foretaste of one’s own death, however, the patient does not know exactly what triggers it. Some are afraid of the uncertainty that awaits after death, others are afraid of the painful, in their opinion, process of dying.
The fear of death is, first of all, the fear of unknown. Despite the fact that science, religion, and philosophy have a number of theories about what happens to a person after they stop their physical existence, none of them has evidence. Therefore, death remains one of the most unexplored and mysterious phenomena.
In addition, thanatophobia can develop at any age due to certain psychotraumatic factors. It can be a loss of a loved one, subconscious images of death that arose after watching television programs, films, and other materials demonstrating death. Unfortunately, in the modern world, there are such horrible phenomena as wars, terrorism, illnesses. Therefore, it is not surprising that any person who hears about this several times a day from the media starts to fear that something similar will happen to them.
Scientists argue that the uncontrollable fear of death is most characteristic for residents of large cities. There is also a theory that thanatophobia is a kind of the end of the middle age crisis.
The fear of death, in most cases, is explained by the fear of things that can accompany physical dying:
- fear of losing control;
- fear of hurting loved ones and putting problems on their shoulders. Especially acute fear of death can be experienced by people who have small children and other relatives who cannot take care of themselves;
- fear of losing dignity, experiencing pain, etc.
Fear of death can be associated with religious beliefs. The basis of some religions is the belief that after death a person only ceases to exist on earth. What will happen to them further depends on how they lived. This explains the fear of eternal suffering that can follow after death. It is worth noting that the treatment of thanatophobia associated with the religion is the most difficult since not every therapist is able to understand the religious beliefs of their patient and to find the right approach to solve the problem.
Why do some people have the fear of death? Exact reasons are not fully established, although the main theories of the origin of the fear of dying are associated with the influence of society and heredity. Many scientists also call other reasons for the development of this phobia:
- Personal experience associated with the death of someone close. Tragedy and despair caused by the loss of a loved one provoke an inexplicable way of disagreeing with death – irrational fear. The fear of death in children, especially at preschool age, most often appears just for this reason.
- Demonstration and description of negative events related to death through the media. The stories of accidents, murders, and catastrophes cause in some people constant painful thoughts about their own death.
- The fear of the unknown or the desire to keep everything under control can provoke the fear of dying. A person is afraid of what will happen after death since no one knows for sure. They are afraid of what they don’t control. Sometimes a person is afraid to die in a dream.
- Thanatophobia can become a consequence of religious beliefs. The fear of sinning, being subjected to divine judgment, being punished for vicious deeds causes the fear of sudden death.
- The crisis age (35 – 50) when a person experiences painful worries due to a reassessment of priorities, goals, and despair because of unfulfilled hopes. All this can provoke the development of thanatophobia.
- A pregnant woman can be scared of death very much before birth. Especially if her pregnancy proceeds with complications or the woman is to raise the child alone. Thanatophobia before childbirth is caused by the fear for the baby’s future.
- In the elderly, in the presence of typical diseases, fears associated with the expectation of death are very often amplified.
Symptoms of Thanatophobia
People suffering from thanatophobia are characterized by impressionability, excitability, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and ideas. Patients usually experience the lack of self-confidence, constant doubt. As a rule, thanatophobes try to avoid any conversations and mentions of death. They can refuse to attend funerals. In other cases, on the contrary, a person often discusses the topic of death which causes suspicion on the part of others.
Other symptoms of the fear of death include sleep disorders, loss of appetite, decreased libido, and depression. A pathological phobia can acutely manifest as a panic attack with its characteristic signs:
- an acute attack of fear and anxiety;
- increased sweating;
- trembling limbs;
- causeless shortness of breath;
Quite often, people suffering from thanatophobia have some accompanying phobias. They can be afraid of any symbol of death, for example, gravestones or funeral wreaths. In cases where the fear of death has a religious basis, there can be fear of ghosts, spirits, etc. Against the background of this obsessive state, there are often depressive disorders.
How Does It Feel to Live with Thanatophobia?
Since it is very difficult to get rid of thanatophobia on your own, the patient’s life begins to resemble a nightmare when in a panic attack they stop controlling their own thoughts and actions. This has the most negative impact on all areas of life: professional activities, relationships, social activity, etc.
It is believed that the fear of dying, hidden deep in the subconscious, is the basis of almost all phobias. If the obsessive, uncontrollable fear of death comes to the fore – this is the manifestation of thanatophobia. Without treatment, the fear of sudden death can lead to very serious consequences. A person ceases to see the meaning of their existence. One constantly has thoughts that sooner or later they will die anyway. This affects their professional and daily activities; the motivation for doing something and the ability to be happy disappear.
The fear of death can grow into a fear of life. The patient becomes reserved, loses social ties and intimate relationships, as at every corner they see danger, a threat to their health. This is especially true for middle-aged and elderly people. Under the influence of constant anxiety and stress, there are irregularities in the functioning of the body’s systems, manifesting physiological symptoms, vegetovascular dystonia syndrome, and panic attacks.
The predominance of negative emotions causes malfunctions in the nervous system which can lead to irreversible changes in the cerebral cortex and the formation of psychosomatic pathologies. A person who is afraid of dying may be trying to forget the fear with the help of alcohol or drugs. Not seeing the point of living in anticipation of an imminent death, not knowing how to deal with the fear of death, a person can commit suicide. It is also worth noting that obsessive thoughts about death can be caused by prolonged depression.
Consequences of Severe Thanatophobia
Without timely adequate treatment, thanatophobia completely changes a person’s way of life, affecting their personal characteristics. Here are some negative consequences of the disease.
- As a result of the chosen line of behavior, there is a reduction in the number of social contacts and the breakdown of close relationships with people;
- For many people it becomes impossible to carry out daily and professional activities because thanatophobia shapes their motives, putting aside the true meaning of life;
- Under the influence of constant stress at the physiological level, failures in the interaction of the body’s functional systems occur; information disintegration appears;
- With the prevalence of negative emotions, with failures in the processes of excitation-inhibition, irreversible changes in the cerebral cortex of the brain occur: various psychosomatic diseases take place;
- Against the background of a strong prolonged emotional stress, the likelihood of alcoholism and drug addiction increases.
Only a qualified doctor can diagnose thanatophobia and prescribe an effective treatment. The specialist should conduct a conversation with the patient, analyze the anamnesis and clinical complaints. It is important to understand that the more the patient themselves will try to get rid of the problem, the more effective will be the treatment.
Today, the leading method of correction of a phobic disorder associated with the fear of death is cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. The psychotherapist helps the patient to understand the cause of their fears, to understand themselves, and to accept the inevitability of death but not to think of it as something terrible.
Another effective treatment is hypnosis. If a mental disorder does not have severe manifestations, in most cases, only a few sessions are enough to discover the causes of fears and remove them. As a rule, after a successful course of hypnotherapy, its results are fixed with the help of psychotherapeutic sessions. However, hypnosis is not for everyone. That’s why the expediency of its use is determined only by the physician.
If thanatophobia is accompanied by panic attacks with all its somatic symptoms, the doctor can prescribe medication. Antidepressants, sedatives, and other medications are always selected strictly individually. The course of their admission is usually short-lived. So, the patient does not become addicted.
The patient can also help themselves to get rid of an obsessive phobia. To do this, they need to communicate with cheerful, positive people as much as possible, find a pleasant hobby, travel, spend time with the family, try to reach their maximum in professional activity. It is advisable to avoid watching any videos and photographic materials related to death; restrict communication with other thanatophobes because one can “catch” irrational fear. It is important to learn to enjoy life at present, realizing that someday it can end. But don’t wait for it with anxiety and be happy at every moment of it!
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By Maria Shevtsova
Born in Belarus, 1985, a pedagogue and family psychologist. Taking action in support groups organization and social adaptation of the people with mental disorders. Since 2015 is a chief editor of the undepress.net project, selecting the best and up-to-date material for those, who want to get their life back or help someone dear, who got into mental trap.
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