What Is Thanatophobia?

Understanding prolonged, excessive fear of death

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Thanatophobia is an extreme fear of your own death, the process of dying, and/or the death of someone you care about. Many people have uncertain feelings about death, but this condition can have such an impact that it can cause panic attacks and hinder your everyday life.

Thanatophobia is sometimes called death anxiety.

This article discusses thanatophobia—symptoms, diagnosis, causes, and treatment of this condition.

A person on a couch with a phone and a text that says: Sorry, I can't make it tonight. (Symptoms of Thanatophobia)

Verywell / Mira Norian

What Are the Symptoms of Thanatophobia?

Symptoms of thanatophobia occur when you are forced to think about or confront your fear. For example, you might experience fear and anxiety in situations related to death and dying—such as being in a hospital, reading obituaries, or hearing about someone's death.

You'll likely find yourself avoiding the topic of death, both in real-life situations and in stories such as the books you read and shows or movies that you watch.

Thanatophobia can lead to panic attacks when you are confronted by your fears. Symptoms of a panic attack can include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Feeling like you need to "escape" the situation
  • Feeling out of control or powerless

Thanatophobia was first mentioned by Sigmund Freud in 1915 and was thought to be related to an unconscious belief in immortality (the ability to live forever).

Death Anxiety in Children

Children can also experience thanatophobia, but symptoms can look more like defiant behavior than typical symptoms of anxiety. For example, children might try to avoid their phobias by refusing to follow directions at home or in other environments, such as school. Other behaviors can include throwing tantrums, crying, and physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach pain.

Unlike an adult with death anxiety, a child isn't able to understand that their fear is irrational.

Causes of Death Anxiety

The exact cause of thanatophobia isn't known, but a variety of factors can increase a person's risk of developing this disorder.

  • Trauma: Phobias can develop from personal trauma or near-death experiences or from hearing someone else talk about their traumatic experiences.
  • Environment: Children who are raised with anxious or overprotective parents can develop death anxiety.
  • History of abuse: People who have been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused are more likely to develop phobias.
  • Death of a parent: Death anxiety can occur after a person experiences the death of a parent.
  • Divorce: Children whose parents go through separation or divorce have an increased risk of developing phobias.
  • Religious teachings: Certain religions teach people that they will be punished after death for the way they lived their lives. This can lead to thanatophobia.
  • Age: Thanatophobia often occurs in middle-aged people. During this phase of life, a person begins to experience the death of friends, parents, and siblings. Death anxiety actually decreases as a person becomes elderly.
  • Chronic illness: People living with chronic illness are more likely to have a phobia of death, especially if the illness does not have a cure.

Diagnosis of Thanatophobia

Thanatophobia can be classified under "specific phobia," which is a type of anxiety disorder included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). This manual provides information about specific criteria used to help diagnose mental health conditions.

Specific phobias have the following diagnostic criteria:

  • Symptoms last longer than six months
  • Object of the phobia (such as death) causes immediate fear or anxiety
  • Symptoms interfere with daily function
  • Fear is out of proportion to the actual danger associated with the object of the phobia
  • Object of the phobia is avoided or endured with extreme fear and anxiety

Treatment for Thanatophobia

Therapy is very important in the treatment of thanatophobia. Medications are also sometimes used to manage symptoms of anxiety.

Therapy

Therapy is a primary treatment for phobias, such as thanatophobia. The most effective type of therapy used for this condition is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The focus of CBT for thanatophobia is identifying behaviors, thoughts, and feelings about death and dying and changing negative thought patterns.

Exposure therapy is a particular type of CBT that has been found to be successful in treating phobias. This type of treatment involves gradual exposure to the object of your fear while working through the anxiety symptoms with positive self-talk and relaxation techniques.

Sometimes it's impossible for therapy to provide real-life, in-person exposure to your particular phobia. However, virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) has also been shown to be an effective treatment for specific phobias.

Medication

Medications do not directly treat thanatophobia, but they can help reduce symptoms of anxiety that occur with this condition.

Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), are commonly used to treat anxiety caused by phobias. However, it can take weeks or even a couple of months for these medications to show improvement in your symptoms.

Examples include:

  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Lexapro (escitalopram)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Effexor (venlafaxine)
  • Celexa (citalopram)

Benzodiazepines are another type of medication used to treat phobias. These drugs are fast-acting and are taken while experiencing symptoms caused by your condition. These medications can be addicting and have side effects, including fatigue.

Examples include:

  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)

Coping Techniques for Death Anxiety

The best way to cope with thanatophobia is to seek treatment. However, there are other coping strategies that you can use to cope with anxiety. These include:

  • Use deep breathing techniques when you feel anxious
  • Exercise regularly
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Get enough sleep
  • Avoid caffeine
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Make time for hobbies
  • Share your fears with close friends and family

Summary

Thanatophobia is an irrational fear of dying. This condition causes severe anxiety symptoms when confronted with the topic of death or the process of dying. Symptoms can include chest pain/pressure, sweating, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, nausea, and feeling powerless.

Thanatophobia can occur from previous trauma, history of abuse, and other environmental factors. Treatment for thanatophobia primarily includes therapy. Coping strategies and sometimes medications can help decrease symptoms of anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

Living with an anxiety disorder such as thanatophobia can feel isolating, but the truth is, this condition is common throughout the world. Ignoring your symptoms won't make them go away. Be proactive and talk to your healthcare provider about therapy and other treatment options to reduce your overall anxiety.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How common is thanatophobia?

    Specific phobias (including thanatophobia) affect about 8% of the population in the United States each year.

  • Is necrophobia the same as thanatophobia?

    Thanatophobia is an irrational fear of dying, while necrophobia is a fear of dying or dead bodies.

  • Why can't I stop thinking about death?

    Intrusive thoughts about death can be a sign of thanantophobia, anxiety disorders, or other mental health conditions. Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms.

  • How do I talk to someone about my fear of dying?

    Talking to a therapist can help you address your fear of dying. Ask your healthcare provider for recommendations, or use an online directory.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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