We have all heard the saying, that in life, only two things are certain – death and taxes.
Whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, death is inevitable. That’s just how things are. Death is “the great equalizer”, because no matter who you are, or whatever your status in life is, there is no escaping death.
Most of us fear death because of the unknown, such as what happens when we die, or is there life after death?
While most of us would go on with our daily lives and set aside this morbid thought, some people seem to be consumed by it.
These people are so afraid of death, that they are suffering from what is known as - thanatophobia.
Signs and Symptoms of Thanatophobia
- According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a phobia is an anxiety disorder relating to a specific object or situation.
- If a person’s fear always comes up when he thinks about dying, and it lasts for more than six months it could be a symptom of the disorder. If the fear gets in the way of his daily life, and his relationships are affected, it could be a sign that he is suffering from thanatophobia.
- Below are the common symptoms exhibited by people with thanatophobia:
- Sudden fear or deep anxiety when thoughts of death come to mind
- Dizziness, cold sweat, hot flushes, and panic attacks
- Sick feeling when the thought of death is brought up
- Rapid heart rate or palpitation
- Dry mouth and shortness of breath
Causes and Common Triggers of Thanatophobia
Nobody is born to fear death. And so it is obvious that the fear of it is something that we’ve learned as we grow, and become aware of its concept or eventuality. A person may have experienced losing someone dear to him or her at a young age. Or he/she witnessed a tragic accident where someone died. These are possible reasons for a person to fear death because of the impact it had on him or her.
Below are some of the causes and common triggers of thanatophobia:
- The fear of sudden or unexpected death
- The fear of a prolonged death
- Fear of an agonizing or gruesome death
- The fear of the unknown, or what happens after death?
- The fear of what will happen to loved ones after one's death
- The fear based on traumatic life experiences
Treatments of Thanatophobia
Most phobias do not require treatment especially if it’s in its mild form, and the person is still able to function normally in life. The person can adjust to his or her phobia and keep it under control.
A treatment is advised if the phobia affects his way of life, whether personally or at work, and his relationship with friends, family, and colleagues suffer. Psychotherapy is the recommended treatment on these types of situations to help him or her overcome the fear of death.
There is no specific drug to treat thanatophobia or phobias in general. Anxiolytic drugs may be used to relieve the anxiety resulting from the person having to confront the object of his or her fear.
Here are the acceptable treatments for people with thanatophobia. Studies have shown that these treatments have helped lessen the fear in most patients:
For most phobias, exposure therapy is said to be the most successful. There are several studies conducted about treatments of phobias using imaginal exposure. This means for people with Thanatophobia, they will be gradually exposed to images that imply or depicts death. Based on the same studies, 90% of subjected to the treatment exhibited a considerable fear reduction. And around 65% no longer experienced any symptoms of their phobias.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
This is another form of treatment for persons with phobias. It is a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve mental health. What it does is it helps the patient to challenge or change their thoughts or beliefs in addressing their problems. This treatment was originally meant to treat depression, but has since been expanded to treat other conditions including anxiety, which is common and exhibited by most or all phobic people.
Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT)
In this type of therapy, the patient is given a simulated experience using computer programs and artificially created environments. They use Virtual Reality gadgets to provide the patient a controlled stimuli as part of the treatment. They then monitor the patient’s reaction. It’s a series of VR-based treatment where it involves adjusting the virtual environment. Sometimes smell or adding vibrations allow the clinician to determine the level of the patient's reaction to the stimuli. Replaying virtual scenes multiple times with or without adjustment depending on the patient's reaction.
Societal and Cultural Impact of Thanatophobia
In a study conducted on US municipal court judges, based on a hypothetical scenario involving an alleged prostitute, they were asked to set bail bonds for the "accused prostitute". Judges who were confronted with their mortality set the bond almost 10 times higher than judges who were not confronted. It shows that thinking about the prospect of death makes people more punitive.
How Common Is Thanatophobia?
In general, the fear of death is experienced by the majority of people. But there are still no data available on how many people have thanatophobia. In studies of the top 10 phobias, thanatophobia did not make it to the list.
What Should You Do If You Have Thanatophobia?
As with any type of phobia, the best thing to do is seek medical or professional help. Psychotherapy is one way to help you, as the psychotherapist will find out the root cause of your fear. Joining online support groups related to your phobia may also help, as you will be able to find other people that are experiencing the same fears as you.
Thanatophobia as with any type of phobia is a mental condition that can be treated. It's important to know all the available options for you to get in case you are diagnosed with it.