What phobia is fear of death

Thanatophobia (death anxiety): Symptoms and overcoming it

Thanatophobia is a form of anxiety characterized by a fear of one’s own death or the process of dying. It is commonly referred to as death anxiety.

Death anxiety is not defined as a distinct disorder, but it may be linked to other depression or anxiety disorders. These include:

  • post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD
  • panic disorders and panic attacks
  • illness anxiety disorders, previously called hypochondriasis

Thanatophobia is different from necrophobia, which is a general fear of dead or dying things, or things associated with death.

In this article, we take a close look at thanatophobia, or death anxiety, to explore the symptoms, causes, and treatments for this fear.

Share on PinterestSomeone may have a phobia about death or dying if they avoid situations involving these subjects.

In the Greek language, the word ‘Thanatos‘ refers to death and ‘phobos‘ means fear. Thus, thanatophobia translates as the fear of death.

Having some anxiety about death is an entirely normal part of the human condition. However, for some people, thinking about their own death or the process of dying can cause intense anxiety and fear.

A person may feel extreme anxiety and fear when they consider that death is inevitable. They may also experience:

  • fear of separation
  • fear of dealing with a loss
  • worry about leaving loved ones behind

When such fears persist and interfere with daily life and activities, this is known as thanatophobia.

In their most extreme, these feelings can stop people from conducting daily activities or even leaving their homes. Their fears center on things that could result in death, such as contamination or dangerous objects or people.

Doctors do not classify thanatophobia as a distinct condition, but it can be classified as a specific phobia.

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.

The fear of death is considered a phobia if the fear:

  • arises almost every time a person thinks about dying
  • persists for more than 6 months
  • gets in the way of everyday life or relationships

Key symptoms that a person may have a phobia of dying include:

  • immediate fear or anxiety when thinking about dying or the process of dying
  • panic attacks that can cause dizziness, hot flushes, sweating, and a raised or irregular heart rate
  • avoidance of situations where thinking about death or dying may be necessary
  • feeling sick or getting stomach pains when thinking about death or dying
  • general feelings of depression or anxiety

Phobias can lead to a person feeling isolated and avoiding contact with friends and family for extended periods of time.

The symptoms may come and go over an individual’s lifetime. Someone with mild death anxiety might experience heightened anxiety when they think about their death or the death of a loved one, such as when they or a family member is seriously ill.

If death anxiety is linked to another anxiety or depressive condition, a person may also experience specific symptoms related to the underlying conditions.

While thanatophobia is defined as a general fear of death, there are many types and causes of this anxiety, and the particulars of what an individual focuses on can vary.

Phobias are often triggered by a specific event in a person’s past, though the person does not always remember what this was. Particular triggers for thanatophobia could include an early traumatic event related to almost dying or the death of a loved one.

A person who has a severe illness may experience thanatophobia because they are anxious about dying, though ill health is not necessary for a person to experience this anxiety. Instead, it is often related to psychological distress.

The experience of death anxiety may differ, depending on individual factors. These include:

  • Age. A 2017 study suggests that older adults fear the dying process, while younger people more commonly fear death itself.
  • Sex. According to a 2012 study, women were more likely than men to fear the death of loved ones and the consequences of their death.

Medical professionals link anxiety around death to a range of mental health conditions, including depressive disorders, PTSD, and anxiety disorders.

Thanatophobia may be linked to:

Specific phobias

Death anxiety is associated with a range of specific phobias. The most common objects of phobias are things that can cause harm or death, including snakes, spiders, planes, and heights.

Panic disorders

A fear of dying plays a role in many anxiety disorders, such as panic disorders. During a panic attack, people may feel a loss of control and an intense fear of dying or impending doom.

Illness anxiety disorders

Death anxiety may be linked to illness anxiety disorders, previously known as hypochondriasis. Here, a person has intense fear associated with becoming ill and excessively worries about their health.

Share on PinterestTalking therapies may help when managing thanatophobia.

Social support networks may help to protect a person against death anxiety. Some people may come to terms with death through religious beliefs, though these may perpetuate a fear of death in others.

Those with high self-esteem, good health, and a belief that they have led a fulfilling life are less likely to have a fear of death than some others.

A doctor may recommend that a person with thanatophobia receive treatment for an anxiety disorder, phobia, or for a specific underlying cause of their fear.

Treatment involves a form of behavioral or talking therapy. This therapy tries to teach the individual to refocus their fears and to work through them by talking about their concerns.

Treatment options for death anxiety include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT works by gently altering a person’s behavioral patterns so that they can form new behaviors and ways of thinking.

A doctor will help a person to come up with practical solutions to overcome their feelings of anxiety. They may work to develop strategies that allow them to be calm and unafraid when talking or thinking about death.


Psychotherapies, or talking therapies, involve talking through anxieties and fears with a psychologist or psychotherapist. These professionals will help someone find out the cause of their fear, and come up with strategies to cope with anxieties that occur during the day.

Sometimes, even just talking about the anxiety can help a person to feel more in control of their fear.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy works by helping a person face their fears. Instead of burying how they feel about death or not acknowledging their concerns, they are encouraged to be exposed to their fears.

A therapist will carry out exposure therapy by very gradually exposing a person to their fear, in a safe environment, until the anxiety response reduces, and a person can confront their thoughts, objects, or feelings without fear.


If doctors diagnose a person with a specific mental health condition, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or PTSD, they may prescribe anti-anxiety medication. This may include beta-blockers or antidepressant medication.

When people use medicines alongside psychotherapies, they are often most effective.

While medication can be beneficial by relieving feelings of panic and stress in the short term, long-term use of such medication may not be the ideal solution. Instead, working through fears in therapy is more likely to provide long-term relief.

Relaxation techniques

Practicing self-care can be powerful for boosting overall mental health, including helping a person feel more able to cope with their anxieties. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine, getting a good night’s sleep, and eating a nutritious diet are some ways to practice self-care.

When a person is experiencing anxiety, specific relaxation techniques can help clear their mind and de-escalate their fears. These may include:

  • doing deep breathing exercises
  • focusing on specific objects in the room, such as counting the tiles on the wall

meditation or focusing on positive imagery

While it is natural to have concerns about the future and the future of loved ones, if the anxiety around death persists for more than 6 months or hinders daily life, it may be worth someone speaking to a doctor.

There are many ways that a person can overcome their fear of death, and a mental health professional will be able to offer guidance and reassurance during this process.

Read the article in Spanish.

Thanatophobia: Understanding Death Anxiety

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.

The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t officially recognize thanatophobia 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
  • distress

Treatment focuses on:

  • learning to refocus the fears
  • talking about your feelings and concerns

Symptoms of thanatophobia may not be present all the time. 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

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:


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


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 older individuals experience thanatophobia less often than younger people.

However, older people 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.


Research has shown that people with higher levels of humility were less 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.

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 6 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 doctor’s unsure of a diagnosis, they may refer you to a mental health provider. This could include:

  • a therapist
  • psychologist
  • psychiatrist

If the mental health provider makes a diagnosis, they may also provide treatment for your condition.

Learn more about finding and choosing a doctor to treat anxiety.

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.


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.

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 be concerning.

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.

Asking for help and learning how to handle these feelings and fears in a healthy way can help you manage your condition and prevent the potential of feeling overwhelmed.

Fear of death: causes of thanatophobia and how to get rid of it

Thanatophobia (fear of death) is an anxiety that many people face, especially in moments like today. Existential psychologist Alena Vanchenko talks about why obsessive thoughts about death arise and how to get rid of the fear of dying - in this material

What is thanatophobia?

Finished reading here

Thanatophobia is the fear of death, but one must separate fear, phobia and phobic disorder. Each of us has fears, and it is normal that from time to time we are afraid of something. If we listened to behavioral psychologists, they would say that the fear of death is the mother of all fears. We are not afraid of dogs, we are afraid that dogs will harm us. We are not afraid of spiders, we are afraid that they will bite us. We are not afraid of heights, but we are afraid that we will break. Behind every fear is the need to save one's own life. All living things are afraid of death. The problem arises when this fear escalates.

Fear of death: causes

In adults, obsessive thoughts about death appear at the time of existential crises related to existential questions. Very often, such fears are exacerbated by funerals, the death of loved ones, the discovery of diseases, in principle, awareness of one's own mortality at different stages of life. They are also aggravated with phobias.

The encyclopedic definition of a phobia is an irrational fear, but death is completely logical, it will happen to all of us. Although a kind of fuse turns on in our head, which suggests that death is happening, but not with us.

The fear of death is also aggravated when a person is in age-related crises, for example, in a midlife crisis when parents pass away. At this moment, we remember our own mortality and understand that half of our life has passed, we begin to ask questions: what good have I done in my life? And at this moment, people embark on various interesting actions - they make young lovers, look for other forms of realization, leave work, because the crisis reminds them that there is not much left to live.

It is also associated with medical operations and physiological changes, such as finding a gray hair or getting a dental implant. And thus we understand that our body is changing, even if we are not aware of such changes.

Why it is normal to be afraid of death

It is typical for any living creature to feel fear for his life, because our main task is to save ourselves. The instinct of self-preservation is triggered: it is very important for us to survive. Therefore, of course, death as the antipode of life causes panic fear.

It must be said that man has gone far from other mammals, because they do not experience an obsessive fear of death. Man is the only being who has realized his own mortality, and this thought has to be digested somehow, no matter how hard it may be. True, there is a hypothesis that elephants also guess about their mortality, because they have the equivalent of a human funeral, they also mourn for the departed.

Phobia of death: when it is time to see a psychotherapist

Thanatophobia is seen as a constant anxiety tension from panic fear and uncertainty about what will happen after. And if it becomes pathological - all thoughts of a person are drowning in anxiety and horror from the fact that he is mortal, and thoughts about death become obsessive, obsessive - this begins to affect the quality of a person's life, manifests itself in seizures, panic attacks. If a person stops leaving the house, limits his life, then we are already talking about a phobic disorder, and this is already a psychiatric diagnosis that requires appropriate treatment.

If we are not talking about a phobic disorder, then a psychologist and psychotherapist can help overcome both fear and phobia, and in the case of a phobic disorder, you need to contact a psychiatrist.

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How to get rid of the fear of death

When we talk about working with phobias in psychotherapy, one of the best means is the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, where we refocus a person’s thought, fight obsessive thoughts, learn tools how to calm yourself, cope with the psychosomatic manifestations of the phobia. We are trying to reframe experience: when we switch from what awaits us beyond death, something terrible and all-consuming, to something that is unknown, and we most likely will not care when it happens to us.

There is a humanistic approach that says that life is worth living, because after death we will not care anymore. From this point of view, the enjoyment of life is promoted, because knowing your deadline, it would be good to accumulate some amount of experience, pleasure and joy by this deadline. Every life ends the same way. But at the same time, the difference is in what it was filled with. This is a kind of refocusing of attention and a possible approach to how to overcome obsessive fear.

How different cultures view death

Different cultures view death differently. In Bali, for example, there are parades of the dead. And when a person passes away in New Orleans in the USA, it is celebrated with dances and songs. This is due to the idea that a loved one ends up in a better world after death, and therefore we need to be happy for him. Attitudes towards death depend not so much on religion as on culture. Religion sets the direction of thought, but culture supports it with rituals and practices.

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How we learn to fear death

Every culture maintains attitudes towards death and burial through social tools and interactions between people. We teach our children how to properly respond to death from a very young age. From the age of five, we learn about death in books and fairy tales. The child has a question: what happened next? And here parents need to very gently and carefully explain this topic to the child. Because the wrong approach in education can lead to the onset of a phobia, the child will have anxiety and obsessive thoughts. Therefore, parents should discuss the topic of death with their children if they have questions.

How the pandemic has affected the perception of death

The pandemic has changed our attitude to death, but not in terms of the fact that it has become commonplace, because the sudden death of loved ones is never commonplace. This is an incredible loss for which the emotion of grief is reserved in the human emotional intelligence, which allows us to learn to live in a new reality.

The pandemic reminded people of mortality, and by doing so did an amazing thing: people suddenly realized that until the moment of leaving for another world came, it would be nice to live. We see activity in the labor market: people leave jobs where they feel uncomfortable because they don’t want to spend their whole lives there. Because they want to do something new, cool in their life, from which they enjoy. Therefore, in response, companies began to think about how to make the lives of employees better.

Is the fear of death dangerous?

The fear of death itself is not dangerous, it's a wonderful thing because it encourages us to avoid making risky decisions that could harm us. Thanatophobia thus contributes to our security. He also reminds us that this life would be worth living. Memento mori - remember death. This fear on the horizon of our consciousness reminds us that everything in life is finite, including ourselves.

But the absence of fear of death is incredibly dangerous. People who have this part of the brain removed, and such an operation is possible, increase the number of risks in life. A person begins to jump with a parachute, put himself in dangerous situations, feels invulnerable and therefore tests his own viability. That is why such things never end well, because the fear of death is an important thing that keeps us alive.

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About the fear of death

Fear of death is typical of a phobic anxiety disorder. We receive a lot of letters describing him. If you want to stop envy from pills, you will have to change your attitude towards the treatment process. You no longer even notice how you are programming yourself for the anxious expectation of an “attack” and the fear of death. You have already formed a powerful phobic installation. The attitudes that shape our words, thoughts and images are a very powerful force. They permeate our entire lives. And we are either their blind hostages, or they are our faithful helpers. Without understanding the mechanism of your harmful thoughts and harmful (as they say dysfunctional among professionals) attitude, it is impossible to get rid of your bad habit of unconscious self-intimidation. It is important to understand that panic disorder or agoraphobia, manifested by panic attacks or regular increased anxiety, is the result of a bad habit. Therefore, it is necessary to treat fear not as a disease that does not depend on you, but as a bad habit, the maintenance or overcoming of which depends on you. The same applies to treatment. It should not be approached passively by simply bringing your body to the specialist and plopping it into a chair or hospital bed. The attitude of therapy of neurosis as to the treatment of a fracture - "they put a cast and wait for it to grow together" - will not work here. As Avicenna (Abu Ali Hussein ibn Abdallah ibn Sina) said a thousand years ago: “There are three of us, you, me and your disease. And whichever side you take, that one will win."

For a person who has experienced symptoms of fear and panic for many years, the need to be aware and recognize something there may seem strange. Many people think that they can immediately distinguish the symptoms of fear from a physical illness, but this is not always the case, and some still confuse one with the other. For example, a person suffering from panic attacks often believes that chest pain or shortness of breath is due to a physical illness (problems with the heart or blood vessels). And these symptoms, no matter how hard it is to believe, are caused precisely by fear. In addition, the symptoms of fear can appear seemingly "out of nothing", but in fact due to stresses that we are not aware of. Since the cardiovascular system is primarily involved in the body's response to stress and it works in an enhanced, but healthy (!) version of functioning, therefore “attacks” can seem like signs of a physical illness. Despite a conscious understanding of the groundlessness of one's own doubts, negative thoughts that sharply exaggerate the degree of danger can still obsessively crawl into one's head. However, nothing at all would ever be attempted if it were required to refute all possible objections. Therefore, it is important to refute your erroneous judgments, justify the safety of your choice and act despite residual anxiety (go outside, enter the elevator or subway). It cannot be said that there are no dangers around us. Anyone who claims this is at least disingenuous or seriously unhealthy. You should not change the black glasses of paranoia for rose-colored glasses of complacency. In both cases, we are in for trouble. Of course, there are dangers and there are many of them, but their probability differs significantly in different situations. And most importantly, learn to accurately and adequately assess these probabilities and risks. The guarantee that nothing can happen to a person is given only by death. Then nothing can happen, only then it is absolutely safe. Therefore, it is important to accept the conditions of real life, where everything is possible. But everything has a different probability. Having accepted the risk of real life, you can, however, not lose your calmness and presence of mind due to accurate and adequate understanding. The main principle in challenging harmful thoughts is a specific and meaningful answer, confirmed by facts and arguments that convince you. Since the harmful thoughts themselves, although they contain errors, are very specific, meaningful and plausible. They cannot be defeated with captive phrases “everything is fine” or “we will break through”. They require hard work, regular and consistent confrontation.

If something is wrong with you and your life, the first thing to do is admit it. One of the most unfortunate ways to deal with things that get in the way of your life is to ignore your inner problems. The second step is to recognize that something needs to be done about these problems, and not sometime, but right now. The third step is a plan of action, which includes the stage of collecting information, the stage of action, consolidating the action with regular training and feedback.

You need to make a list of all your typical harmful thoughts that provoke and increase fear. You will be able to notice and uncover these thoughts if you regularly use the structured self-observation diary described in cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy and train yourself to new thoughts and a new position, which in the future will become as automatic as the harmful habit program worked before.

At the moment of a panic attack, try to remind yourself that “attacks”, or rather, states of anxiety and fear, are already familiar to you and have been successfully experienced before. The present state is not unique (just as the inner diversionary voice of your irrational position does not want to deceive you) and therefore, like the past ones, it will soon pass. This usually takes five to ten minutes.

It is better to abandon the strategy of getting rid of fear as soon as possible. This only reinforces your state of emotional and physical tension. First of all, pinpoint the object of your fear and try to explain to yourself how unreasonable and even ridiculous it is.

Repeat to yourself that, despite your terrible fear, no one has yet died or gone crazy from these attacks. Say to yourself, "This will definitely pass."

Try to identify your current body sensations and emotional state. Explaining to himself: "These are just strong emotions and natural bodily reactions to them, which is safe and harmless for my healthy body."

Give yourself the opportunity to feel uneasy about breathing difficulties and immediately start breathing slowly and rhythmically. You make sure you get enough oxygen.

Every one to two minutes, measure your level of anxiety using a 10-point scale. You will see that despite fluctuations in the level of anxiety, it gradually subsides. Explain to yourself that you are in control and know how to help yourself.

Take 10 slow, deep breaths using the diaphragm.

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