What is Thanatophobia?
Thanatophobia is a complex phobia that involves an extreme fear of death. People having this phobia are specifically afraid of the process of death, of dying or being dead.
The word Thanatophobia comes from “Thanatos”, the personification of death according to Greek mythology.
Like in any other phobia, there is no specific universal cause for Thanatophobia. Instead, various unique traumatic events might lead to the development of this psychological disorder. This may include the death of a friend or a loved one, instilling of magnified apprehension for death due to upbringing and even religious fanaticism. In some cases, thanatophobia may exist concomitantly along with other behavioral or psychological disorders.
The most prevalent factors that lead to this phobia are discussed below:
Fear caused by religion
The fear of death in many people is closely associated with their religious beliefs, especially if they happen to be passing through a phase of questioning. Some individuals believe that they already know what is going to happen to them after they die, but again worry that they might be wrong. Others might have the opinion that the road to salvation is quite narrow and straight, and that any mistakes or deviations might lead to them being eternally condemned.
The various types of religious beliefs pertaining to death are highly personalized, which means that even a therapist or a psychiatrist having the same general faith might find it difficult to fully comprehend a patient’s belief. If Thanatophobia is based on religious beliefs, it is often quite helpful to seek additional help in the form of counseling from the religious leader of the patient’s general faith. However, this should not replace the treatment meted out by the traditional department of mental health counseling.
The Fear of the Unknown
This phobia might also be rooted in the fear of the unknown. It’s a natural part of human condition to be eager to know and comprehend the world around us. However, what takes place after death cannot be unambiguously proven as long as we are alive. Individuals who are very inquisitive and highly intelligent frequently make a group that is vulnerable to this form of thanatophobia, much like those who are in the process of questioning their own religious or philosophical beliefs.
Fear of Losing Control
Just like knowledge, having control over life and things around us is something for which every human being strives. Yet, the very act of dying is something that is completely outside the willful control of a person. People who fear losing control might try to avoid death by sticking to rigorous and occasionally extreme health checks or some other rituals. People having this type of Thanatophobia often develop other associated psychological disorders, such as hypochondriasis, obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as even delusional thinking.
Fear of factors commonly associated with death
Certain individuals who are having an apparent death fear are not actually afraid of death itself. On the other hand, they are frequently afraid of the various circumstances that surround the actual act of dying. This may take on the form of debilitating illness, crippling pain, or a loss of dignity. Thanatophobia of this type may be easily identified by posing careful questions to the patient about the various specific attributes of the fear. A lot of people with this phobia also develop associated conditions such as hypochondriasis, nosophobia, or various other somatoform disorders in due course of time.
Fear attributed to concern about relatives
Many individuals suffering from this phobia are not essentially afraid of dying; but they worry greatly about what would befall their families and loved ones after their death. It is more often seen in single parents, caregivers and new parents. Lingering worries may engulf them that their families would suffer from financial setback or that there would not be anyone to take care of them.
Thanatophobia in Children
A fear of death in children may actually be a normal, healthy part of their development. Children normally lack the various religious beliefs, defense mechanisms, and the understanding of the phenomena of death that are normally used by the adults to cope. They also often find it difficult to understand the concept of time, thus finding it difficult to accept the fact that people might leave indefinitely or may even come back later. These factors might sometimes lead children to develop muddled or even terrifying concepts pertaining to the significance of death. Whether the fear actually qualifies as phobia depend on its severity as well as how long the symptoms have been present. Generally, phobias are not diagnosed in young children unless they are not present for more than 6 months.
It is not the common psychological state of death anxiety, or the philosophically-oriented “existential angst”. People having thanatophobia are so much preoccupied with dying or death that it significantly affects their daily lives. While most people may be somewhat afraid of death and facing the unknown, a thanatophobic individual may be so anxious about the concept of death or what might be involved in it that she or he may refuse to leave home or show unreasonable hostility when the topic of death is mentioned. People suffering from Thanatophobia may also develop other associated disorders while coping with it, such as Hypochondriasis or Obsessive–compulsive disorder.
People suffering from this disease for some time may exhibit a number of symptoms, which may include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Extreme avoidance
- Shortness of breath
- Feelings of panic or dread
- A day-long generalized anxiety
- Difficulty in maintaining relationships
- Having difficulty to focus and concentrate
- Feeling discomfort while visiting hospitals
- Automatic and/or uncontrollable reactions
- Feeling discomfort while attending funerals
- Irrational fears regarding the health of loved ones
- Worrying about sudden aches or pains in the body
- Constantly looking at past as an evidence of what may happen in future
The emotions and feelings that are caused by this painful phobia can be immensely crippling and overpowering, making it difficult for the individual to effectively function in his or her day to day life. When anxiety episodes are triggered, it can be very difficult to have any control over one’s emotions. No matter how much one is reassured by others, it can fall on deaf ears as the fear seems to be very real when the thanatophobic panic attacks begin.
The constant worrying and avoidance behavior may leave an individual completely exhausted both mentally and physically. People often fall into a damaging cycle of depression and procrastination at a life that is trapped instead of being lived.
Diagnosis of thanatophobia should be carried out by trained mental health experts, as a number of possible factors and complications are associated with the disorder. Patients may be asked guided questions which might help them to figure out what exactly are going on. Diagnosticians can also identify the various symptoms of all the related disorders as well as prescribe appropriate courses of treatment.
It is quite common for Thanatophobia patients to develop closely related fears and phobias. The sufferers may exhibit fear of funeral homes, tombstones, as well as other common symbols of death as they can remind them of the primary phobia. Individuals may also experience fear of ghosts and other supernatural entities; this especially happens in people having Thanatophobia based on religious factors.
The condition is best treated by a certified mental healthcare practitioner. The main goal of treatment is to first find out the factor that is initially responsible for causing the patient’s extreme, irrational fear. The therapist talks with the sufferer and makes him or her see that why the fear surrounding death is unfounded, the various ways in which they can come into terms with the traumatic experiences that may have resulted to the phobia, and also the various ways to manage the signs and symptoms of this disorder. This form of therapy is generally very effective, and has been helpful in assisting countless thanatophobic patients to completely overcome or at least successfully coping with the symptoms for years, if not for rest of their lives.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is another means to treat this condition. In this mode of treatment, the patient goes for sessions with the therapist where in gradual and systemic progression he or she confronts the actual source of fear along with learning to effectively control the mental and physical reactions to it. This allows a patient to face his or her phobia head on, get accustomed to it and realize that the initial fears were not based on any real, imminent danger.
A number of therapists and help groups can assist in coping up with the disorder as well as the psychological difficulties that are associated with it. This can also be followed by medications, supplemental religious counseling, as well as other therapeutic alternatives to effectively manage this condition.
The prognosis for treatment of Thanatophobia patients is mostly positive, with people eventually developing the ability to overcome their irrational fears of death. Treatment is successful in most cases, with the majority of patients being able to live satisfying lives.