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Thanatophobia, also called ‘Death Anxiety,’ is a chronic fear of death. It is a common type of anxiety. Some anxiety about death is a normal experience for most people, especially if you or someone you love is ill. Many people can feel anxious or afraid of going to a funeral. If you have an extreme fear of either your own death, or a loved one dying, however, it can become very distressing for you and your family. Avoiding activities or anything associated with a risk of death, however slight, can disrupt your daily life. If you have a recurring fear of death that is causing problems, talking to a mental health professional might be helpful for you.
There are several phobias related to death and dying:
- Necrophobia (fear of dead people and animals)
- Taphophobia (fear of being buried alive)
- Placophobia (fear of tombstones)
- Coimetrophobia (fear of cemeteries)
Thanatophobia is the most common type of anxiety related to death and dying.
What are the symptoms of thanatophobia?
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‘Death Anxiety’ is not recognised as a distinct medical condition, but is widely reported and related to generalised anxiety disorder.The symptoms triggered by thanatophobia are similar to feelings experienced by people with other types of anxiety:
- Hot flushes or chill
- Shortness of breath or a choking sensation
- Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
- Pain or tightness in the chest
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Dizziness and confusion
- Feeling faint
- Numbness or pins and needles
- Dry mouth
- A need to go to the toilet
- Ringing in the ears
Extreme episodes of death anxiety can trigger panic attacks.
If you are anxious about death or illness you might spend hours obsessively researching health conditions or other risks to your life. Conversations, news stories, television programmes or events, such as funerals, related to death, might be upsetting for you.
Who suffers from thanatophobia?
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Thanatophobia can affect people of any age or gender, but seems more common amongst people in their 20s, and women. Some studies have noted that younger people fear death itself, whereas older people are worried about the process of dying. Some people develop an extreme fear of a loved one, such as their child, dying. Anxiety often has no obvious cause, but phobias such as thanatophobia seem more likely to peak in people who have worries in other areas of their lives, including stress or social isolation. If you have thanatophobia the death of someone close to you, especially if you were very young when it happened, might be a possible cause of it.
What is the treatment for thanatophobia?
It is often not possible to ‘cure’ anxieties and phobias, but they can be managed. The treatment of phobias often involves exposure therapy, but this is not possible if you have thanatophobia, which makes it more difficult to treat. Talking therapies, such as CBT, can be very effective. The focus of treatment for your fear of death is on coping with anxious feelings as they arise to minimise intrusion in your life.
Lifestyle changes that might improve your general wellbeing, such as reducing stress, improving diet and exercise patterns, and cultivating a more fulfilling social life, can also be very helpful.
All types of anxiety and phobia affect people differently and you might have to try multiple coping strategies or treatments before you find one that works for you.
Who can help me if I suffer from thanatophobia?
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If you or someone you love is suffering from thanatophobia, or any other type of anxiety, you can get psychotherapy on the NHS. You can refer yourself to these services, or ask your GP to do it for you.
The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies has a directory of accredited CBT therapists in the UK and Republic of Ireland. You can be seen more quickly by private therapists, but it can be very expensive.
The NHS has a list of several mental health apps that might help you manage the anxiety caused by thanatophobia.
Extreme ‘death anxiety’ might seem unusual, but many people are affected by it and you should not be ashamed of being open about your feelings and pursuing treatment if you feel that it might help you.