by Andrea M. Darcy
Is a fear of death secretly consuming your thoughts? Or something that wakes you up at night? You need to learn about ‘death anxiety’.
Is a fear of death normal?
It’s normal to fear the unknown. And, while other cultures celebrate death, such as Mexico’s famous ‘Day of the Dead’, most of Western society doesn’t discuss death much.
This is changing with the popularity of ‘death cafes’ and ‘death doulas’. But in general, most people are uneducated about what death entails, and feel mild anxiety thinking about it.
In some ways this mild anxiety about our mortality, triggered by things like losing a loved one, reading about a tragedy, or a health scare, is useful.
It reminds us to make the most of our lives. To take care of our health, to seek purpose, and to make time for those we love.
When is it ‘death anxiety’?
Are thoughts of death and dying are often nagging at you? Is your lifestyle increasingly dictated by this fear?
Fear of death and dying is at the point you need support if you:
What is thanatophobia?
Thanatophobia is not an official psychological diagnosis. It is instead a popular term used to refer to a general fear of death and death anxiety.
If thinking of death is causing you serious symptoms, you might instead receive a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). This would mean your thoughts of death and dying are increasingly illogic and give you symptoms like heart palpitations, sweating, dizziness, stomach pain, and panic attacks. You might also feel agitated, moody, and withdraw from usual social activity.
Other mental health issues connected to a fear of dying
If you already suffer from anxiety and depression, you are more likely to have death anxiety.
Thoughts of death and dying could also be connected to obsessive compulsive disorder. In this case, obsessive thinking about death then causes an ordered, repeated reaction, such as a series of tasks you do to ‘save’ yourself or those you love from death. This could be physical, like hand washing or ordering, or mental compulsions, like a checklist you go through repeatedly.
Is it really death you are afraid of?
Sometimes it’s not actually all things related to dying that is causing you upset. By identifying the actual trigger for your anxiety, you can shrink the cloud you sense hovering behind you, and deal with your phobia.
What part of death is scary for you? Is it one of the below, or a combination? Are you afraid of;
- pain and suffering?
- what lies beyond death?
- worries there is a hell?
- dying young?
- causing people upset and responsibility?
- not having done enough with your life?
- being forgotten?
- your children being without you?
How to feel less afraid of death and dying
A 2018 review of research on fear of death and dying led by King’s College in London identified the following as traits found in people who do not suffer a fear of death. They are all things you can work to have in your life:
Or try giving yourself credit for what you have been and done.
A famous psychological model by psychologist Erik Erickson dictates eight stages of personal growth in a lifetime. It has, as a final stage, ‘ego integrity versus despair’. The idea is that if we reflect on our life’s ups and downs, what we did and didn’t achieve, and find acceptance, we gain integrity, and can avoid the despair that death can otherwise bring.
Educate yourself about death and dying
If it’s fear of the unknown that gives you death anxiety, there is nothing negative or morbid about educating yourself about death. Approach it as practical research.
- Find a local ‘death cafe’ where people in the community talk frankly about death together.
- Speak with a ‘death doula’, a person certified to help families and individuals navigate the death process.
- Look at the ways different cultures and religions approach death.
- Read about near death experiences.
Or even try a ‘virtual’ out of body experience (OBE). In an interesting if limited small study, a group that was given the sensation of an out of body experience using virtual reality had a lowered fear of death, as opposed to the control group.
Seek support for death anxiety
A counsellor or psychotherapist will be more than happy to discuss your fear of death and dying. If your thanatophobia is actually connected to depression, anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder, they will also work with you on these issues.
Types of therapy that can help you with death anxiety
Any type of counsellor or psychotherapist will be happy to talk with you about your anxieties around death, dying, loss and bereavement.
Otherwise, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you get control of your thinking and make it more balanced, and is evidence-based to lower anxiety.
Existential therapy can help you find your sense of purpose in life, so you can stop feeling like your life is out of control and you will ‘die without having done anything’.
Transpersonal therapy can help you explore your personal spirituality, and what the world means to you, so you feel more connected and less afraid of ‘what lies beyond’.
Time to seek support around your fear of death and dying? Harley Therapy connects you with London’s top psychotherapists. Or use our booking site to find UK-wide registered therapists as well as online counsellors you can access globally.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert, who has done some training in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD, and advises people on how to plan their therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy