It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live – Marcus Aurelius
Over the centuries, thousands of writers, artists, philosophers, and religious leaders have said that we shouldn’t be afraid of dying and that we should instead endeavour to make the most out of the time we have here on Earth. And yet, not even the most accomplished human beings can’t help but fear death sometimes – it’s an inevitable part of our nature, and it’s perhaps the only thing we have in common, regardless of race, gender, or religion.
Death is the biggest unknown, and the idea of being confronted with our own mortality can sometimes keep us up at night. But when the fear of dying becomes so intense that it starts to interfere with daily life and eclipses all other thoughts, that may be a sign of death anxiety, or thanatophobia.
Is it normal to be afraid of death?
Within certain limits, yes.
Fear of death is entirely normal and, quite often, it is tied to a person’s religious beliefs. For example, in many religions, the concept of life after death is tied to punishment, so many people fear that they will suffer the consequences of their mistakes.
According to one study, 20% of people are afraid or very afraid of dying, making thanatophobia one of the most common fears. To a certain degree, “normal” fear of death can be a good thing because it makes us more cautious, helps us cherish meaningful experiences, and evaluate the values that guide us.
Contemplating your own mortality and wondering what happens when you die is not abnormal, and if the thought of it makes you a bit uncomfortable, you shouldn’t be worried. Death is not an easy topic. However, if death is constantly on your mind, and death anxiety is affecting your everyday life, to the point where you experience physical symptoms and feel overwhelmed by it, that could be a sign you need
Why am I afraid of death?
Although it may sound relatively straightforward, fear of death is actually one of the most complex phobias because it’s often not the death itself that scares us, but certain aspects of it:
- The idea of a long, debilitating illness that causes pain and makes us lose our dignity
- The fear of leaving loved ones behind
- The fear of unknown or lack of control
Most often, thanatophobia occurs after losing a loved one because loss reminds us of our own mortality. You can also develop death anxiety after having a near-death experience, such as being involved in an accident, or when seeing death on a regular basis (A&E workers are especially vulnerable).
But fear of death can also occur without an apparent reason. For example, it may be caused by an early traumatic event you don’t remember. In Western culture in particular, conversations about death are perceived as taboo, and the more we avoid talking about this difficult topic, the more unsettling it becomes. Some say that young people fear death more than seniors, but that actually depends on cultural and religious factors, and the degree of emotional support received.
I’m afraid of dying. Does that mean I’m depressed?
Although death anxiety can be a symptom of certain depressive disorders, the fact that you worry about death occasionally doesn’t necessarily mean you are depressed or that you have a mental health disorder.
However, if death anxiety persists for more than six months, and it turns into thanatophobia, you may want to seek professional help. Keep in mind that fear of death is not characterised as a distinct condition and that it frequently appears as a symptom of another condition, such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), PTSD, OCD, or hypochondriasis.
Death anxiety symptoms
It’s important to point out that thanatophobia (fear of death) is not the same as necrophobia (fear of things associated with death).
You can recognise death anxiety by the following symptoms:
- Excessive worrying about death that lasts for more than six months
- Thinking about death on a daily basis
- Feeling a surge of anxiety whenever someone mentions death
- Avoiding situations where you may have to talk about death and dying
- Feeling sick when thinking about death
- Panic attacks
When it becomes intense and interferes with daily life, death anxiety becomes a phobia, so you may experience symptoms that are specific to phobias, such as sweating, trembling, chest tightness, rapid heartbeat, or hot flushes.
Overcoming the fear of death
When death anxiety becomes a part of your life, you may feel trapped and overwhelmed. Thanatophobia can prevent you from living in the present, from seeking new experience, and from seeing the beautiful things you have today.
Compared to Eastern culture, Western culture has a more taboo perception of death, which means that many people struggle with death anxiety for a long time before mustering the courage to talk about it. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Living with thanatophobia can be emotionally exhausting, so if you have been worrying a lot about death lately, you can take steps to get better.
Therapy for death anxiety will help you:
- Accept that death is a natural process
- Be grateful for your experiences and live in the present
- Focus on making the most out of your life
- Make plans for your passing
Therapy for thanatophobia may also include treatments for a more complex mental health disorder, such as OCD, PTSD, or anxiety, so the exact treatment approach will vary depending on what causes the issue.
Treating fear of dying is about acceptance – but acceptance doesn’t mean that you have to like the idea of death or ignore it. It means acknowledging the concept of mortality, but without letting it take over your life.