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Death Anxiety - Thanatophobia, and the Fear of Death

Immortality is a goal for which many people strive. Aging itself is a frightening concept, and there is this hope that people have that they can find the cure that will make them live forever, along with a fear of death that controls human behavior.

Psychology recognizes death anxiety in many different ways. While everyone has a fear of death, some people have severe death phobia (thanatophobia) while others experience death anxiety as a symptom of other disorders.

Afraid of Death?

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Serious vs. Normal Fear of Death

Because wanting to avoid death is such a common fear, it's almost not considered a fear at all. In many cases, a necessary attempt to prevent death in life is healthy. Those that don't fear death a little bit are more likely to engage in reckless, dangerous behaviors. The problem isn't a fear of death. The problem is when your death anxiety becomes too strong and controls your life.

Start with my anxiety test to see how your anxiety rates and how to cure it. What's interesting about death anxiety is how hard it is to gauge where the line is. When is death anxiety a motivational part of living, and when is it too consuming and something that you need to work on?

Signs of Overwhelming Death Anxiety

Death anxiety has become a problem when it controls too much of your life and makes it harder to live a quality life. For example:

  • If you experience extreme, intense anxiety in any mildly dangerous situation.
  • If you avoid ordinary life events, like hiking, because of this fear.
  • If you're going to the doctor too often with nothing wrong.
  • If you seek out alternative and potentially dangerous ways to stay young forever.
  • If you imagine ways that you might die in various situations and experience anxiety over them.
  • If you have a significant pre-occupation with death and avoiding death, to the point where it is all you think about.

Not that the difficulty in assessing death anxiety comes from the similarity that these issues have with other anxieties. For example, hypochondriasis occurs when a person develops health anxiety. That health anxiety is, of course, rooted in fear of death.

Similarly, panic attacks can also be caused by and create a fear of death. Those with panic attacks often develop a deep awareness of their own body and the way they feel. This awareness can lead to noticing any little physical change in the body, such as a little bit of an increase in heart rate, and that sensation can then trigger a full-blown heart attack where the individual feels like they're going to die – and, of course, fears that death.

It's for these reasons that looking at death anxiety as a phobia becomes difficult because everyone is afraid of death in some way and there are so many other issues surrounding death that the person might fear. For example, if someone isn't afraid of death, but they are afraid of dying painfully, is that a fear of death or a fear of pain?

  • What about if they're afraid of hearing about death and thinking about death, but they've come to terms with their eventual mortality?

  • What about if the person does have a serious illness, and they fear death because death is a very real possibility?

  • What about if they're not afraid of their own death, but rather of what will happen to their family if they die?

There are so many questions involved in death anxiety that it's too complex to self-diagnose. It's one of the few that genuinely needs someone else's opinion, and often death anxiety is the type of condition that is revealed, not necessarily diagnosed directly.

Diagnosing Death Anxiety

There are two things to keep in mind when it comes to diagnosing death anxiety. The first is that treating this type of phobia can be difficult, and often involves taking control of your overall anxiety. The second is that whether or not you have diagnosable death anxiety isn't as important as an acknowledgment to yourself that you have an issue with anxiety. Whether it's caused by a fear of death or a fear of something else is important, but not as important as simply being willing to accept your anxiety is something you need to stop.

Make sure you take my free 7-minute anxiety test now. I've helped thousands of people with fears of death overcome their symptoms. Take the test to get recommendations on how to treat it and a profile of your anxiety.

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Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Nov 23, 2017.

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