Categorized | Stress

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Thanatophobia: A Fear of Dying That Makes Life a Living Death

Everyone is scared of death and the dying process to one degree or another. The problem arises when a person is so fearful of death that it impacts negatively on their day-to-day living. I’ve seen this fear with my own eyes and watched a loved one deteriorate mentally and physically because they were terrified they’d drop dead in the street. The fear eventually cost them their life as their health plummeted.

The tragedy in this particular story is that the fear of death, otherwise known as Thanatophobia, can be overcome and consigned to the past instead of being cultivated to such a terrible degree. Millions of people worldwide suffer from a morbid fear of death or dying that impedes on their lives. The terror does not know national, cultural, religious, gender or even age boundaries. Teenagers are just as likely to live in fear of dying, than someone in their eighties or nineties.

Just like with any other chronic fear, Thanatophobia can be found in a variety of different forms. People’s lifestyles, cultural attachments and past experiences play an important part in the fears they hold and these are important factors for any therapist to comprehend before diagnosis and possible treatment. So what types of Thanatophobia are the most commonly experienced?

Religion plays a large part in a lot of people’s lives and can in turn affect how they deal with the facts of life and death. For many religious people, whose faith wavers and is beset by doubts, the fear of what comes, or what does not come, after death can be immense. On the other hand, for devout believers, the fear of possibly suffering eternal damnation can just as equally lead to panic attacks as that of the doubter. The reality of what comes next, unfortunately, as of now, cannot be unequivocally proven either way by science.

Loss of control is something everyone fears. Death is the ultimate lack of control and this can inspire terror for those more susceptible to fears of chaotic states and confusion. Those who fear death for this reason, often go out of their way to hold death at bay, more so than would be considered normal. They engage in highly vigorous exercise and health regimes and frequent health clinics on a near obsessive basis. This can actually lead to health problems thereby increasing their fears and leading to conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Hypochondria and Depression.

One of the most widely understandable reasons for fearing death is the very process of dying. Many sufferers of Thanatophobia may not actually dwell too much on what happens after life has come to an end but instead suffer terrible anxiety over how they will die. People naturally seek to avoid, pain, illness and debilitation and death is seen as all three of these negatives rolled into one big uncomfortable finale.

For parents especially, another facet of their Thanatophobia is the fear of leaving their loved ones behind, in particular, children. They may not be overly fearful of what happens after death nor fear (in relative terms of course) the process of dying to any great degree. However, much of their mental focus is spent worrying about what will happen to their nearest and dearest when they die.

If someone is suffering from a terminal illness, it is understandable for them to be concerned about leaving loved ones behind. However, the problem comes when this type of fear is held by a healthy human being with no known life threatening conditions. The concept plays out in their minds despite the fact they are perfectly fine. New mothers, single parents and carers for elderly relatives are most prone to this type of anxiety.

Diagnosis of Thanatophobia will likely come from the sufferer themselves who will be aware that their fears of death and dying are stronger and perhaps more irrational than the people around them. Family members, friends and work colleagues might also recognise an anxiety disorder related to the fears and try to persuade the sufferer to seek professional help. The best way to find a proper diagnosis of this type of anxiety is from a mental health professional. They will be able to say once and for all what the problem is and recommend a variety of solutions to the phobia.

As with all types of anxiety disorder, Thanatophobia is best treated by exploring the origins of the fear and changing how the brain reacts to thoughts and events that trigger the anxiety. Medication can be used to alleviate the symptoms of fear related to death and dying but it won’t get rid of the underlying problem which will continue to fester until properly tackled. Fear of dying does not have to be a life-long condition and it can be overcome and outsmarted in relatively little time with the right techniques. Instead of struggling with morbid fears of death, life can instead be lived from one day to the next. It can also be filled with positive thoughts and an absence of anxiety and phobias.

As Woody Allen once remarked, “There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?”

I dearly wish I had been aware of a technique to eliminate a fear of death and dying before the phobia and related anxiety disorders took the life of my relative. It would have prevented needless suffering for many people and meant another decade or two of their wonderful company.

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