The fear of death is common but can be particularly acute if one has experienced certain kinds of childhood trauma. The acute fear of death (which can be obsessional and greatly impair day-to-day functioning) is also known by two other names :
– NECROPHOBIA (which derives from the Greek language – ‘NECROS’ = DEATH)
– THANTOPHOBIA (named after the mythological character ‘THANATOS’ who was said to personify death)
The condition is more common in women than it is in men.
WHAT KINDS OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA CAN LEAD TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF AN ACUTE FEAR OF DEATH?
These include the following:
– serious illness (of self or others) in the family in which we grew up
– the death of a family member whilst we were growing up
– the death of a close friend/contemporary whilst we were growing up
– indoctrination by religious groups that we would go to ‘Hell’ if we behaved immorally (fear of ‘Hell’ has a separate name: ‘HADEPHOBIA’).
and, indirectly, the acute fear of death may be related to:
– having developed a general anxiety condition as a result of childhood trauma
– having developed a depressive disorder as a result of childhood trauma
– having developed a psychotic condition as a result of childhood trauma
– being prone to panic attacks as a result of childhood trauma (one of the hallmarks of the panic attack is the fear that one is about to die)
– faulty thinking processes caused by childhood trauma (e.g. always expecting something terrible to happen – this is sometimes referred to as ‘catastrophizing’)
– having developed obsessional compulsive disorder as a result of childhood trauma
SPECIFIC FEARS WHICH MAY ACCOMPANY ACUTE FEAR OF DEATH :
– the fear of being buried alive (taphophobia) and subsequently waking up underground in one’s coffin. In the Victorian era, some were so concerned about this that they would have a contraption fitted to their coffin which would enable them to ring a bell located on the ground immediately above where they had been buried should such an emergency occur!
– the actual physical process of dying, eg pain/distress etc. (Fortunately, morphine administration can greatly reduce suffering, both mental and physical, at the end of our lives)
– going to Hell (an irrational fear caused by religious indoctrination – see above)
– concern that the people one loves/dependants will not be able to cope after one’s death
– fear that one will die prematurely before achieving one’s ambitions
Many people who suffer from an acute fear of death obsessively carry out what are known as ‘safety behaviors‘ (e.g. always checking the internet about one’s symptoms when mildly ill due to fear that they have a terminal disease; always checking their temperature/blood pressure/heart rate etc). Research shows that such behavior, far from alleviating distress, actually intensifies it.
One of the main things therapists encourage patients with an acute fear of death to do is to try to develop the skill of living in the present (this is easier said than done). An increasingly popular way to do this is to train in the discipline known as MINDFULNESS.
Another effective treatment is called COGNITIVE BEHAVIOR THERAPY (CBT) which can help to resolve faulty thinking processes (see above).
Hypnosis for death anxiety, too, has helped many people overcome this fear so that they are able to think about death without feeling alarmed and even to gain positive benefit from occasional consideration of their own mortality. Hypnosis can be especially effective as it operates more on the subconscious mind (as opposed to the conscious mind) to a greater extent than other therapies, thus increasing the probability that positive changes will be long-lasting.
My own personal view, for what it’s worth, is that it is irrational to fear something we will not be conscious of, and it will be no different to what we experienced, or, rather, what we did not experience before we were born.