The fear of death is anxiety caused by thoughts of one’s own death, and is also referred to as thanatophobia. It differs from necrophobia, which is a general fear of dead or dying things, or things associated with death.
According to the 2017 “Survey of American Fears” conducted by Chapman University, 20.3% of Americans are “afraid” or “very afraid” of dying. It’s worth noting that 39,7% are also afraid of their own people dying.
The fear of death and non-existence is at the root of other types of phobias constitute the fundamental fear and underlie all other fears. For example, a person’s fear of snakes could relate to a concern of being bitten and dying. Or, someone with a fear of heights could be ultimately concerned with falling and dying.
Death anxiety is so common that it has spurred multiple research projects and intrigued everyone from scholars to religious leaders. There is even a field of study called thanatology which examines the human reaction to death and dying.
In general, the fear of death can actually prove healthy for human beings. When we have a fear of dying, we often act more carefully and take appropriate precautions to minimize risks, such as wearing seat belts or bike helmets.
A healthy fear of death can also remind us to make the most of our time here on Earth and not to take our relationships for granted. Fearing the reality of death might also push us to work harder in order to leave a lasting legacy. George Bernard Shaw perhaps summed it up best by saying,
“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.”
But if fear of death is normal to an extent, it is characteristically more debilitating in people who are overwhelmed by it, and suffer from a mental health disorder like panic disorder, anxiety, depressive disorders and hypochondriasis. In their most extreme, these feelings can stop people from conducting daily activities or even leaving their homes. Their fears center on things that could result in death, such as contamination or dangerous objects or people.
Death anxiety has been found to affect people of differing demographic groups as well, such as men versus women, young versus old, etc. A 2017 study suggests that older adults fear the dying process, while younger people more commonly fear death itself. According to a 2012 study, women were more likely than men to fear the death of loved ones and the consequences of their death.
Fear of death may affect us at any time, but it tends to receive the most attention for the population of people at retirement age, or around 65, who are beginning to reflect on achievements, disappointments and their life trajectories. Terminally ill individuals of all ages may also experience a form of modified thanatophobia.
Behind biological death, the abstract, objective, external, empirical fact of being dead; hide more complex feeling which are called by the phenomenologists:
Fear of Loss of Control
Like knowledge, control is something for which humans strive. Yet the act of dying is utterly outside anyone’s control. Those who fear the loss of control may attempt to hold death at bay through rigorous and sometimes extreme health checks and other rituals.
Fear of Pain, Illness, or Loss of Dignity
Some people with an apparent fear of death do not actually fear death itself. Instead, they are afraid of the circumstances that often surround the act of dying. They may be afraid of crippling pain, debilitating illness, or even the associated loss of dignity.
Fear of Abandoning Relatives
Many people who suffer from thanatophobia are not nearly as afraid to die as they are of what would happen to their families after their death.
Fear of Pain and Suffering
Many people fear that when they meet death, they will experience excruciating pain and suffering. This fear is common in many healthy people, as well as in patients dying of cancer or other terminal illnesses.
Fear of the Unknown
Death remains the ultimate unknown because no one in human history has survived it to tell us what really happens after we take our last breath. It is human nature to want to understand and make sense of the world around us. The reality is that death can never be fully understood by anyone who is living.
Fear of Non-Existence
Many people fear the idea that they will completely cease to exist after death occurs. We might typically associate this fear with atheists or others without personal spiritual or religious beliefs. This personal, subjective and emotional feeling which arises from our awareness of our own finitude and ontological anxiety, has also been called “being-towards-death” and “the anxiety-of-nonbeing”.
Fear of Eternal Punishment
Similar to the fear of non-existence, this belief does not apply only to devout believers of religious or spiritual faith. Many people — regardless of their religious persuasion or lack of spiritual beliefs — fear that they will be punished for what they did, or did not do, while here on earth.
Psychotherapist Robert Langs proposed three different causes of death anxiety: predatory, predator, and existential. In addition to his research, many theorists such as Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, and Ernest Becker have examined death anxiety and its impact on cognitive processing.
The term thanatophobia stems from the Greek representation of death, known as Thanatos. Sigmund Freud hypothesized that people express a fear of death as a disguise for a deeper source of concern. He asserted the unconscious does not deal with the passage of time or with negations, which do not calculate the amount of time left in one’s life. Under the assumption people do not believe in their own deaths, Freud speculated it was not death people feared. He postulated one does not fear death itself, because one has never died. He suspected death related fears stem from unresolved childhood conflicts.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson formulated the psychosocial theory that explained that people progress through a series of crises as they grow older. The theory also envelops the concept that once an individual reaches the latest stages of life, they reach the level he titled as “ego integrity”. Ego integrity is when one comes to terms with their life and accepts it. It was also suggested that when a person reaches the stage of late adulthood they become involved in a thorough overview of their life to date.
When one can find meaning or purpose in their life, they have reached the integrity stage. In opposition, when an individual views their life as a series of failed and missed opportunities, then they do not reach the ego integrity stage. Elders that have attained this stage of ego integrity are believed to exhibit less of an influence from death anxiety.
Terror management theory
Ernest Becker based terror management theory (TMT) on existential views which added a new dimension to previous death anxiety theories. This theory ascertains that death anxiety is not only real, but also people’s most profound source of concern. He explained the anxiety as so intense that it can generate fears and phobias of everyday life—fears of being alone or in a confined space. Based on the theory, many of people’s daily behavior consist of attempts to deny death and to keep their anxiety under strict regulation.
This theory suggests that as an individual develops mortality salience, or becomes more aware of the inevitability of death, they will instinctively try to suppress it out of fear. The method of suppression usually leads to mainstreaming towards cultural beliefs, leaning for external support rather than treading alone. This behavior may range from simply thinking about death to the development of severe phobias and desperate behavior.
Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and biology, and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since humanity has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we are able to transcend the dilemma of mortality by focusing our attention mainly on our symbolic selves, i.e. our culturally-based self esteem, which Becker calls “heroism”: a “defiant creation of meaning” expressing “the myth of the significance of human life” as compared to other animals.
Also, according to TMT, self-esteem is key for the degree to which individuals experience death anxiety. People with high self-esteem are better at managing fear of death, while people with low self-esteem are more easily intimidated by death-related situations.
Denying the reality of one’s finite existence is a major defense against death anxiety. It manifests in two forms: in the pursuit of literal immortality and symbolic immortality. Literal immortality is sought in religion or religiosity and is the key defense that negates the obvious scientific conclusion that human beings die like other species and that there is no proof of an afterlife.
Monotheistic religious beliefs as well as some pantheistic or monist spiritual traditions offer their followers a creation myth and version of life after death, which relieve the death anxiety that is caused by the unknowable. Symbolic immortality is sought in living on through one’s creative productions, one’s investment in causes, and one’s children.
Regressive therapy theory
Frank Lake, a psychiatrist, discovered that under LSD his patients were re-living their birth trauma. His early LSD powered seminars were held with the Anglican clergy throughout Great Britain. Later the groups were expanded to include social workers, nurses, physicians and other health-care workers. Dr. Lake discontinued the use of LSD in 1970. He had found that using deep breathing techniques with primal therapy was as effective as or superior to LSD therapy.
Frank Lake found that, from a trauma viewpoint, births could be placed within four categories:
The first one is non-violent as the fetus looks expectantly toward beginning a new phase of existence and such anticipation is achieved. This is the typical “good” birth in which the fetus concludes that life will be a challenge which they will successfully meet and any difficulties they encounter will be temporary and will be overcome. The experiences in the birth process serves a life script and optimism is a common feeling. The other stages listed below do not occur.
“The second stage occurs when the birth passages prove difficult to dilate, or the bony pelvis is too narrow to allow the head to pass, at least not until severe moulding has occurred.” The physical and mental suffering which the fetus endures is on a larger scale and/or the time consumed in the birth process is longer than that in phase one. And the baby being born wants to return to the comfortable womb is has just left.
In the third stage “the head is jammed in the pelvis and can move neither forwards nor backwards. The will to return to the womb is as useless as the will to move forward. Only one struggle is possible, the struggle to live in spite of growing distress, crushing of the head, and lack of oxygen. The identity of someone suffering from an anxiety state not uncommonly has this biological emergency as its primary determinant.”
It is in the fourth stage that the elements of desire for death as well as the fear of death are developed. It is the feeling of one in whom “the loathing of the pain of being born may be so great that the wish to die almost entirely replaces the former longing to live. In fact, the intensity of the earlier longing is transformed, mechanically and without any act of the will to the latter, at the point where sheer intolerance of pain takes over.”
Arthur Janov, the originator of primal therapy, wrote that those who relive the death experience in and around birth seem to finally resolve that fixation on death and suicide. It may seem odd that those few minutes around birth can determine whether or not one will consider suicide as a serious alternative at a later age. Attempts at suicide are attempts of the system to go back and get close to that death feeling. It’s a way of recovering that original physiological experience in which the baby first came close to death in order to get into life.
“What this means is that suicide is really an attempt at healing, It is really an attempt to conquer death. It is, ultimately, a testimony to the power of Primal Pain: one would rather be dead than feel it. And not so accidentally, feeling the early death allows us to leave those suicidal feelings behind, forever .”
Arthur Janov – The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience