Scared to Death of Death

Is a Fear of Death Healthy?

A young woman looking anxious and fearful
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The fear of death and dying is quite common, and most people fear death to varying degrees. To what extent that fear occurs and what it pertains to specifically varies from one person to another. While some fear is healthy because it makes us more cautious, some people may also have an unhealthy fear of dying.

Who Fears Death?

The fear of death is so common that it has spurred multiple research projects and intrigued everyone from scholars to religious leaders around the world.

There is even a field of study called thanatology which examines the human reaction to death and dying. Some interesting findings have emerged from studying the fear of death.

According to the 2017 "Survey of American Fears" conducted by Chapman University, 20.3 percent of Americans are "afraid" or "very afraid" of dying. It's worth noting that this survey includes other responses that involve death which is more specific. For example, murder by a stranger (18.3 percent) and murder by someone you know (11.6 percent) are also included.

Interestingly, almost as many Americans (20 percent) fear public speaking. This thought has prompted comedian Jerry Seinfeld to quip, "This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."

Women have generally shown a greater tendency to fear death versus men. This is possibly due to the fact that women are more likely to admit to and discuss such fears.

The fact that, historically, men are more likely to believe in dying for a cause or purpose may also contribute to this.

Some researchers will argue that young people fear death more than the elderly. However, one study conducted among dying people in Taiwan showed that the fear of death actually did not decrease with increased age.

Additionally, the same study showed that a patient's fear of death decreased after they were admitted to hospice care. It's possible that this was a result of the education and holistic emotional and spiritual support patients receive from members of the hospice team.

Types of Death Fears

It is possible to break down our general fear of death into several specific types of fears.

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. Unfortunately, many people do not realize that palliative care can help alleviate pain and other distressing symptoms.

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.

The truth is that many people of faith also worry that their belief in an afterlife isn't real after all, or that they did not earn eternal life while alive.

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.

Fear of Loss of Control

Human nature generally seeks to control the situations we encounter, but death remains something over which we have absolutely no control.

This frightens many people. Some may attempt to exert some form of control over death by behaving in an extremely careful manner to avoid risks or undergoing rigorous, frequent health checks.

Fear of What Will Become of Our Loved Ones

Another very common death fear focuses on the worry of what will happen to those entrusted to our care if we die. Parents, for example, might worry about a newborn or child. Family members providing home caregiving to a loved one might fear that no one else can handle their patient's many needs and demands. Someone in the prime of their life might feel afraid at the thought of leaving a spouse or partner alone due to death.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fear of Death

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 precious 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."

On the other hand, an unhealthy fear of death can sometimes prove so severe that it actually interferes with someone's daily life. Known as thanatophobia, this intense, often irrational fear of death can consume someone's thoughts. It may even affect the most basic decisions they make, such as refusing to leave the house just to bring in the mail.

A Word From Verywell

Being afraid of death is natural and many people share in this fear to some extent. If you suspect your fear has risen to the level of thanatophobia, it is best to seek assistance from a trained mental health professional.

Sources:

Chapman University. America's Top Fears 2017. 2017.

Tsai JS, Wu CH, Chiu TY, Hu WY, Chen CY. Fear of Death and Good Death Among the Young and Elderly with Terminal Cancers in Taiwan. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.2005;29(4):344-51. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2004.07.013.

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