Definition of Thanatophobia, the Fear of Death

Fearing death is natural, but thanatophobia is extreme

Fearful woman behind blinds
Fearing the idea of your own death is natural, but thanatophobia is something else entirely.. Photo © martin-dm/Vetta/Getty Images

Definition: Thanatophobia is an unusual or abnormal fear of personally dying and/or being dead that impacts the otherwise "normal" or healthy functioning of the person possessing this fear that might appear disproportionate to an outsider relative to the actual risk or threat the individual faces.

While most people generally experience some level of discomfort or anxiety when confronted with the reality of human mortality in a dying/death situation -- such as in a hospital, home or hospice during the dying process, or during a funeral, memorial or interment service after a loved one dies -- this uneasiness does not generally constitute thanatophobia (although this term is sometimes misapplied in these instances).

Genuine thanatophobia must:

Focus inwardly on you losing your life and doesn't involve worrying about the death of someone else. Contemplating or fearing an illness or accident taking the life of someone you love or care about, for instance -- such as your child, spouse/partner, a parent or friend, etc. -- does not constitute thanatophobia.

Impact your otherwise normal existence. Feeling uncomfortable and tongue-tied during a funeral or burial service because you're uncertain of the best thing to say to the bereaved is quite common, for example. On the other hand, refusing to leave your home or apartment to buy groceries or get your mail because you're afraid something might kill you could indicate a psychological condition that needs evaluation by a mental health professional.

Is Fearing Dying and/or Death Normal?

Regularly washing your hands to inhibit the spread of germs, or brushing your teeth regularly to prevent cavities and gum disease, are normal, healthy responses to genuine concerns.

Similarly, harboring some fear of dying/death is generally beneficial because it can motivate you to improve your health through regular exercise, follow a balanced diet, overcome an addiction, etc.

Moreover, a healthy concern about losing your life can also influence you to thoroughly consider the risks involved before undertaking a new physical activity or placing yourself into a potentially harmful or dangerous situation.

But again, these sort of responses to a normal fear of dying/death do not generally rise to the level of thanatophobia.

What Causes Thanatophobia?

As noted above, fearing the loss of your life is both natural and generally beneficial but typically doesn't rise to the level of thanatophobia unless your fear also affects your otherwise normal lifestyle and/or your response might appear disproportionate to an outsider relative to the actual risk or threat you face.

Generally, any intense, irrational fear concerning an object or situation that rises to the level of a phobia is psychological in nature. Many people dislike finding a spider in their home, for example, but unless your fear of these creatures induces you to actually leave your home after discovering one crawling on a wall, or forces you to avoid forests, parks or other areas that harbor spiders at all costs, etc., then your fear of spiders generally doesn't constitute arachnophobia.

While the causes of any phobia are complex, thanatophobia (and our fear of death in general) can arise from any/all of the following concerns people usually feel about their personal mortality, to name but a few:

• Fearing a sudden or prolonged death.

• Fearing a painful or gruesome death.

• Fearing the unknown or "What lies beyond?"

• Fearing for the well being of loved ones/survivors in the future.

• Fears rooted in past painful or negative life experiences.

Again, the specific psychological cause of thanatophobia within any single individual is too complex and unique to identify. If you suspect you suffer from this particular phobia, then you should seek care from a qualified mental health professional.

Necrophobia vs. Thanatophobia

Necrophobia is different from thanatophobia. While both terms are often confused or misapplied to refer to the same fear, necrophobia refers to an intense, often irrational, fear people exhibit when confronted with dead "things" -- such as the remains of a deceased human being or animal, or an object we typically associate with death, such as a casket, coffin, cemetery, funeral home, tombstone, etc.

Word Origin of Thanatophobia

Our modern English word thanatophobia derives from two Greek words:

"Thanatos" meant "death" in ancient Greece and originated from a much older Proto-Indo-European term meaning "to disappear or die."

• "Phobia" derives from the Greek term "phobos," which meant "fear, panic fear, terror, outward show of fear; object of fear or terror." This word also derives from a word in the older Proto-Indo-European language for "to run."

Additional Reading:
Common Death Fears
Could a "Death Café" Alleviate Your Fears?
Inspiring Words About Fearing Death
What is a Phobia?

"thanato-". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved February 6, 2016.

"phobia (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved February 6, 2016.

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