It is very common for people to experience some anxiety around death. However, for some people, thinking about death or dying can trigger heightened anxiety, also known as death anxiety. People may also fear separation, dealing with a loss, or leaving loved ones behind. In cases where the fear of death occurs every time a person thinks about dying, persists for more than six months, and negatively impacts daily functioning or relationships, this is considered a phobia (APA, 2013). Thanatophobia is the medical term used to refer to the phobia of death or dying.
Below are some strategies that can help to manage death anxiety more effectively:
1. Validating the fear of death
This does not mean that we do not want the feeling to change but rather acknowledge the emotion and allow ourselves to experience it without judging it. Remember that what we resist, persists. It may help to think of validation from the standpoint of someone else; for instance, if a friend told you they were anxious about death or dying, what would you say to them? You would probably not judge them for how they feel but be kind and compassionate. So, the next time you are struggling with your fear of death, consider applying the same approach to yourself.
2. Reconsidering unhelpful beliefs about death and dying
Some of the beliefs that people with death anxiety commonly experience include the belief that they would not be able to cope if they found out they were going to die, or that dying is likely to involve unbearable pain and suffering (Menzies & Veale, 2022). It is helpful to re-evaluate such thoughts and develop more realistic and balanced thoughts to help you cope better. For instance, thinking that it is reasonable for people to feel scared when they find out that death is approaching yet they still manage to cope with their emotions and most people face their death with dignity. Thinking that people can get through their illness and pain with emotional and medical support, including pain relief which has become a priority in the treatment of the dying. (?)
3. Facing your fears and developing death acceptance
Whilst avoiding thinking about death might help us to avoid anxiety in the short-term, we are likely to feel anxious the next time the thought of death crops up. Conversely, the more we confront our fears and thoughts about death, the less anxious we feel (this is a process known as habituation) and the more accepting we become. It may, therefore, help to think of situations you avoid not to trigger fear of death, and slowly begin to confront these situations often enough and for adequate time periods until your anxiety diminishes. Some practice ideas may include reading the obituaries in the newspaper, reading literary accounts of death and loss, and watching TV programs and movies related to death.
4. Enhancing enjoyment in life
People struggling with death anxiety are so preoccupied with their fears that they may miss experiencing enjoyment in life. As much as possible, try to consider how you might begin to increase your enjoyment of life despite the anxiety. This can help you live more in the moment and avoid getting tangled up in unhelpful thoughts about death and dying. Everyday activities that may bring enjoyment in life may include spending relaxing time with a friend, family member, child, or pet; engaging in physical exercise; doing a hobby; reading a book or watching your favourite TV programme.
5. Seeking support
Talking with people you trust about death may help you realise that, although they may not struggle with fear of death, they think about it too. This can in turn help you feel less alone with your struggles and more encouraged to conquer your fear of death. It may also help to see a therapist if you feel unable to deal with your fears on your own or else talk to family or friends about it.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Dr. Ronald Zammit holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southampton, has completed Master’s level psychotherapy training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the New Buckinghamshire University in the UK, as well as received training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). He has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related difficulties, personality disorders, and compassion-based approaches to treating difficulties related to high self-criticism and shame.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Menzies R.E., & Veale, D. (2022). Free yourself from death anxiety: A CBT self-help guide for a fear of death and dying. Jessica Kingsley Publishers,