Fear of death and dying: Tips to overcome thanatophobia

The fear of death and dying (thanatophobia) is one of the most common fears in mankind. The fear, of course, is a vital one - keeping us safe and away from danger. It is a basic survival response that allows us to see the risk of death from a dangerous activity or situation. For instance, it would be our primaeval fear of death that would stop us from standing too close to a cliff or diving into a ferocious sea. What is less useful is the common fear of death that can overtake the life of the victim so that all of their thoughts become fixated on the inevitability of their death whilst, in actuality, their life is at no immediate risk.


Awareness of this basic fear has led many eminent psychologists to examine its potential triggers. Freud hypothesised that the irrational fear had its origins in an aspect of childhood that was unacceptable and in conflict with the consciousness of the reciprocant. Later psychologists such as such as Rollo May and Victor Frankl saw a link between a lack of sense of meaning or achievement in some aspect of their lives, such as a sense of not being ready to die or un-achieved ambitions and these appeared to heighten the level of death anxiety in individuals.

Ernest Beckett, a famous anthropologist, believed that humankind's fears of death were so widespread and intense that they were suppressed by a person's conscious self and were displaced into behavioural form as fears and phobias. These then manifested themselves as a fear, such as a fear of heights, being alone or in confined spaces.

Fears can take over our everyday lives. At first, the fear may be small. We notice a trigger so, instead of investigating the deep-down fear, we avoid the situation so that the fear is not aroused. Before we know it, we can begin to avoid a bigger spectrum of situations.

As an example, Jack was a 60 year old single man who had always desperately wanted to settle down and have a family. He walked his dog on a longer route at weekends. To take the long route, he had to walk through the cemetery. He noticed that on Sunday evenings he was full of troublesome thoughts of his death and eventually noticed that the walk through the cemetery was the trigger.

He avoided this route but the thoughts continued on Sundays and had become a habit. He passed on the dog walking responsibilities as he had found that when he walked his dog, the thoughts started and the feelings followed close behind. In classic avoidance style, Jack was now avoiding, cemeteries, church walks, and even the local supermarket (opposite the undertakers).

So, how do we stop our fears from getting out of hand and stop our minds from dwelling on unhelpful thoughts, especially if this fear of death and dying is so prevalent? How can we avoid its impact on our lives when sadly we can't avoid death itself?

Tips to overcome the fear of death

1. Talk about your fears with others

The old adage is a problem shared is a problem halved. Whilst many of your friends or family might not have been aware of your worries and fears, they have probably noticed a change in your behaviour. Begin to open up to those you most trust - they may be relieved to know what is troubling you and, whilst they can't make the worry simply 'go away', the renewed closeness that you may share can make life feel more precious and help distract you from some of your thoughts.

“When we face our fear of death and slow down our busy lives, we come to realise our relationships are precious, a part of life’s foundation. Knowing this fact helps us to understand that death’s true purpose is to teach us how to live.”

- Molly Friedenfeld, The Book of Simple Human Truths

In addition to sharing the thoughts initially with friends and family, you may want to use time with a trained professional such as a counsellor or psychotherapist to explore your fears at a greater depth. They have techniques to examine your fears, feelings and thoughts and can help you place strategies that make life more bearable and fulfilling in their place.

2. Mindfulness

Fear often brings with it obsessive thoughts and, while creating a space of relaxation where the thoughts you are trying to avoid can be examined may sound crazy, it is often useful.

A huge amount of energy can be spent running from these thoughts for fear of what the experience may be like. But, by creating a calm experience and practising slow and deep breathing (as described below), you can create either a space free from thoughts or you can create a place where your calmness helps the thoughts pass through - a place where the thoughts have less power as you are in control of your breathing and so you're in a calmer, stronger state.

Try this deep breathing exercise:

  • Find a place where you feel warm enough and where you won't be disturbed by visitors or callers. Sit or lay comfortably.
  • Breathe out slowly counting to six, then breathe in counting to eight.
  • Repeat this process around 10 times.
  • Sit in silence and notice how this deep breathing has affected your body's responses.

3. Nature and distraction

When thoughts overwhelm you, try to think of this moment - this moment when you are alive. There is a growing consensus of opinion that increases in depression and anxiety have a link to the artificial worlds we now live in where we have a detachment from nature and its seasons.

Using the relaxation technique described above to prepare you for a receptive frame of mind, examine closely the details of everyday objects - a flower, a leaf, a crystal or a feather. Don't rush it, take a good while and try to lose yourself in this activity; if it's a flower, count the petals, noting the textures and shapes. Not only can getting closer to nature help soothe us, but the distraction of the activity can also become learnt behaviour and take us away from obsessive thoughts.

4. Live for today

Many of us dislike change and, in particular, change that is beyond our control and wishes. For a moment, contemplate embracing the opportunities that life may bring. Try as much as possible to enjoy the moment in which we live rather than worry of what tomorrow may bring.

“As you grow, you learn more. If you stayed as ignorant as you were at 22, you'd always be 22. Ageing is not just decay, you know. It's growth. It's more than the negative that you're going to die, it's the positive that you understand you're going to die, and that you live a better life because of it.”

- Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

An important note on suicidal thoughts

The above article was written about obsessive thoughts concerning death and fear of that death. If, however, you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it's important that you try to talk about this. You can either speak with someone close or, if this is difficult and if you live in the UK, you can call Samaritans on 116 123 - they are available 24 hours a day.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cromer NR27 & Norwich, Norfolk NR3
Written by Danny Hickling, BSc (Hons).Couns. MBACP.(Reg) (MNCS Snr Accred)
Cromer NR27 & Norwich, Norfolk NR3

I am a registered Psychotherapeutic Counsellor with the UKCP and am also registered with the BACP.
I hold a degree in Integrative Counselling and am qualified in BrainSpotting having attended courses in London and Amsterdam. I work in using many of the latest advances in Neuroscience linking past events to present feelings or behaviour.

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