Death Is Inevitable. Fearing It Is Not.

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

In the natural world, cause and effect is not always clear cut. We see an effect and wonder why something is happening. For a striking example that is continuously unfolding today, look at the number of days when temperature records are broken. Scientists see effects and are working madly to correctly determine the root causes and the long-term consequences.

What is true in the natural world is equally true in regard to the human mind and our emotions. Someone may see a therapist and describe their struggle with general anxiety. But that anxiety is an effect, something is causing it and that something may not be clear cut. The goal, then, is to figure out what the real issue is.

After some discussion, a therapist may discover that someone is struggling with the inevitability of death — either their own or the death of a loved one. However, that’s when the therapist has to use their experience and judgement because a fear of death has a name — thanatophobia — but only a loose definition.

Writing for Healthline, Kimberly Holland says, “Thanatophobia isn’t a clinically recognized condition. There are no tests that can help doctors diagnose this phobia. But a list of your symptoms will give doctors a greater understanding of what you’re experiencing.

“The official diagnosis will likely be anxiety. Your doctor, however, will note that your anxiety stems from fear of death or dying.”

Holland notes that as therapy begins, particular symptoms of anxiety might be noted, including:

  • more frequent panic attacks
  • increased anxiety
  • dizziness
  • sweating
  • heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats
  • nausea
  • stomach pain
  • sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures

If you struggle with the thought of death, and you find yourself experiencing some or many of the symptoms above, take heart — there are effective ways to cope with and move beyond the problem. These include:

Talk therapy. This is a proven means of dealing with many issues, from the simple to the complex.  

Cognitive behavioral therapy. As I wrote in a blog post in 2022, “Have You Heard of CBT?” “CBT is ‘cognitive behavioral therapy.’ Recent studies indicate that it just may be the most effective form of psychotherapy currently in practice.

“The basic premise of CBT is simple and logical. It begins with the idea that there’s a direct connection between your thoughts, emotions and actions. In particular, psychologists who practice CBT recognize that negative thinking can lead to psychological problems, and patterns of negative behavior can lead to other problems. Most important, research and experience show that people can learn ways to cope with their problems and consequently relieve symptoms.”

Relaxation techniques. If you’re not struggling too much with a fear of death, then you might want to see if some basic mindfulness exercises help. Holland says that “Meditation, imagery, and breathing techniques may help reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety when they occur. Over time, these techniques may help you reduce your specific fears in general.”

Medication. This is rarely a desirable long-term solution for any condition, but medication may be necessary in the short-term while working with other therapies.

In any case, if a fear of death is affecting your overall mental health or you often have a general feeling of anxiety and don’t know why, please give me a call. Death is inevitable but a fear of death is not.