Thanataphobia - fear of death and ways to fight it

Last update: February 21, 2024
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Reading time: 4 minutes
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By Brain Matters

Where does the term come from?
Have you watched Marvel Movies? You might be familiar with the villain Thanos, who has such power that he can remove beings from existence. Sounds horrific right? The name for this character was actually derived from Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. While Thanatos’ role in Greek mythology was rather small, he was hated by most gods and mortals, mainly because he did not discriminate between who he reaped. And the second part of the word, phobia comes from phobos, the Greek word for fear. But enough background information, let’s discuss fear of death.

What leads us to fear death?
This question seems easy to answer, not wanting to die and avoiding things that could lead to death are beneficial for our survival. Yet, when this fear is predominant throughout daily life, it can reduce our mental health and make us over-evaluate risks which can lead to avoidance and isolation. 

A questionnaire among rural residents revealed that fear of death is affected by 3 big factors: meaning in life, mental health, and physical health. Where the first two have a negative correlation with fear of death, meaning that on average the higher your mental health and meaning of life are, the less you’ll experience fear of death. The third factor, physical health stands out mainly for having a strong positive correlation with the previous two. Thus, when physical health is high, the other two tend to be high as well, and vice versa.

What happens in the brain when we fear death?
An fMRI study was conducted to observe brain activity while participants were exposed to words related to their own death, death of others or words that were unrelated to death. The study shows that different parts of the brain might be related to different aspects of fear of death. It revealed that the Supplementary Motor Area (SMA) was inhibited during the existential aspect of thoughts about death. These are thoughts like what happens to our consciousness when we die. The SMA is important for planning and controlling movement. Perhaps the inhibition of this during fear of death can explain how these existential thoughts can be benumbing. The supramarginal gyrus (SMG), an area involved in language and emotion, could reflect a distinct response where we distance ourselves from the physical self to cope with it. Lastly the Posterior Cingulate Cortex (PCC), an area that is important for adapting our behavior to the environment, may be related to thoughts about fear of death and the image we have of our future. While these findings are an interesting starting point, more evidence needs to be gathered to provide stronger claims.

Does thinking about death give you a chilling? Here are some solutions.
An earlier segment of this article already hints us about the solutions. By increasing our physical health, our mental health, or our meaning of life, we can reduce our fear of death. Thus, improving our lifestyle and/or increasing social engagement in the community can help us reduce fear of death.. No more sleepless nights! 

Another path one could take to battle fear of death is through religion. A study investigated the effects of an intervention named the “death education project” among Italian high-school students. The intervention was about encouraging discussion about death and spirituality with the main goal of opening the conversation about the afterlife. When compared to a group of students who did not receive the intervention, it was revealed that the education resulted in reduced fear of death and observing one's death as the end and increased spirituality. While this sounds promising, the study was conducted by among others the Vatican, which could indicate a bias. Another study which investigated the role of religion in fear of death revealed that there is a need for more nuance in the relationship between religion and fear of death. They showed that fear of death was higher among moderately religious people and reduced in non-believers or highly religious individuals. Furthermore, they revealed that the naturalness of death, life span, experiencing death of others we knew, the goodness of life, and the hope to live on in others also provided acceptance of death, reducing fear of death.

If only the dinosaur in the image knew that it would live on in this article, it might have increased its acceptance of death. One thing is certain, when we eventually die, we are no longer able to experience the fear of death.

Author: Kobus Lampe

References:

  • Ding, F., Tian, X., Chen, L., & Wang, X. (2022). The relationship between physical health and fear of death in rural residents: The mediation effect of meaning in life and mental health. Death studies46(1), 148-156.
  • Fortuin, N. P., Schilderman, J. B., & Venbrux, E. (2019). Religion and fear of death among older Dutch adults. Journal of religion, spirituality & aging31(3), 236-254.
  • Hirano, K., Oba, K., Saito, T., Yamazaki, S., Kawashima, R., & Sugiura, M. (2021). Brain activation during thoughts of one’s own death and its linear and curvilinear correlations with fear of death in elderly individuals: An fMRI study. Cerebral cortex communications2(1), tgab003.
  • Testoni, I., Ronconi, L., Cupit, I. N., Nodari, E., Bormolini, G., Ghinassi, A., ... & Zamperini, A. (2019). The effect of death education on fear of death amongst Italian adolescents: A nonrandomized controlled study. Death studies.
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