A mother comforts her child who has a preoccupation with death by giving them a hug.

What Does It Mean To Have a Preoccupation With Death?

7 min.

While everyone thinks about death from time to time, a preoccupation with death can cause intense distress and signify an underlying concern. Read on to learn more.

By: Ashley Laderer

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

June 14, 2023

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Trigger warning: Death, Suicide.

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts and think you’re in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency. In this case, you should contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

If there’s one thing that’s certain in life, it’s death. While this may sound a bit harsh –– it’s true.

Death is something we all have to confront sooner or later. But what happens when thoughts of death become all-consuming, overwhelming, or even cause you to have panic attacks? For some, death can become a daunting and unsettling preoccupation that deeply affects mental well-being.

Here’s what you need to know about having a preoccupation with death, what causes it, and how to have a healthier relationship with death. 

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What does it mean to have a preoccupation with death?

Everyone thinks about death from time to time. It’s a part of life, so naturally, it crosses peoples’ minds here and there. However, for some individuals, these thoughts take on an extreme level of intensity, frequency, and severity, ultimately interfering with their well-being. At this point, thoughts of death enter the realm of preoccupation with death. Sometimes this is referred to as thanatophobia, which means fear of death. Other times, people call it death anxiety.

Thanatophobia refers to an irrational and persistent fear of death. It can mean anxiety and fear about death itself or the process of dying. Thanatophobia can encompass a range of anxieties, such as fear of your own death, the death of your loved ones, or the concept of mortality as a whole. 

If you have thanatophobia or a severe preoccupation with death, you may find yourself constantly ruminating or worrying about death in a way that disrupts your daily life and causes significant distress. This preoccupation becomes all-consuming, impacting your emotions, thoughts, and overall mental health. 

Severe cases of thanatophobia can significantly impact your quality of life, making it hard for you to live in the present moment. You may be so caught up in your thoughts about death that you get pulled away from living your life to the fullest. 

Some people with thanatophobia may develop rituals or avoidance behaviors as a way to cope with their death anxiety. For example, they might compulsively check their health or avoid situations associated with mortality, like funerals. Death anxiety can also trigger existential questions, causing one to grapple with the “meaning of life” or their “purpose” in life. 

People whose death anxiety revolves around fears of other people dying may constantly worry about the well-being and safety of their loved ones. They may experience distress when they’re apart from their loved ones, frequently check in to ensure safety, imagine worst-case scenarios, and have unwanted intrusive thoughts. 

What are the symptoms of thanatophobia?

Aside from an anxiety-inducing preoccupation with death, other symptoms of thanatophobia include:

  • Feeling panic or fear when you think about death or dying
  • Avoiding things or situations that you deem dangerous that could potentially result in death
  • Developing a preoccupation with health and excessively checking for signs of serious illness
  • Panic attacks in response to the fear of death 

For a phobia such as thanatophobia to be diagnosed, you must meet the following diagnostic criteria:

  • Experiencing symptoms for at least six months
  • Purposely avoiding triggers
  • Impaired functioning in everyday life due to the phobia 

What are some causes and risk factors for having a preoccupation with death?

While death anxiety can affect anyone, some people are more likely to suffer from it. Some causes and risk factors include:

Research has shown that a preoccupation with death can be related to underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety-related disorders, including:

For example, people with OCD may have intrusive thoughts about themselves or others dying and may feel the need to perform compulsions to neutralize the thoughts or attempt to prevent the outcome of death from happening. Or, people with illness anxiety disorder may experience physical symptoms and fear that they’re signs of a serious condition or will die, seeking out medical attention for reassurance that they’re safe and not going to die. 

Having depression

A diagnosis of depression is also a risk factor for a preoccupation with death or death anxiety. In fact, a symptom of depression is having thoughts about death or suicidal ideation. A preoccupation with death could present differently in people with depression. Some depressed people may fear death or dying, while others may find comfort in thoughts of dying by suicide. 

If you’ve witnessed or experienced a traumatic experience related to death, such as seeing someone die a painful death, or unexpectedly lost a loved one, this can trigger death anxiety.

Having a serious and/or terminal physical health condition, or knowing someone who does

If you have been diagnosed with a serious and potentially terminal condition, it’s more likely that death is at the forefront of your mind. When you’re faced with this harsh reality, it’s only natural for thoughts about death to become more prominent and unsettling. Similarly, if you have a loved one who’s just been diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness, this can cause you to become preoccupied with death, fearing their death and/or your own death. 

Having certain jobs

Due to their line of work, some people witness a lot of illness, death, violence, or traumatic incidents. Examples of these jobs are healthcare providers or firefighters. While certainly not everyone with these occupations experiences death anxiety, some people may become preoccupied with death while they’re on the job. 

Someone stares into space as they struggle with their preoccupation with death, also known as thanatophobia.

Treatment for preoccupation with death

If your preoccupation with death is causing troubling symptoms, interfering with your quality of life, or impacting your day-to-day functioning, you might benefit from professional mental health care. 

Therapy from a mental health professional can make a huge difference in your mental health. Psychotherapy, also referred to as talk therapy, is an effective, evidence-based treatment for many mental health concerns. Since many people with thanatophobia also have some type of mental health disorder or trauma, therapy can help address both the underlying condition and the preoccupation with death.

Of course, no type of therapy will prevent you or your loved ones from never dying. However, therapy can help you develop a healthier relationship with the idea of death, and help reduce the distress these thoughts cause you. Here are some examples of therapeutic treatments that can help with treatment for death anxiety:

Cognitive behavioral therapy 

One of the main types of therapy used for death anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps people understand how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors impact each other. This therapy can help you address and manage the underlying causes and thought patterns associated with death anxiety. 

Through CBT, you’ll learn to identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about death, replacing them with more realistic and healthier thoughts and behaviors. You will also be able to tackle any other symptoms you may be having related to a co-occurring mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression. Furthermore, your CBT therapist will likely teach you coping skills like mindfulness, grounding methods, or breathing techniques to help you get through periods of high anxiety.

Existential therapy

While existential therapy is not as widely used as CBT or exposure therapy, it can help people with death anxiety. Existential therapy is an approach that helps people explore the meaning of life, including existential questions surrounding death. You will have a safe space to openly discuss your concerns and fears about the meaning of life and mortality. By reflecting on your values, choices, and life overall in existential therapy, you can reframe your relationship with death, finding acceptance and a deeper appreciation for life. 

How Charlie Health can help

If you’re struggling with a preoccupation with death that’s affecting your mental health, Charlie Health may be able to help you.

Our virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) provides personalized mental health services for teens, young adults, and families dealing with various struggles.

At Charlie Health, every client is matched with a therapist who fits their specific needs and a group of peers from similar backgrounds with similar struggles to help them remember they are not alone. 

Contact Charlie Health to learn more today.

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