An anxiety disorder linked to the intense and pathological fear of corpses.
Although the fact that there is the end of life makes every minute of our time valuable, the truth is that almost nobody wants to die and a large part of people have a certain respect and fear of death.
However, for some people the fear of death and corpses and everything that has to do with them comes to suppose a true phobia, which generates great suffering and prevents them from living life fully. We are talking about necrophobia, which this article is about.
What is necrophobia?
The phobia of death, and especially of corpses, is known as necrophobia, which is a disabling condition and generates a high level of anxiety and discomfort. As a phobia that it is, it supposes the existence of an irrational and disproportionate fear (something generally recognized by those who suffer them) with respect to the risk posed by a stimulus or a situation, in this case death and everything related to it.
Exposure to the feared or even the possibility of encountering something related to it generates intense levels of anxiety, which can lead to the appearance of somatic symptoms such as tachycardia, hyperventilation, tremors or excessive sweating. It can lead to panic attacks, in which in addition to the above, fear of having a heart attack, losing your mind or losing control of your body may appear. Therefore, the subject tends to avoid all those situations that remind him or are associated with the phobic stimulus.
Necrophobia is a specific phobia that can be related to fear of harm, blood, and injections. It is also often called thanatophobia, although there may be nuances that make it not completely synonymous: although both fears are of death and include the fear of dying, thanatophobia is usually more general and centered on the fear of dying. itself, while necrophobia is usually more linked to the fear of corpses, burials and coffins.
Although fear of death is common, necrophobia as such is not excessively common. It is a condition that can significantly affect the person who suffers it. And it is that although we are not constantly surrounded by stimuli that remind us of death or corpses, the subject will tend to avoid situations and places that are linked to him.
In this way, some stimuli that can trigger anxiety and that those affected by this phobia will avoid including cemeteries, celebrations such as Halloween or even museums where mummies or skeletons have been exhibited. Movies, novels and works of art related to death or lifeless bodies, such as horror or the noir genre , will also be avoided. Even more relevant than this could be the avoidance of hospitals, something that can greatly harm the health of the subject if they need medical assistance. In severe cases, it could lead the person to avoid even leaving their home, for fear of the possibility of dying or finding some kind of corpse.
Likewise, for people with this phobia the fact or thought of aging is a great source of anguish, as age is linked to a greater possibility of dying. This can contribute to extreme attitudes about staying young or even avoiding old people.
Causes and origin of fear of the dead
The causes of necrophobia are not fully known and are not unique, with multiple factors and variables influencing their appearance. Before considering them, it should be noted that, as we have already mentioned, fear of death is natural, since even at a biological level we are programmed to try to survive.
Beyond this, it is usual that behind the origin of necrophobia is the experience of some aversive event that has conditioned the reaction to death or corpses. Among them we can find finding a corpse (be it human or animal) in childhood, or experiencing the loss of a loved one in a traumatic way. Another cause can be derived from the knowledge that we are all going to die sooner or later: the corpse is a memory of our own mortality, which is why we empathize with it and the panic of ending up like the body that is being seen appears. The presence of parental or environmental models highly fearful of the idea of dying can also influence, acquiring reactions or ways of understanding death that are magnified or extreme.
Likewise, as with phobias of animals such as spiders and snakes, fear of death and corpses can be influenced by phylogenetic inheritance: corpses rot, smell, and bacteria and bacteria begin to grow over time. organisms that can cause disease, so that people who are not in regular contact with bodies without any type of treatment could survive more easily.
Treatment of this phobia
As with all other phobias, necrophobia is a condition that can be successfully treated and overcome through psychological therapy. In the first place, it will be necessary to analyze together with the patient the vision and meaning that death is given, the possible existence of traumatic events, the consequences that necrophobia is having in their life or why they consider that the phobia has arisen.
Among the most effective therapies we can find systematic exposure and desensitization. In both cases, the subject should be progressively exposed to a hierarchy of different anxiety-generating situations, ordered from least to greatest.
While in the simple exposition the subject must remain in the situation until the anxiety subsides by itself, in the case of desensitization the person must carry out a complementary activity incompatible with anxiety (such as relaxation techniques). The objective is to make anxiety something controllable, so that when encountering the feared stimulus, the subject does not need to flee or avoid their day-to-day activities. Some examples of stimuli or situations to be exposed to could include watching horror movies, reading narratives or descriptions about sensations in people with near-death experiences, trying on zombie or skeleton costumes, going to a cemetery or going to a wake.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is also a recommended resource, in order to analyze and later try to modify the beliefs, biases and dysfunctional thoughts that make the problem originate and / or remain. Another technique that enjoys some popularity in this type of phobia is hypnotherapy. It is also possible to use anxiolytic drugs in specific situations that generate anxiety (for example when going to a funeral), although this would not fix the problem.
- American Psychiatric Association (2013), Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.), Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Edmund JB (2005). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, 4th ed. New Harbinger Publications.