Why are we afraid to die?

What is the fear of dying?

Nathalie Bailly: Anxiety, therefore, an unpleasant emotion, provoked by the anticipation of one’s own death. It includes two main facets: the fear of death itself and what might happen after it, the afterlife, nothingness, the forgetfulness of others, and so on. ; and fear of the “death process,” which can lead to loss of autonomy, physical pain, and so on.

Marie-Frederique Bacque: As shown in a study published in 1948 by the Hungarian psychologist Maria Nagy, which focused on 378 children, this anxiety affects us all more or less from the age of 6-7: at this age, we acquire cognitive skills. allow abstract thinking. The aptitude for abstraction allows us to conceive of the universal and definitive character of death and to project ourselves towards death itself. From the age of 2, a child notices the absence of life in dead animals and wilted plants and can, if faced with the death of a loved one, understand from the dimension of the irreversibility of death. But at this age, he still does not have the ability to imagine his own death, and therefore to be afraid of it.

>> Read also: What do we see just before we die?

What is the reason for this anxiety?

M.-FB: biological and cultural factors. First comes the fact that humans are biologically programmed to be afraid of anything that endangers their integrity: fire, predators … and death. Therefore, this fear is rooted in us. But there are also, and above all, discourses about the death – often negative – of parents and educators; and beliefs, religious or not, that may awaken the fear of death, particularly with the idea of ​​a possible hell in the afterlife, or more rarely of a nothingness of which we would be aware but of which we could not . change nothing.


Nathalie Bailly, social psychologist in the Laboratory of Psychology of the Ages of Life and Adaptation, University of Tours.

Is there a fear of dying in other species?

M.-FB: No, it is unique to humans. In fact, fear of danger is present in all animals: for example, chimpanzees and gorillas flee in front of a panther or fire. In addition, animals may also notice a broken bond with a dead relative, who no longer reacts to their contact. But they do not understand the irreversible nature of this loss. We are witnessing the case of Koko, a female gorilla who lived at the San Francisco Zoo (USA) until 2018, and who developed the ability to communicate in sign language: in front of a dead animal, she to say “he’s sleeping,” no. “He’s dead.” In fact, as stated above, the awareness of one’s own mortal condition requires abilities of abstraction … which only humans have. Therefore, all animals, including those closest to us, the great apes, live in ignorance of the fate that awaits them. And that’s why they can’t feel any anxiety about it.

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Ubiquitous, excessive, lasting, irrational and irrational, it then corresponds to a pathology: thanatophobia.

Is this fear helpful?

M.-FB: Absolutely! It allows you not to be exposed to danger and to be careful every day … to stay alive. That is why, for example, people who have little fear of dying often adopt risky behaviors: dangerous driving, addictive substances, and in particular drugs, and so on.

NB: In addition, the fear of death also helps to keep in mind the beauty of life, and to make the most of it every day.

Can it be turned off?

M.-FB: Yes, if it is widespread, excessive, long-lasting, irrational and irrational. It then corresponds to a pathology: thanatophobia (from the ancient Greek “Θάνατος, Thánatos”, the god of death, and “φόβος, phóbos”, fear). It occurs as soon as the person is exposed to a situation or object that can cause death or is related to it (knife, hospital, cemetery, etc.), this anxiety can induce depression, insomnia, panic attacks and withdrawal. in oneself; and driving to avoid anything that could induce or be linked to death, such as certain activities (driving, sports, etc.), certain transportation (airplanes, etc.), or even knives at home. Doing so can greatly damage your social, personal and professional life. There are no statistics on the number of people affected. However, this disorder is still uncommon.

Is there an effect of age?

NB: Yes. In general, during childhood and adolescence, there is little or no fear of death itself. And for good reason: the time ahead seems so long that death is not a real concern. This anxiety is especially pronounced around the age of fifty, when one sees how parents age or die. On the other hand, from the age of 70-75, it seems to be declining. This is perhaps because over the years we have had time to get used to the idea of ​​dying and a certain spirituality sets in.

>> Read also: Death causes a “tsunami” in neurons!

In the face of this fear of death, are there differences between men and women?

NB: In general, research on this topic shows that this fear is greater in women. For example, in a recent study conducted by my team with 590 people, and in the process of being published, the fair sex obtained an average “score” of death anxiety of 7.5 out of 15, compared to 6 about 15 for men. This is because they are more likely to die alone (due to their longer life expectancy) and are more likely to have depressive symptoms; now these two factors can increase anxiety in general, and therefore linked to one’s own death.

M.-FB: The greater fear that is measured in women may also stem from the fact that in the West they have more “authorization” to express their emotions, while men are supposed to be unafraid and therefore show less.

Less anxiety in the elderly

We would be more afraid of death than our elderly parents, according to a study published in 2017. During this work, Gary Sinoff, a researcher at the University of Haifa in Israel, also measured the fear of dying at 44 elderly people. like that of his children, using the dedicated questionnaire called “Templer’s Death Anxiety Scale” (see test on next page). As a result, adults scored an average of 4 out of 15, compared to an average of about 7 out of 15 for their children. Interestingly, children scored even higher when it came to their parents’ fear of death, with an average score of 8 out of 15. “Death anxiety is usually absent in the elderly, who instead fear a painful death and therefore the process of dying. Instead, their children fear the same death, which they extrapolate to their parents.”, explains the author. According to the researcher, this difference is mainly explained by the greater religiosity of the elderly.

However, children’s misperception about the level of fear of death in their older parents “provokes conflict, as the former prevents the disclosure of relevant medical information to the latter”. Hence his advice: “to tell families that the elderly are not afraid of death, but of suffering the process of dying”.

Marie-frédérique bacqué nathalie bailly:


Thinking about it, for example, by implementing advance guidelines that specify your desires for the end of your life, allows you to control it better and therefore be less afraid of it.

How to alleviate this fear?

Sr.-FB: The best way is to rationalize death, that is, to give it a logical and rational explanation. For example, considering that, according to evolutionary biologists, death allows life to be perpetuated.

NB: It is also possible to make the idea of ​​one’s own death more acceptable by giving meaning to life, living it to the fullest, in order to adhere to the idea that space must be left to others. A bit like geneticist Axel Kahn, who died in July 2021, who, on the verge of death, stated that he was not scared “without fear”, especially because he had “lived well”. In fact, giving meaning to life corresponds to a kind of spirituality, just like religion. However, during a paper published in 2019 by my team, which collected the opinions and observations of twelve health professionals involved in supporting palliative care, most participants stressed that spirituality, whether religious or not, it has a positive effect on quality of life, and it can soothe anyone involved in the pursuit of personal development, meaning, and well-being.

Talking more about death, thinking more about it, can that also help?

NB: Absolutely. Especially because, in Western societies, death has become one of the great taboos, of which little or nothing is spoken of in the family, and which we find less in our daily lives by the decline of rites. funerals, symbols of mourning. (dressing in black after the death of a loved one, etc.). However, evoking death, thinking about it, for example by implementing advance directives specifying one’s own desires about the end of life, this is what allows one to control it better and therefore be less afraid of it.

M.-FB: One can speak of death very early on, from early childhood, especially by reading stories, which are good tools for approaching the symbolic experience of death, questioning and expressing oneself around the deceased. It does not cause death or morbidity! On the contrary, it helps to perceive that death is part of life, and therefore to be less afraid of it.

>> Read also: Near-death experiences are not a “construction” of the brain, they actually exist

Marie-frédérique bacqué nathalie bailly:

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