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Necrophobia

Necrophobia is a condition characterized by an irrational fear of dead things or corpses as well as things that are associated with death.

What Is Necrophobia?

“Necrophobia is a type of specific phobia characterized by an unreasonable and unjustifiable fear of dead things and things associated with death such as graveyards, coffins, or tombstones,” explains MindJournal. A person with this phobia displays an irrational fear of dead bodies or corpses. The word Necrophobia is derived from the Greek word “nekros” meaning “corpse” and “phobos” meaning “fear”. Being fearful of death is a natural phenomenon that most people experience. However, a necrophobic may have experienced a traumatic event or have a near-death experience which is triggering anxiety or phobia associated with death.

One 2013 study 1 defines necrophobic behaviors as “the avoidance of dead or injured conspecifics.” It adds that “It is plausible that such avoidance has been selected for by the risks of predation and disease that are associated with the presence of cadavers.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not recognize this condition as a distinct disorder. However, a person with this condition may be diagnosed with “specific phobia”. Specific phobia is defined by an irrational fear of a specific object or situation. The symptoms of this disorder is usually an automated response that is uncontrollable and can take over a person’s emotions. This can enable the sufferer to take extreme measures and engage in “safety” or “avoidance” behaviors.

Understanding Necrophobia

The intense fear of dead things or things associated with death experienced by a necrophobic person can be extremely terrifying. Necrophobia can make the sufferer feel stressed and out of control. Fear of dead things can arise out of enormous causes. Experts believe it can occur due to genetics or traumatic life events. Some cultures believe that spirits return and haunt the living. These beliefs may play a role in developing this disorder. In extreme cases, this fear can trigger panic attacks which can be detrimental to one’s health. It may even require hospitalization to ensure the patient’s full recovery. Since this fear is extremely unpleasant, the individual may avoid any situation that triggers their fear and attack. For instance, a person with necrophobia might avoid taking a certain route that passes over a cemetery or funeral house. Thus in extreme cases, it is of utmost importance to seek professional help to ease the symptoms of this condition.

There are no exact statistics on the prevalence of necrophobia. However specific phobias are very common. A 2007 study 2 confirmed that more than 70% of people in the USA report having one or more unreasonable fears or specific phobias. A study found that 9.1% of adults in the United States had some type of specific phobias. Reports 3 suggest that the prognosis for specific phobias are fair since relapses are more common.

Signs & Symptoms Of Necrophobia

Symptoms can vary depending on the individual concerned. Necrophobia can present a combination of emotional, physical, and psychosocial symptoms. The physical and psychological signs and symptoms of this condition are as follows:

1. Physical Symptoms

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Choking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweaty palms
  • Racing heart
  • Prickly sensations like pins and needles
  • Panic attacks
  • Being unable to relax
  • Aches and pains
  • Fatigue
  • Excess sweating
  • Tightness in chest
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Numbness

2. Psychological Symptoms

  • Feeling like running away and hiding
  • Feeling like your losing control
  • Feeling like dying
  • Fearing fainting spells
  • Feeling detached from reality

Causes Of Necrophobia

The exact cause of this condition is unknown. However, some of the contributing factors that may influence the development of this disorder may include:

1. Traumatic incident

A patient with this condition might have experienced a traumatic incident in the past that involved the death of a loved one or a relative at a young age that later developed into a fear of death. A 2005 study 4 found that stress that results from traumatic events precipitates a spectrum of psycho emotional and physiopathological outcomes.

2. A learned response

Phobias are usually a consequence of learned responses. For instance, a child may observe the fearful or anxious behaviors of an adult. They usually pick a similar response to the stimuli. Parents who are extremely anxious may pass it on to their children.

3. Genetic Factors

Like most phobias, necrophobia is also hereditary. Some genetic combinations tend to make individuals more susceptible to anxiety disorders or phobias. However, studies 5 on the extent of the influence of genetic factors on specific phobias is still unknown.

4. Unresolved stress

Unresolved stress may also be a contributing factor in developing phobias. Anxiety and depression, if left untreated may develop into phobias. Studies 6 found that fear is a motivational state for a specific stimulus that gives rise to defensive behavior or escape. Continuous stressful situations or unresolved stress can make us phobic when reencountered with similar situations.

Read More About Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Here

5. Fear from movies, books, or media

Horror movies or books may play a significant role in developing phobias or fear of death. The University of Turku conducted research 7 on neural activity in response to watching horror movies. Researchers found that our brains are continuously anticipating and preparing us for action in response to threat or horror and in turn, horror movies exploit this phenomenon expertly to enhance the excitement. This may ultimately lead to anxiety or phobias.

Diagnosis Of Necrophobia

It may be normal to have a decent amount of fear or anxiety related to death, dying, or dead things. However, it may be a concern when the individual experiences panic-like symptoms. If you are experiencing any symptoms, it is important to seek professional help. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) has laid out the criteria for diagnosing this condition under the “specific phobias” category. In order to be diagnosed with a specific phobia, the individual must experience the following:

  • Significant fear and anxiety related to the fearful object (in this case death)
  • The object of fear triggers a fearful response
  • The fear and anxiety is not in proportion to the actual danger that the object represents
  • They take extreme measures to avoid the object of fear
  • Feeling extremely distressed if forced upon the object of fear
  • The distress can have a significant impact on one’s life
  • The symptoms must be present for at least six months or longer
  • The symptoms must not be explained by another disorder such as anxiety disorder


The doctor or mental health professional can ask the patient several questions related to symptoms, the duration of symptoms, medical and mental history. The doctor may also ask about the recent events that have occurred in your life in order to determine whether there are any triggers related to the symptoms. After evaluation, the doctor will devise a treatment plan to ease and manage the symptoms of this condition.

Treatment For Necrophobia

There are no set methods of treatment. A 2017 study 8 suggested that only a tenth to a quarter of people with specific phobias eventually seek treatment. However, the most common form of treatment methods involves a combination of therapy, medication, and relaxation techniques.

1. Therapy

Psychotherapy is considered as an effective psychological intervention 9 for a number of psychological disorders and behavioral problems and is accurately regarded as the main approach for treatment. According to a 2017 study 10 “Evidence-based psychotherapies have been shown to be efficacious and cost-effective for a wide range of psychiatric conditions.” A doctor may recommend the following types of psychotherapies for someone struggling with necrophobia:

A. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This therapy is used to address the irrational thoughts and behaviors that trigger the fear response. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps the patient to understand and evaluate the negative thoughts and patterns that trigger unwanted behavior. These negative thoughts and patterns are then replaced by positive thoughts and patterns to reach the desired state of mind. The doctor can also help the patient to develop coping mechanisms when faced with the fear of death. A 2015 study 11 confirmed that CBT has proven effective in treating patients with anxiety disorders and specific phobias. It has also been associated with improvements in quality of life in anxiety and phobic patients.

Read More About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Here

B. Exposure Therapy

This therapy involves the gradual exposure to fear-based stimuli in a controlled environment. Exposure therapy uses the exposure to the object of fear, in this case, corpses, in a safe environment to ease the fear. The patient is made to realize how this fear is irrational. Some psychiatrists even use virtual equipment where the patient is exposed to audio visual stimuli to create the same experience. Studies have shown that gradual exposure to stimulus has proven to be effective in treating phobias through desensitization. A 2007 study 12 confirmed that exposure therapy is the current and most effective form of treatment for this disorder.

2. Medications

Doctors may prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications in order to manage the symptoms of this disorder. A 2002 study 13 found some clinicians administering the antibiotic D-cycloserine, that is believed to facilitate fear extinction. It may be used to treat specific phobias.

3. Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are used to reduce stress levels and anxiety. These techniques may include mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, massage, yoga, music, or art therapy. However, relaxation techniques require patience and practice. It helps to reduce daily levels of stress and anxiety. Such techniques can be used as a coping mechanism for necrophobia. A 2015 study 14 showed significant results in reduction of anxiety and stress levels in patients with anxiety and specific phobias.

Prognosis For Necrophobia

It is possible to recover from necrophobia with behavioral treatment, support from friends and family, and medications. The prognosis of this disorder is good as compared to other disorders. Early treatment can help the individual to prevent any significant impact that may occur due to the disorder. With self-determination and coping strategies, it is possible to lead a normal and phobia-free life.

References:
  1. Prounis GS, Shields WM. Necrophobic behavior in small mammals. Behav Processes. 2013 Mar;94:41-4. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2012.12.001. Epub 2012 Dec 22. PMID: 23266783. []
  2. Stinson FS, Dawson DA, Patricia Chou S, Smith S, Goldstein RB, June Ruan W, Grant BF. The epidemiology of DSM-IV specific phobia in the USA: results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Psychol Med. 2007 Jul;37(7):1047-59. doi: 10.1017/S0033291707000086. Epub 2007 Mar 5. PMID: 17335637. []
  3. Samra CK, Abdijadid S. Specific Phobia. [Updated 2020 Jul 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499923/ []
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  5. Czajkowski, N., Kendler, K. S., Tambs, K., Røysamb, E., & Reichborn-Kjennerud, T. (2011). The structure of genetic and environmental risk factors for phobias in women. Psychological medicine41(9), 1987–1995. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291710002436 []
  6. Steimer T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience4(3), 231–249. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2002.4.3/tsteimer []
  7. Horror movies manipulate brain activity expertly to enhance excitement. (2020). ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200124104518.htm []
  8. Wardenaar KJ, Lim CCW, Al-Hamzawi AO, Alonso J, Andrade LH, Benjet C, Bunting B, de Girolamo G, Demyttenaere K, Florescu SE, Gureje O, Hisateru T, Hu C, Huang Y, Karam E, Kiejna A, Lepine JP, Navarro-Mateu F, Oakley Browne M, Piazza M, Posada-Villa J, Ten Have ML, Torres Y, Xavier M, Zarkov Z, Kessler RC, Scott KM, de Jonge P. The cross-national epidemiology of specific phobia in the World Mental Health Surveys. Psychol Med. 2017 Jul;47(10):1744-1760. doi: 10.1017/S0033291717000174. Epub 2017 Feb 22. Erratum in: Psychol Med. 2018 Apr;48(5):878. PMID: 28222820; PMCID: PMC5674525. []
  9. Locher, C., Meier, S., & Gaab, J. (2019). Psychotherapy: A World of Meanings. Frontiers in psychology10, 460. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00460 []
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  11. Kaczkurkin, A. N., & Foa, E. B. (2015). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience17(3), 337–346. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.3/akaczkurkin []
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  13. Davis M. Role of NMDA receptors and MAP kinase in the amygdala in extinction of fear: clinical implications for exposure therapy. Eur J Neurosci. 2002 Aug;16(3):395-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1460-9568.2002.02138.x. PMID: 12193180. []
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