Samantha Mawdsley spent her nights crying and her days exhausted. When she was 16 years old, she was sleeping on her father’s bedroom floor for almost five years. “I began to have panic attacks in my sleep and was letting out blood curdling screams.” Samantha suffers from thanatophobia– the fear of death.
Today, Samantha is 29 years old and doesn’t live with her father anymore. Her nightly panic attacks are gone but she still suffers from daily thoughts about death.
Samantha’s friends describe her as “bubbly, sunny and open”. Most people would never think she is phobic. “Now at work, no matter how stressed I am, I keep my façade of happiness, but if people only could see inside my mind… .”
It all started when she was 11 years old. “I was watching the movie A League of Their Own about baseball. My dad was having a bath so I watched the ending on my own. As the credits rolled, the movie recounted where all of the women went. Some continued to play baseball and were honoured for their contribution to the sport before their deaths.”
That was when Samantha began to wonder what legacy she would leave behind when she would die. “And then it hit me. It wasn’t a matter of if I die, but when.
“I don’t remember much, but I ran to my dad screaming hysterically that I didn’t want to die. It were blood curdling, desperate cries and the sobs were racking through my body.” From that moment on, Samantha felt desperately terrified of dying one day.
“If someone is phobic, they have an intese need to avoid a stimulus or their brain chemistry changed when they are triggered and they can feel fear through their body,” explains Elizabeth Keating internal family systems (sm) therapist with the Novara Centre, a mental health clinic in Wicklow.
“Within us there are lot of different parts that are trying to protect us and hold things back. Under that model intense fear would be hold deep within our psyche and held down. It may flare up if triggered by going to a funeral or hearing something on TV or another reminder that death is out there and part of life.”
There are different manifestations of phobias. Keating says that normally “people have a fear response: They will getting afraid, their breathing might getting constricted or their heart would be affected so that might even be palpitations. Someone might have a fear that their death is imminent, that would happen during a panic attack. Essentially the whole system will go into a frightened mode.”
In Samantha’s case, thanatophobia manifests itself in two different ways. One way is a pervasive fear in the back of her mind. “Someone at work will mention a project we are working on next year and my brain will think ‘next year, when I am one year closer to dying’.”
The other way is even worse to her: “Sometimes when I am trying to sleep my brain will just snap. I will be screaming before I even realise what has happened. I will run or thrash about, desperately trying to physically escape the panic that feels like it is all around me. Most time it stops as quickly as it began.”
The reason for Samantha’s deep fear is the inevitability that death will happen. “It’s that desperation that I fear. I fear ceasing to exist. I fear my dad ceasing to exist.”
It is common for people who suffer from thanatophobia to count their days to death. “When I was 11, I told myself I’d lived a tenth of my life. Now I am already 29, I consider it’s a third of the way through my life. That is simply terrifying to me.”
Believing in an afterlife helps to reduce the fear of death, even if it is impossible to say what happens after death. Mike Fagan from Foxrock in Dublin had a near death experience. “This changed my whole approach and values of life,” says the 71 years old family father.
“I was getting breakfast. My son was with me; he was about five or six years old at this time. All I remember was feeling this thing like by hitting in the chest,” says Fagan, who had a heart attack in his early 30’s. He was directly taken to the hospital.
“The part I do distinctly remember is being lifted up onto a table; there were a couple of nurses and a young doctor. I could feel myself drifting. It wasn’t a feeling that I was drifting out of my body. It was just my mind that was drifting. I distinctly heard one of the nurses panicking and saying: ‘He is gone! He is gone! He is dead! It is too late.’”
Fagan’s heart stopped beating. So the doctor decided to give him defibrillation. “The really bizarre thing was: I was looking down on the whole procedure, there was a total chaos below and a lot of screaming. Though I felt very calm and peaceful.”
For some reason Fagan felt connected with “call it the Great Manitou, some superior being or whatever it was” that gave him a great sense of comfort and relief. He doesn’t understand what really happened and he doesn’t want to know it. “I am just happy to believe that I was moving on to something bigger and better.”
Experiences like Fagan’s can be of great support to make thoughts about death more pleasant. However most people who suffer from thanatophobia can’t believe in an afterlife. “In the dark of the night, the endless expanse of forever is all I can think about,” says Samantha. “And even if I would believe in a heaven, more than once I have screamed ‘but what if I am wrong?’”
Different methods can be applied to help someone safely meet their fear and release it. Keating explains a meditative experience that may help: “The best way is for me to start to work with someone and guide them to tune into their inner self or world so they can get to know the parts of them involved in the phobic response.
“Over time, this calms their system and eventually, if the person is grounded enough, they can help the part’s that hold this extreme fear to release it safely.”
Samantha, speaking from her own experience, says the best treatment is by being honest and talking about your own. “I’ve now met more people who have thanatophobia. Knowing someone else exist with the same fear is one of the biggest steps they have ever taken towards healing.”
Everyone has to die; that is what life makes so precious. It is difficult for those who are scared of death to concentrate on life and its beautiful sites due to the fear that is bigger than every other emotion.
Leonardo da Vinci once said: “While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” Treatment methods and therapies might help; religion might help; time might help. Unfortunately everyone has to find it out for themselves.