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Phasmophobia

Fear of Ghosts

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Updated July 16, 2014

The a child looking at the grave of a German soldier in Langemark German Cemetary, Flanders, Belgium where the remains of over 10,000 german soldiers who died in World War 1 lie.
Johnnie Pakington/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Phasmophobia, or the fear of ghosts, can be complicated to diagnose. Most of us experience a certain thrill of anxiety when telling ghost stories or watching movies that feature ghosts and other supernatural entities. Most people are able to control this fear, though, and even enjoy the feelings that it creates. For some people, however, this fear is overwhelming and life-limiting, thereby meeting the traditional definition of a phobia. Some experts feel that a phobia of ghosts may be symptomatic of a more serious thought disorder, as it may constitute a form of magical thinking. Let’s try to break down the relevant issues.

Thanatophobia

The fear of death is common and can be found across cultures and religions. This fear may itself be related to other fears, including those based in religious beliefs and fear of the unknown. Some fear the act of dying, while others fret about what may occur beyond the moment of death.

Phasmophobia is often related to thanatophobia. If you fear death, you may also fear signs and symbols that are related to its occurrence, such as cemetery tombstones or funeral homes. The fear of ghosts could be seen in the same way.

Magical Thinking

A broad definition of magical thinking could include virtually any beliefs that focus on irrational correlations between events. Some studies have shown links between magical thinking and psychosis, schizotypal personality disorder and other serious mental health conditions.

Since the existence of the paranormal has not been scientifically proven, some experts feel that a belief in its existence may constitute magical thinking. Under this theory, phasmaphobia could be seen as an extreme form of such thinking, possibly indicative of a more serious condition than a simple phobia.

Religious Beliefs

The corollary to magical thinking is the existence of religious beliefs. By definition, most religious teachings must be taken on faith. From Jesus to Buddha to the mystical Shaman, virtually every major religion hinges on belief in the existence of one or more spiritual leaders who are or were granted the power to do things that are impossible under the laws of physics.

In addition, many major religions accept the existence of the supernatural, whether in the form of spirits, demons, angels or other entities. Many religions teach that most of these beings are evil, capable of tempting or harming humans. Likewise, angels and other beings are frequently seen as benevolent and helpful. Therefore, it would be simplistic and unfair to assume that someone has disordered thinking based solely on a belief in or fear of the supernatural.

Parapsychology

Parapsychology is a branch of science that attempts to document and study occurrences of paranormal activity. Its status as a legitimate science has long been debated within the scientific community. Some of the results that have been obtained cannot be fully explained through current scientific principles, although many argue that this is due to a failure to use the established scientific method.

Regardless of their personal beliefs about parapsychology, good mental health professionals accept the client’s beliefs in such research without judgment. A client who has a fear of ghosts based on parapsychological research will not normally be suspected of magical thinking.

Treating Phasmophobia

Since the existence of the supernatural cannot be proven, phasmophobia can be somewhat difficult to treat under conventional methods. Cognitive talk therapy may be helpful. In this type of therapy, the goal is to help the client understand the root of his fear and learn to change the thoughts and beliefs that cause the fear. Care, however, must be taken to avoid trying to change the client’s religious or scientific beliefs. In some cases, it may be best to refer the client for counseling with her religious leader in addition to or in lieu of traditional therapy.

Teaching coping skills can also be helpful in this situation. Breathing exercises, guided visualization and even biofeedback are methods that the client can learn to use to manage his own fear.

Finally, it is important to understand what the client’s goal is for therapy. Does he simply want to be able to enjoy ghost stories and horror movies without panicking? Is she questioning her religious beliefs? Is there a bigger issue, such as fear of death, which should be addressed? The therapist must always be careful to follow the lead of the client.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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