Phasmophobia, or the fear of ghosts, can be complicated to diagnose. Many people experience a certain thrill of anxiety when telling ghost stories or watching movies that feature ghosts and other supernatural entities. Most are able to control this fear and some even enjoy the feeling 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.
Phasmophobia can be characterized by a range of different symptoms. These may include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fear of being alone
- Intense fear of ghosts
- Panic attacks
In many cases, people can also experience physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, chills, nausea, rapid heartbeat, and rapid breathing.
It is important to note that phasmophobia is not a distinct condition recognized by the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5), the tool used by doctors and other mental health professionals to diagnose mental health conditions. Instead, the condition would likely be diagnosed as a specific phobia. To qualify as a specific phobia:
- The fear must be persistent and excessive, leading to either avoidance or extreme distress.
- The fear must also be life-limiting and affect a person’s ability to function in areas of life such as school or work.
- Symptoms must be present for six months or longer and must not be caused by another disorder or condition.
In order to make a diagnosis, your doctor may ask questions about the symptoms you are experiencing, including duration and severity. Your doctor may also take a medical history, perform a physical exam, and run lab tests to help rule out other medical or mental conditions.
Phasmophobia vs. Thanatophobia
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 on religious beliefs and fear of the unknown. Some people fear the act of dying, while others worry 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 death, such as tombstones or funeral homes. The fear of ghosts could be seen in the same way.
Both genetic and environmental factors can contribute to the development of phobias such as phasmophobia. Research has found that people who have a close family member with a phobia or another type of anxiety disorder are more likely to develop a phobia, pointing to a genetic influence.
Stressful experiences and social influences can also play a part. A person who has had a frightening experience involving ghosts or haunted houses, for example, might be more likely to develop this type of phobia.
Scary movies and other cultural or religious influences related to the supernatural can also play a part. Other factors that can contribute to phasmophobia include magical thinking, supernatural beliefs, and parapsychology.
Magical thinking involves the belief that your thoughts, wishes, or ideas can influence what happens in the physical world. 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, phasmophobia could be seen as an extreme form of such thinking, possibly indicative of a more serious condition than a simple phobia.
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.
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. However, 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 their 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.
Since the existence of the supernatural cannot be proven, phasmophobia can be somewhat difficult to treat under conventional methods. Mental health professionals may try a variety of treatments.
Medications may sometimes be prescribed to help people cope with some of the symptoms associated with phasmophobia, including anxiety and depression. Anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants may help people manage some of these responses. In many cases, medications tend to be most effective when combined with other treatments.
Psychotherapy can also be helpful in the treatment of phasmophobia. There are several different types that may be considered.
- Exposure therapy is the preferred treatment for specific phobias such as phasmophobia.In this type of treatment, people are gradually exposed to the source of their fear while they practice relaxation responses. Over time, the fear response is gradually reduced or eliminated.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be helpful. In this type of therapy, the goal is to help the person understand the root of their fear and learn to change the thoughts and beliefs that cause fear.6 Care must be taken by the therapist, however, to avoid trying to change the person’s religious or scientific beliefs.
- Religious counseling is another option. In some cases, it may be best to seek counseling with a religious leader in addition to or in lieu of traditional therapy.
- Coping skills can also be helpful in the treatment of phasmophobia. Breathing exercises, guided visualization, and even biofeedback are methods that people can learn to use to manage their own fear.
It’s important to understand what your goal is for therapy. Do you simply want to be able to enjoy ghost stories and horror movies without panicking? Are you questioning your religious beliefs? Is there a bigger issue, such as fear of death, that should be addressed?
Research suggests that fear of the supernatural and ghosts leads people to experience feelings of shame. In addition to treatment, it is important to find ways to cope with both the anxiety of the phobia as well as such associated emotions that this fear can create.
This self-care may include making sure that you are getting plenty of sleep, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in regular exercise.
Relaxation techniques can be a great way to manage feelings of anxiety as they arise. Some techniques you might try include deep breathing, relaxation, and progressive muscle relaxation.
Social support can also be important when you are coping with a stressful situation. Consider sharing your fears with a trusted friend who can lend an ear and offer comfort when you are feeling overwhelmed.