Throughout history many fables and stories have served as a source of inspiration to give context to some mental phenomena within the psychological jargon.

The Damocles’ syndrome, for example , comes from a story typical of classical Greek culture in which a young and flattering courtier is punished by his master, Dionysius II.

In this article we will learn what this story is about, as well as its psychological background and why it has served as an inspiration for the syndrome that bears his name.

What is Damocles syndrome?

This syndrome is named after a fable from ancient Greek culture . Let’s see what this fable is about.

Damocles was a young courtier, most flattering to his master, the tyrant Dionysius II, who was ruler of Syracuse between 367-357 BC and again between 346-344 BC.

On one occasion Dionysius decides to punish his faithful servant, giving him a lesson because of his exaggerated devotion to him. The tyrant proposes to Damocles that they change seats during a meal , and in this way he gives him his privileged place at the table along with all the attentions, as if Damocles were the absolute ruler of the place.

The courtier enjoyed his time eating, drinking, and enjoying the personal attention of the local women.

At the end of the meal, Damocles looks up and notices that there is an extremely sharp sword attached to the ceiling , above his head, only by a thin thread of horse hair.

When he realized this situation, he no longer wanted to eat, and he never wanted to receive the “privilege” of sitting in that place again.

From that story comes the Damocles syndrome, coining the term as a reference to the dangers that can occur when we least expect it, or when everything seems to be going very well.

Psychological background of the myth

From the field of psychology this term was adopted as a metaphor to refer to the state of anxiety that some patients present after having overcome a certain illness .

This syndrome usually occurs very often in cancer patients who manage to overcome it in an apparently successful way. It is common that after hearing the news they get excited and are invaded by a feeling of indescribable satisfaction.

But after a while an irrational concern about a possible relapse begins to arise , they begin to fear that at any moment, when they least expect it, the cancer will come back into their lives, falling on them like the sword that hung over Damocles’ head.

It is in this way that from the first moment these intrusive thoughts arrive in the subject’s life, a calvary begins for them, in the sense that already their tranquility is compromised to a great extent by the fear and anxiety of a relapse .


It is natural that after overcoming a complicated illness, such as cancer, following the thread of the previous example, patients feel a little anguish about the continuity of their state of health.

Therefore, to determine that a person is presenting this syndrome, the following criteria must be met:

  • The fear of relapse must be irrational and very intense .
  • The subject has high levels of anxiety before routine tests are performed.
  • The distress begins some time after you are discharged .
  • Presence of intrusive and catastrophic thoughts.

It is important to take into account that the anxious behavior in the subject must be intense and prevalent during a significant period of time , otherwise it could be due to some specific situation and not to Damocles syndrome.

In any case, Damocles syndrome is not an officially recognized clinical category in psychiatric textbooks.

What to do in this situation?

Since this syndrome is based mostly on states of intense anxiety and distress caused by intrusive thoughts of a catastrophic nature, the treatment is divided into sessions of psychotherapy for the patient and counselling for the relatives .

In the case of the patient the process is based on making him understand his real situation, that he is a survivor and that this should be a reason for joy and motivation to have a full life.

The aim is to keep the subject in the here and now , preventing his thoughts from going faster than the reality he is living in that moment. Psychotherapy based on cognitive-behavioral methods are efficient during the sessions.

In the case of relatives, the process consists of psycho-education so that they do not play a counterproductive role in the life of the subject in question ; it often happens that due to ignorance the family acts in the wrong way and can become extremely protective of the person, making him/her even more anxious.

And sometimes the opposite happens: because they think he has fully recovered, they think it is best to keep him away from the whole environment of hospitals and doctors.

None of these positions are correct, the ideal is to follow the indications of the specialists, attend consultations when scheduled for routine check-ups and not make decisions based on personal beliefs.

Bibliographic references:

  • Baker, K. (1987). Benet’s Re.ader’s Encyclopedia.