Death might be one of the few things we all have in common, and yet the irony is, our fears around it can end up making us feel terribly alone.
Here in the western world, death is still very much a taboo subject. It’s something we just don’t talk about. This means that when fears come up, we might feel reluctant to share them with the people around us.
Perhaps we don’t want to come across as morbid or put a “dampener” on the mood, or maybe we feel so afraid just thinking about death that we do everything in our power to avoid the subject even coming into conversation.
At some point or other, all of us will be faced with fears about death. After all, what happens when the light’s go out remains one of life’s biggest mysteries.
Not only is it normal to fear the unknown but in these current uncertain times, we’re probably going to find our thoughts turning to our own mortality even more.
And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, contemplating death can spur us on to make important changes in our lives. It can make us question whether we’re living a life that’s based on our values – the things that are important to us.
But – and this is an important but – whilst thinking about death is normal, worrying about it obsessively is not. If you find yourself stuck in a rut of worry and going to great lengths to avoid having to think or talk about death, then it might point to a deeper issue.
In this article, we’re going to be exploring “death anxiety”, and some of the signs and symptoms to look out for.
Why do I think about death so much?
As the name suggests, Thanatophobia – or death anxiety – is a phobia. And phobias tend to be either caught or taught.
Many people start worrying about death after losing someone close to them. Losing a loved one can shine a light on the fragility of our own life. Likewise, a “close call” or near death experience can also lead to a preoccupation with death. In much the same way as doctors and nurses working in A&E – who are exposed to death on a very regular basis – can be vulnerable to developing death anxiety.
That said, you don’t need to have been exposed to death in order to develop death anxiety. It can also develop seemingly out of blue.
As Jung famously said, “what we resist persists”. Because we’ve been brought up in a culture which avoids conversations about death, when we do think about it we might try to quash those fears. Maybe we try to distract ourselves from difficult thoughts and feelings by engaging in maladaptive coping strategies – by drinking, smoking, watching TV, shopping etc…
But the catch is this: the more we try to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings, the more intense they’re likely to become.
So what started as natural, healthy thoughts about death can easily lead us into a negative cycle of anxiety.
Death anxiety symptoms
- Intense fear or anxiety whenever you think about death
- Thinking or worrying about it on a daily basis
- Avoiding situations where you think you might have to think or talk about it
- Physical symptoms when thinking about death – heart palpitations, sweating, tummy pains, nausea etc.
- Difficulties sleeping
- Fearing the worst every time you come down with something or spending hours symptom-searching on the internet. (Health anxiety and death anxiety frequently come together – both linked to control and a difficulty with tolerating uncertainty).
I keep thinking about death – am I depressed?
Whilst death anxiety itself isn’t a disorder, existential fears lie at the core of many anxiety and depressive disorders. This means that it is often linked to these kinds of mental health issues – Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in particular, which is characterised by frequent and uncontrollable worrying.
It’s important to be clear that just because you’re thinking about death does not mean that you have a mental health issue. Fears around death become problematic when they arise daily and are very persistent (for a period of 6 months of more). When this happens, it’s likely these thoughts and fears have started to interfere with your enjoyment of everyday life.
Overcoming fear of death
Overcoming the fear of death usually involves taking control of your anxiety more generally.
As soon as we’re able to admit and own that we have a problem, we empower ourselves to begin taking the necessary steps towards recovery.
Therapy provides a safe space to share your fears and learn healthier ways of coping with difficult thoughts and feelings about death when they arise.
In the words of Epictetus, “Death is necessary and cannot be avoided. I mean, where am I going to go to get away from it?”
Death is a normal, natural part of life. However much it scares us, we can’t waste our lives worrying about something we know we will never be able to change.
And if we can’t escape it, then we must find a way to accept it.
One of the key principles in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) is radical acceptance which focuses on accepting reality rather than fighting it – or trying to “avoid” it. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean we have to like something, it simply means acknowledging reality. Denying reality is only going to cause us more suffering in the long run.
When we find acceptance with our own impermanence, we realise that all we ever truly have is the present moment. Instead of being afraid of death, we can turn our focus to embracing life, living each moment in a way that counts. Like this, death can become a driving force for building a life that makes us feel truly alive.