Scared to Death or Scared OF Death? A Rumination on Death Anxiety

Blake Kooi

Halloween or “All Hallows’ Eve,” as it originally was called, is the first day of the Christian liturgical year marked to remember the dead. (Wikipedia) Therefore, it seems a fitting time to talk about death. Death is one of the most discussed subjects in my clinical practice. Which does make sense, since while not everyone will experience severe trauma or unmanageable anxiety or pervasive depression, everyone will experience the death of a loved one or the recognition of their own clock winding down.

Poor Yorick - Human SkullAs psychiatrist Irvin Yalom has observed, “Each person fears death in his or her own way. For some people, death anxiety is the background music of life, and any activity evokes the thought that a particular moment will never come again. Even an old movie feels poignant to those who cannot stop thinking that all the actors are now only dust. For other people, the anxiety is louder, unruly, tending to erupt at three in the morning, leaving them gasping at the specter of death. They are besieged by the thought that they, too, will soon be dead—as will everyone around them.”

Death anxiety can be masked by other disorders

You might be thinking to yourself, “Well, I don’t have death anxiety.” Good for you! Feel free to skip the rest of this article. However, before you do, you should probably know that death anxiety shows itself in a variety of forms. Not everyone wakes up at three in the morning, gasping at death’s specter. In fact, death anxiety isn’t itself a clinical diagnosis. Rather, it tends to show itself as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Depression, Phobia, or Hypochondria.

Anxious man peering over table top

Hypochondriacs spend a lot of time worrying about the nuances of each health concern. But often this worrying is born of a desire to feel like they have some control over their life, since deep down, they know they have no control over their inevitable death. The fear that comes from this lack of control can feel like too much to handle. For hypochondriacs, it is easier to distract themselves with worries about mole sizes and tingling sensations that have the potential to be underlying horrific diseases. However, the interesting paradox about worry is that although we usually do it to try to gain a sense of control, it makes us feel even more out of control.

Other tactics people use to avoid death anxiety include the avoidance of living a full life. If a full life is not lived, then death is little loss. Even those who actively seek out death through suicide might be reacting out of a fear of death and the great potential loss that comes with it. As the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank states, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.”

So what is death anxiety?

Hand Silhouette

Death anxiety is a neurotic ontological concern that only human beings have the privilege of contemplating. It is the fear of nonexistence. It is the understanding that we only have a limited amount of time here on earth and then we close our eyes and they never open again. We fear what happens after death— Is there a heaven? A hell? Nothing? Will it be lonely? Does anything we do during our existence have any purpose at all? Death is often considered the end of future possibilities, and is inescapable.

When is death anxiety a problem? We ALL have death anxiety to one extent or another. However, to some it is more debilitating than others. Death anxiety becomes a concern when it is impeding your ability to function in your home or job or preventing you from living a satisfying life.

I think I have death anxiety. What should I do about it?

If death anxiety is impeding your ability to live a fully functional and satisfying life, it is helpful to seek the assistance of a professional who incorporates existential therapy as part of their practice. Overcoming death anxiety involves breaking down defense mechanisms (like Hypochondria or Phobia) and confronting fears in manageable parcels, so as not to become overwhelmed.

Through the process of confronting your fears, you will be able to more honestly deal with the reality of your fragile existence and to adopt meaningful habits that contribute to a more satisfying way of living. In my clinical practice, I have found that living a life full of purpose and meaning often trumps the fear of future nonexistence, since a meaningful life is not dependent upon the quantity of life, but rather the quality of life.

What if my death anxiety isn’t that bad?

If your death anxiety isn’t impeding your ability to live a satisfying life, but you still want to find out more about the topic, I’ve found Irvin Yalom’s book, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, to be a helpful resource. Please note, however, that in my experience, many who read this book without the assistance of a therapist become overwhelmed by their death anxiety, quit reading it, and end up reinforcing their defense mechanisms. If you read this book without the assistance of a therapist, proceed with caution, and only if you have a mild case of death anxiety.