Most of us don’t want to think or talk about death and actually having a fear of death is quite normal and stems from our natural instinct for survival. As human beings, we are driven to stay alive whilst at the same time being aware that death is inevitable. This survival instinct keeps us safe and can be used to benefit our lives. But what happens when an irrational fear of death begins to seep into our thoughts and takes over?
What is death anxiety?
Death anxiety is the fear people feel when they become acutely aware of and apprehensive about dying and death, not just for themselves but those in their lives. Death anxiety is a very real concern for some, affecting their day to day functioning. Severe death anxiety is known as Thanatophobia.
When people consciously think about death it can affect them differently. Some take action to postpone it for as long as they can – through a healthy diet, exercise, community involvement etc Others will push it to the back of their mind, try to ignore it and carry on, aware of it, but with plans to do something about it later ie. get healthy at a later stage, give up smoking at the start of the next new year etc, then they distract themselves by thinking about and doing something else. And then there are those who find their thoughts of death and dying completely overwhelming and this can have a knock-on effect in many areas of their life.
So let us look at the different ways anxiety about death and dying can manifest themselves:
Anxiety about our children dying.
This can create a feeling of anguish when our children are out of our sight e.g. at school or staying with a friend, and we need to keep checking up on them for our own sanity. Death anxiety can be all-consuming and exhausting where our children are concerned. As parents, we already have a vulnerability. We also have thousands of thoughts a day that don’t worry us, but knowing that we are all going to die can give death anxiety a real hook into us if we have an underlying issue that we may or may not be aware of.
Worrying about our parents dying
The natural order should be that most of us will outlive our parents, but if we are suffering from death anxiety we can become overly focused on thoughts of our parents dying. This can rob us of enjoying precious times with them as our thoughts become increasingly illogical and panic can set in. And whilst it is absolutely normal not to want those we love to die, there is no way to avoid the laws of nature – everything that lives will eventually die. We cannot always control how or when we die, therefore we have to keep a perspective on the realities of life. So we need to do things and create new habits to keep this in perspective and understand the reality that most of us will outlive our parents.
When children suffer from death anxiety
With so many disasters around the globe, whether man-made or natural disasters, our reactions and behaviours directly affect how our children receive the news and therefore react themselves.
Children now more than ever, due to the pandemic and threat of coronavirus, are aware of death. They hear the stories on the news and talk to their friends, also social media brings the world to our doorsteps. Children learn their coping mechanisms from the adults around them – they may not always hear what the adults are saying, but they watch what they do. If you panic, struggle or overly focus on a traumatic event, the chances are your child will too – it is learned behaviour. The way we teach children how to cope with traumatic events in childhood sets a pattern for the rest of their lives. Therefore it is important to keep our behaviour and routines as familiar as possible in the face of adversity to help give our children a feeling of safety. We can teach them to embrace all life experiences – good, bad, happy or sad – as they arise, to talk about their feelings when they feel them and not to be made to think that there is something wrong with them when they are being emotionally honest.
Global death anxiety
The current pandemic has heightened our senses and, as we are all in this together, our sense of humanity can also become honed. Having deaths reported daily in the news can make our anxiety external, giving us a sense of panic for the safety of people we don’t know and for the injustices around the world.
In a world where we are constantly bombarded by images of the young, beautiful and perfect, it can be so easy to compare ourselves to others and create imperfect imaginings about ourselves.
These constant reminders can keep our thoughts in a loop and ping right back at us every time we look in a mirror, shaking our confidence and lowering our self-esteem. This can leave us feeling left behind as we grow older. It takes us out of enjoying what we are doing in the present moment and steals our focus from the things that really matter.
We become aware of the passing years and instead of delighting in the benefits each year of life brings, we think too much of where it all ends. Stop letting those glossy magazines influence you and filter your social media to the people who really matter and who make you feel good about yourself. Focus on the things you like to do and the people you love. Find what makes you happy and do it! Having healthy self-esteem makes us feel valuable in life and gives us a sense of worth in what we are doing.
What can we do if our anxiety feels out of control?
Death anxiety could indicate that there is an emotional issue that needs working on from the past. It may be something that you are aware of or something that you may have buried many years ago.
The first step is to acknowledge and accept the effect the anxiety has on your life physically and emotionally. Once we acknowledge that we may be doing something or engaging in thoughts that are not good for us, then we can begin to take steps to change them for better thoughts and habits.
It can be difficult to be honest with ourselves because we are so good at distracting ourselves from things we don’t want to admit to. Maybe death anxiety is an easier outlet because it is something we can’t see physically, like drinking, smoking or eating too much.
Choosing our thoughts and taking control of how we think and where we direct those thoughts can release a lot of mental suffering and anguish. Accepting that we cannot control everything in life can help us reduce anxiety about the future and we can learn to experience life in the present moment. By ignoring our common sense we can be robbed of experiencing a lovely level of happiness. It’s like an open doorway that you want to walk through but you don’t know what is behind the door. So you stay where you are, tempted but frightened of what might be. Dare to take the risk – you may get a wonderful sense of release.
Triggers and reminders
Try not to continually watch the news as this can keep events very fresh and real. Keep in mind that the media can hold a tragic event in the news for ages. Repeated reporting of an anniversary of a disaster can make it feel as if it’s happening again and again, sometimes bringing events from the other side of the world right in front of us. The internet and the speed at which news travels visually and auditory has made the world feel like a very small place indeed. Keep the scale of reality – the world population at this date is approximately 7.6 billion. Yes, we see disasters but we can also see many good and great things happening. Everything needs a balance.
Action plan to reduce death anxiety
Anxiety is not a present moment fear, it is about something that may happen in the future. Constantly living in the future ie thinking about what might happen, denies experiencing the reality of now.
Find someone you can talk to and share how you feel. If you can’t think of someone you can trust to share your anxiety with, try writing down with total honesty what you are feeling and really connect with events in your past that may resonate with your anxiety. Once you find a connection, you can uncover what was emotionally ‘unfinished’ in that event, or what it was that you needed at that time.
When death anxiety can be a good thing
A healthy fear of death can actually make us change our beliefs and behaviours for the better. An awareness that we are not immortal can make us nicer and better people too, as it can make us think about how we would like to be remembered. And it can bring more love into our life as we become nicer people and build more meaningful relationships – love isn’t contained in any one person but grows from the relationships we create with each other.
By really grasping that ageing and dying are an inescapable truth then we can live a better life and it can ignite us to consider our footprint upon the earth.
When you feel anxiety levels rising, close your eyes and breathe in and out deeply and slowly. This shows down the heart rate and calms the mind until you can reconnect with the here and now.
- CBT Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help to control thought patterns and is evidence-based in overcoming anxiety.
- Grief Recovery Method can help uncover unresolved grief.
If you are still feeling overwhelmed and suffering from excessive thinking about dying and death, please do seek professional help.
Article by Lianna Champ
Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of the practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ.
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