Fear Of Death
Discussing death is an uncomfortable subject for many people. Yet it is a topic that all of us think about at one point in our lives, as death is an unavoidable occurrence. While the inevitability of death is straightforward in a logical sense, it can produce an immense sense of fear for many individuals. Fear of death does not just occur in those who are dealing with life-threatening illnesses, or are grieving the death of a loved one. Instead, an intense and damaging fear of death (also labeled thanatophobia) can plague anyone, at any stage of life.
Many fear death because of the uncertainty surrounding it. Questions like, “what will it feel like?” or “what happens after you die” can cause your mind to run in a million different directions. This intense distress may cause you to ruminate on the potential pain associated with death, or the fear around no longer existing.
Of course, important to keep in mind is that a healthy fear of death is common, and even considered “normal.” This healthy fear of dying may be surrounding the distress of potentially dying prematurely, and can be considered “healthy” if it does not significantly impair your life, health, or well-being.
Yet the suffering that stems from a more intense level of fear around the concept of death can cause substantial impacts on an individual’s life, and can cause stifling symptoms.
How does fear of death impair your life?
- Increased anxiety – fear of death is a common cause of anxiety in many people.
- Hypochondria – this disorder is often associated with the fear of dying.
- Hyper vigilance – those who struggle with an intense fear of death often become ultra aware of their surroundings, expecting imminent danger around every corner.
- Physical impacts – the constant fear and associated anxiety can often cause shakiness, increased heart rate, sweating, trouble breathing, and dry mouth.
How to manage the fear of death
- Radical acceptance – acknowledging your fear is the first step to increasing your acceptance to death being a natural part of life. Try writing down your deepest, darkest fears around death and dying. The purpose is to not repress any thoughts or ideas, but to instead explore all feelings about death and get them out of your head. Once fears are identified, you can start working on accepting them.
- Gratitude – it may seem too simplistic, but appreciating the little things in your life can have a big impact. Gratitude is the recognition of the benefits you have right now, in the present moment, no matter how big or small. Cultivating a sense of gratitude helps you move away from taking things for granted, and allows you to acknowledge the good in life. The hope is that gratitude will shift your focus into the now, and away from future tripping.
- Identify triggers – discerning the time(s) in your life when the fear of death originated or increased can spur some great awareness on your part. Having awareness around your intense fear of death can support your exploration of subsequent triggers that incite the impairing symptoms of this fear.
- Read literature – numerous authors have written about their own experiences, beliefs and thoughts around death and dying. These writings may not give you a definite answer as to what happens after you die or how it might feel, yet instead may provide insight into diverse philosophies, prompting you to narrow your own perspectives about death and dying. Having an enhanced awareness of your personal beliefs can make the inevitability of death more manageable.
- Spirituality – whether you are religious or not, spirituality can be brought into anyone’s life. Spirituality can help you realize what possibilities for life after death are conceivable according to your theories and attitudes. Although dying may seem like the finality of life, for some individuals, there is something to look towards after death (i.e. – reincarnation, heaven/hell, etc.)
- Live meaningfully – there are simple things you can do to make your time on earth more enjoyable, fulfilling, and productive. Find out what you like to do, and do it (or do it more)! The more you enjoy life, the less you may think about death.
- Make a plan – if you understand death as an inevitable part of life, then making a plan for your passing may help you feel more in control of not only what will happen, but also your emotions around the topic.
- Fear is fear – regardless of the fact that you may know the cause of your fear (in this case, death), fear is still fear, and should be approached as such. Thus, tackling the fear of death as you would any other fear (rather than approaching the specific target of the fear) can be beneficial.
- Education – educating yourself on fear itself can help you better comprehend why your fear of death is impairing you. Look at information on the “fight or flight” response, phobias, and the effects of fear on the brain.
Fear of Death Treatments and Therapies
For individuals who suffer from intense fears and phobias, anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) are typically prescribed, if medication is the treatment approach being used. Benzodiazepines address the symptoms of intense fear, including sweating, loss of breath, nervousness, sweating, and rapid heartbeat. There are many benzodiazepines on the market, and it is important to talk to your prescribing doctor about potential side effects and which option will best fit your needs.
Although benzodiazepines are the most widely prescribed class of medications for individuals struggling with fear/phobia, SSRIs, buspirone, and tricyclic antidepressants are also viable options for some people.
Psychotherapy (Talk Therapy)
As with any kind of fear, fear of death often comes with an increased sense of worry, anxiety, and stress. These things can increase over time, becoming debilitating if not dealt with. Psychotherapy can provide an outlet for what can often be overwhelming emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Talking to a therapist can also offer you increased insight into your specific moods and behaviors, and provide you with various relaxation techniques to help you manage the symptoms you may be experiencing. Also, a therapist is a great resource to provide any additional referrals that might be necessary to treat your fear of death.
Exposure therapy is an approach often used with clients who suffer from extreme fears and phobias. The ultimate goal of exposure therapy is to reduce the specific fear and create a sense of empowerment for the individual. In exposure therapy, you will basically confront your fear head on. This may sound difficult for the specific fear of dying, but your therapist will guide you through the process. Much of the exposure therapy around fear of death may be through imagining certain situations, or setting up impromptu scenarios.
Fears and phobias are often treated with hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy helps clients in essentially “reprogramming” their subconscious, which may be creating the irrational thought-processes that lead to the fear. Hypnosis can be an intimidating approach for many people, as clients often feel a loss of control while in the midst of treatment. Yet, hypnotherapy has shown promising results for many. If you are interested in this treatment approach, please do your research and educate yourself on hypnotherapy in general.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
If you suffer from fear of death and seek a therapist using a CBT approach to treatment, you will most likely be educated on your maladaptive or irrational thoughts. Through acknowledging these thoughts in everyday life, your can gain an increased awareness of just how prevalent they are. Subsequently, you will be able to begin challenging and eventually changing these thoughts in a more positive direction.
Remember, experiencing an intense or extreme fear of death is a disorder, and it cause significant impacts in your life. If you or someone you know struggles with this fear of death, consider seeking treatment.