We are all aware that death is a part of life. No one and nothing escapes it. Yet figuring out how to come to terms with the truth of death, especially our own, is extremely complex and can be very problematic for many people.
It’s not unusual for the finality of death and fear of the unknown, or truly believing what you're teaching, to produce difficult and complicated feelings. Facing your own mortality or the mortality of someone you love can be very painful. Many of us have a hard time even talking about it. For some, however, death awareness goes beyond simply being a difficult topic, and becomes something that creates extreme anxiety and worry that can lead to extreme behaviors.
What Causes Anxiety About Death
Some anxiety when thinking about or discussing death is normal. But the operative words here are thinking and discussing. Most of us don’t spend much time on a regular basis thinking about death at all. We focus instead on living and what our lives entail. The thought of death rarely enter our minds.
But for some thoughts of death are more pervasive occupying our thoughts daily or even consuming our thoughts constantly. For these individuals life can become centered around ways to distract themselves from their own thoughts of how to ward off death overall, or come to a screeching standstill as they battle fear and anxiety they can’t seem to shake. In other words, their life’s purpose becomes about ways to avoid death.
This level of anxiety about death can be precipitated by a variety of things, but most commonly by an experience that places and individual in a situation where death could be a real result. Illness, accidents, or violence are all examples of circumstances that can inspire extreme anxiety. And, although most strongly pronounced when the event happens to them, watching a loved one experience one of these things, or die suddenly, can produce the same response.
There is often a spike in death anxiety during the midlife years, especially for those experiencing a midlife crisis. The realization that there may be more time behind you than in front of you can send many people into crisis mode and initiate fear and anxiety around dying.
How People Deal With Death Anxiety
There are a number of ways that death anxiety can manifest and as many ways that people chose to deal with it. For some it can mean embracing life and loved ones and making a point to enjoy life overall. Sadly, for many it’s the opposite and the behaviors can be extreme and, at times, detrimental. Below are just a few of the most common and most unhealthy ways some people react.
- Obsession with health. This sounds like it could be a good thing, right? But this goes far beyond eating healthy and staying in shape. People, especially those who have overcome a medical issues, can become obsessed with all things that seem to keep their body healthy and protected. This can mean they become alarmed and run to the Dr. for every ache and pain, insisting on unnecessary testing and medicines to diagnose or prevent any perceived ailment. In can also mean an unhealthy concern over everything they eat, drink, or put in or on their bodies. Often these people will seek the help of any practitioner that claims to have life-extending secrets, or begin taking any supplement that touts a health benefit of any kind. Unfortunately, these behaviors can potentially have the opposite effect than the one desired putting the person at risk not only from a health perspective, but also a financial one.
- Fantastical or magical thinking. While a relationship with religion and spiritual beliefs can be healthy for many, a person with extreme death anxiety can take this too the extreme. In an effort to find comfort with the idea of death they may turn to ideologies that promise immortality or connections with other worlds. Some of these beliefs can place so much emphasis on the otherworldly aspects that they encourage the disdain or destruction of a person’s physical self or the giving up of money or possessions.
- Extreme risk-taking behavior. Garth Brooks sings about living like you’re dying, describing a man who stops being afraid to love, appreciate people, or put things off. In moderation this is a good idea, but someone who has extreme death anxiety may take this too far. It’s almost a “beat the odds” mentality leaving them prone to extreme and risky behaviors. This can be especially true for those who are dealing with guilt and feel like they don’t deserve to be alive.
- Avoidance and wealth gathering. No, this doesn’t mean that fearing death will make you wealthy, but for some operating in extreme avoidance more and focusing on worldly possessions in how they distract themselves from thinking about their mortality. Using the adage “he with the most toys at the end wins,” some people will attempt to accumulate money or things as a means for avoiding thoughts of death.
- Depression and fear. It’s not uncommon for those who think continually about their own mortality, or the mortality of those around them, to experience depression. They may feel lonely and isolated because no one around them seems to share the same worries or concerns. They may also feel that enjoyment of life is futile because ultimately everyone dies, so why bother. Depression is complicated and can be serious. If you, or someone you love, are experiencing depression it may be necessary to seek the help of a qualified counselor.
Death anxiety is tricky since there is no ultimate solution to the concern – death can’t be cured. Finding ways to come to healthy terms with mortality can take time and a lot of effort. Generally speaking, a person will need to address the underlying issues that inspired the fear and worry. Finding ways to put whatever those experiences are in to perspective can help put everything else – including death – into perspective as well.