...morbid, abnormal, or persistent fear of one's own death. One source defines death anxiety as a "feeling of dread, apprehension or solicitude (anxiety) when one thinks of the process of dying, or ceasing to ‘be’". It is also referred to as thanatophobia (fear of death)Death anxiety is often times intermingled with Existential Dread, which...
...is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether this life has any meaning, purpose, or value. This issue of the meaning and purpose of existence is the topic of the philosophical school of existentialism.I hadn't thought about any of these topics with any serious frequency for most of my life. However, once I took a position that made me think about death on a daily basis, it was likely inevitable that my own death anxiety would form and become increasingly intense. I imagine it hits everyone differently, but in my case, some of the symptoms included consistent sleep loss, loss of appetite, nausea, panic attacks, general sense of meaninglessness, no longer caring about activities that used to make me happy, and loss of interest in interacting with others. These are still issues I deal with to some degree. Over time it became clear to me that the underlying cause was my death anxiety because it was the one common factor during every low point that I experienced. It consistently reared its head in one way or another in numerous contexts.
After my anxiety reached a point when my quality of life was seriously compromised, I decided to finally address the issue head on. From my research, I came upon a book that would finally help me make a noticeable dent in this seemingly intractable problem. That book is called "Staring at the Sun" and it's by the renowned author Irvin D. Yalom. His guidance greatly helped me and I want to share some of the strategies discussed in the book and my hope is that it can help others as well; or at the very least, convince them to check the book for themselves.
Dr. Yalom starts off his attack on death anxiety by first directly and clearly acknowledging that it's a fear that nearly every person has:
I share the fear of death with every human being: it is our dark shadow from which we are never severed... Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die... anxiety about dying waxes and wanes throughout the life cycle.Acknowledging the issue in such a direct manner and stating how common it is hopefully accomplishes the goal of allowing someone to genuinely accept the existence of such a fear. If my own experience is any guide, attempting to deny a problem only leads to it re-appearing in unexpected and indirect ways. One of the first essential steps of exploring and understanding any issue is genuinely accepting that it exists and that it's a part of who you are to some degree.
The author goes on to state that death anxiety can manifest itself in symptoms that at first might seem unrelated to the underlying issue:
Though fear of dying can totally immobilize some people, often the fear is covert and expressed in symptoms that appear to have nothing to do with one's mortality.This is important to realize as a way of identifying the underlying problem and addressing the root instead of trying to keep cutting away at the outer branches. Going after the root will prove to be a difficult journey but the rewards will ultimately be worth it because...
...confronting death can be an awakening experience to a fuller life... and it allows us to reenter life in a richer, more compassionate manner and it may serve as a profoundly useful catalyst for major life changes.Given the potentially immense benefits of addressing death anxiety directly, Dr. Yalom provides several paths to addressing the issue. As stated before, the first step is to accept the fear of death as an issue that is prevalent among many of us. In fact, it was even prevalent among the greatest philosophers such as Epicurus and Nietzsche. If this fear can strike such great thinkers (or "giants of thought" as the author calls them), it's not surprising that it can affect the rest of us as well. This realization should hopefully take some of the pressure off the issue and allow us to accept its existence and prevalence.
On a related note, we must also remember that when we do stumble upon ideas that seem to resonate with us and help alleviate our struggles, we need to remember that...
...good ideas, even ideas of power, are rarely sufficient in a single shot: repeated doses are necessary.The author then continues to discuss another strategy for alleviating the terror of death. He calls the idea "rippling" :
Rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates--often without any conscious intent or knowledge--concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations. That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they're no longer visible but continuing at a nano level. The idea that we can leave something of ourselves, even beyond our knowing, offers a potent answer to those who claim that meaninglessness inevitably flows from one's finiteness and transiency.The realization that you will very likely leave positive effects on others even long after your death could potentially be a source of comfort during low points when you feel like your life doesn't have much meaning. Without realizing it, you could have affected others in a genuine and positive way. Your existence had and continues to have a positive purpose, even if you haven't been aware of such a fact.
Another approach is to look at death in a more logical manner. For instance, I had the fear of missing out on all the wonderful things that might be happening in the future such as consumer space travel and the development of amazing technologies. I was sad at the thought of not getting to keep developing my talents and pursuing knowledge. However, do such fears ultimately make sense? Consider the practical details of such a fear. We won't be conscious of those fears materializing because we won't be around to experience them. We literally would not have the ability to experience such fears because...
...we won't know we're not here. We won't know we won't know. The state of nonexistence is not terrifying because we won't know we are not existing.It might seem like a strange or "obvious" way of looking at the issue but I had certainly never taken the time to think about the topic in such a purely logical way. Perhaps others haven't as well and this is a promising path to explore.
Another method of addressing the fear of death is to imagine giving advice to someone else who is experiencing such anxiety. For parents, they can imagine giving advice to their children. For people who don't have kids, they can imagine helping a close friend, a family member, or a lover. If someone approached you with the same fears that you are experiencing, how would you comfort them? Role reversal is a mental exercise that helps in other therapeutic settings and it can be applied in this particular context too. The author describes one of his patients who's a mother. He asks her to imagine her young daughter coming to her and asking her, "If we are going to die, then why or how should we live?" The author asks the mother to answer that hypothetical question from her daughter. The mother goes on to say:
"I'd tell her about the many joys of living, the beauty of the forests, the pleasure of being with friends and family, the bliss of spreading love to others and of leaving the world a better place." After finishing, she leaned back in her chair and opened her eyes wide, astonished at her own words, as though to say, "Where did that come from?"Often times, we finally become convinced of a truth when we arrive to it through our own words. One way to jump-start such a process is through the use of relevant hypothetical scenarios like the one described above.
Ultimately, the strategies discussed here are not going to remove the fear of death completely. As Dr. Yalom states many times throughout the book, such a fear is hardwired into all of us and it's impossible to remove. The need to keep existing and continuing to live is obviously an immensely strong desire and thoughts of one's mortality and death go directly against this need and can cause terror. However, just because something can't be removed, it doesn't mean it can't be downgraded from the level of an anxiety or a terror to the level of an everyday manageable fear. This is the author's goal. Accomplishing such a task can bring immense mental and emotional relief if my own experience is any indication. The book is full of moving examples from the author's own life and from decades of being a professional therapist. What I've described here is just a small sample and I highly recommend the book to everyone, even those who don't particularly deal with much anxiety
|Portrait of Irvin Yalom|