Death Anxiety

Is Death Anxiety the Fear that Drives Us?

The anxiousness created by thoughts about death is known as death anxiety. It is characterized by a feeling of dread or apprehension when one thinks about the process of dying or the end of “being”. In elderly, due to the closeness of death, death anxiety is much more emphasized and it is characterized by lower ego integrity, as well as physical and psychological issues. If we take into consideration that death is something that we will all face sooner or later, it is important to learn how we respond to it and why are some people more afraid of it than others. Also, many would like to know what it is about death that intimidates us so much.

Death: a Taboo Subject?

As noted on Medical News Today, everyone fears death or the ending of our own life or the passing of someone we love; some less, some more. Since the thoughts about death are not enjoyable ones, a lot of people choose to focus themselves on their wishes and goals and what life has to offer. Nonetheless, due to the fact that almost nothing is 100 percent certain except death, it does not come as a surprise that a lot of people are overwhelmed by death-related worrisome thoughts.

The Fear of Death

As noted on Psychology Today, despite what science has shown us, death is still the great unknown and as human beings, we have the ability to think about it, anticipate it, wonder about it, reflect it, and thus, fear it. People have a primal fear of the unknown and mostly this is because we do not know what happens after this enigmatic phenomenon. So, what do these persistent thoughts of death actually represent and can they be decreased?

Also known as thanatophobia or death anxiety, (even though it is not considered a clinical disorder) this anxiety is rarely tackled despite having the power to harm the overall health and reduce the quality of life. According to Sigmund Freud, any fears associated with death probably arise from unaddressed trauma from childhood. Ernst Becker, an anthropologist, believed that this anxiety is a natural occurrence in individuals who find it difficult to accept the thought of dying and death. With this in mind, as pointed out on Medical News Today, Becker asserted that everything we ever do, from our goals to our hobbies and passions, is essentially a coping mechanism or things that we focus on so that we need not to worry about our ensuing death.

Why Are some People more Prone to Death Anxiety?

The work of Becker led to the development of the Terror Management Theory or the belief that people constantly struggle with an inner conflict, that is, the desire to live against death’s certainty. The theory puts emphasis on our self-consciousness and drive to reach our goals, usually motivated by our awareness of our mortality. Furthermore, according to this theory, some people have a higher capacity to balance their fear of death due to a higher self-esteem whereas the opposite happens in individuals who have a lower self-esteem.

As seen on Medical News Today, the post-traumatic growth theory suggests that experiencing a highly-stressful event like the death of a loved one or a serious health diagnosis can be beneficial because it teaches people to be more appreciative of the small things in life and to concentrate more on their goals.

Who Fears Death?

As explained on Medical News Today, this is important information regarding the concept of death and death-related anxiety and who is affected by it:

  • Though most people fear death, they only show low to moderate anxiousness levels
  • Studies indicate that women experience more death anxiety than men
  • The chance for death anxiety is as high in younger people as it is in elderly
  • Lower death anxiety has to do with the education and socioeconomic status of the person
  • Religion was not found to contribute to a lower fear of death

What to Do when You Need Help?

Currently, the recommended therapy for people who suffer from severe death anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy, as explained on Medical News Today. This therapy is also used for a variety of anxieties and phobias, like the fear of heights or flying. Below, you can check out the 6-step cognitive-behavioral therapy aimed at people who are experiencing death anxiety.

  • Exposing the patient to fears

    People who want to decrease their anxious thoughts about death need to be encouraged to express their fears and to pinpoint the main triggers.

  • Decreasing the search for reassurance

The purpose of this step is to lower the patient’s obsessive tendencies and the abnormal reliance on idealized health and emotional help like supplements and superstitious beliefs. This is usually achieved through response prevention homework, according to Maria Cohut.

  • Discussing the personal experiences with death

A vital part of the CBT for death anxiety is to review the patient’s close encounters with death, to illustrate; maybe they have been faced with a life-threatening disease or have witnessed the passing of a loved one. This will help them acquire a more balanced outlook on death and enhance their coping mechanisms for its anticipation, Cohut writes.

  • Improving their lifestyle

When a therapist is working with a patient who is experiencing death anxiety, the goal is to recognize and properly address ongoing stress triggers or any other unhealthy parts in the individual’s life that may be additionally worsening their uneasiness regarding death.

  • Helping them enjoy life more

During therapies, the patient is encouraged to pin down their short- and long-term goals so that they can be concentrated on what they want to get from life and help them enjoy in the beauty that life has to offer instead of obsessing with their dread of death, Cohut asserts.

  • Averting the recurrence of the anxiety

Although the therapy can be successful in annihilating the death anxiety in patients, a lot of them go through a relapse. To minimize the chances for recurrence, it is vital to help the person create their own coping mechanisms that they will make use of during challenging situations when the anxiety may be stimulated, i.e. a sudden disease or an emotional crisis, according to Medical News Today.

Final Thoughts on Death Anxiety

Without doubt, as human beings, we all fear death because of the primal fear of the unknown and due to the fact that our consciousness allows us to talk and wonder about it and anticipate and reflect on it. Nevertheless, there are cases when people may become overly obsessed with worrisome thoughts regarding their own mortality and the mortality of their family and friends and if this goes on for a prolonged period of time, they are prevented from fully enjoying life and may also be prone to physical and mental health issues.

This is where cognitive behavioral therapy can be of help because it aids individuals who are struggling with a strong apprehension of death to face their fears, learn how to develop their own coping techniques, and to appreciate their life more by focusing on accomplishing their desires and goals.

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