I always thought of myself as invincible. Even having worked with death all my life, I somehow always felt immune. Then along came a pandemic and it made me think about life and death in ways I never had before. I was in a unique position to see the different reactions and its direct effect on those affected. I listened more, I watched more and I learned. I learned from those who coped and those who struggled with death anxiety, and I also was able to analyse my own reactions to the reality of my own mortality.
What is death anxiety?
Death anxiety is the fear someone feels when they become acutely aware of and apprehensive about dying and death, not just for themselves but for those in their lives. It can be a very real concern for some, affecting their day-to-day functioning. Extreme death anxiety is known as Thanataphobia.
When death anxiety can be a good thing…
A healthy awareness of death can actually be a good thing. It can make us change our beliefs and behaviours for the better. Understanding that we are not immortal can make us nicer and better people and can focus us on how we would like to be remembered and what we would like to leave behind – and I don’t mean the material things. It can also bring more love into your life as we become nicer people and build more meaningful relationships – love isn’t contained in any one person but grows from each relationship we create with the people Ian our lives. Relationships don’t have to be measured in time, but in width and depth.
When people consciously think about death it can affect them differently. Some may take action to postpone if for as long as they can, through a healthy diet, exercise, community involvement etc. Others may push it to the back of their mind to think about later and then distract themselves by 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.
What can we do if our anxiety feels out of control?
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 and can blind us to opportunities for growth and those ‘in the moment’ joys of family and friends. Look around you and try and balance the scales.
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 things in your life where you feel good and also where you feel threatened. Just by identifying these things, we can shed a lot of our fears and this goes a long way in helping to improve our self talk.
Exercise is one of the best things ever. It takes 28 days to change a habit. The more you do something, the more you want to. Exercise is a form of self esteem, self love and self care. When we reach that place of really valuing ourselves, we are stronger, more practical and can make better decisions and are less likely to panic unnecessarily.
Look back to see ahead
Death anxiety could also be an indicator 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 long ago. If you had a date and time for your death, what is the one thing you would need to do to die with peace? Look back over your life and highlight the highs and lows. You may discover something that triggers your anxiety and it is at this point you need to be very honest with yourself to identify what it is that scared you or that was taken from you or that you didn’t get, that removed your sense of security. This can be overwhelming but you can’t just scratch the surface if you are looking for recovery.
If you were to think of the things that make you anxious one by one and imagine that each one was a thorn in your foot. Which is the most painful and why? What would you have to do to remove it? ie stop the pain. Once we understand why we are feeling anxious, we can take begin to take back control.
If you are still feeling overwhelmed and suffering from excessive thinking about dying and death, please do seek professional help.
Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience as a grief and funeral care specialist and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ.