Death Anxiety Is a Thing, and Here’s How to DealBasically, let’s normalize talking about dying more.
It’s natural to get all kinds of uncomfortable when talking about death, especially if it’s not a topic that comes up often with the people around you. But if you actively avoid thinking about it, change the subject when it does come up, or sit through convos only to ruminate over your fear of dying later, you might be dealing with a legit fear of death, which is very much a thing.
Death anxiety, also called thanatophobia or fear of death, is “emotional distress and insecurity aroused by reminders of mortality,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Generally speaking, anyone can have a little anxiety around death, and it isn’t a clinical diagnosis. Though, technically, if you have a persistent, irrational fear of, say, flying because you’re scared of dying in a plane crash, you could be diagnosed with a specific phobia (yep, specific phobia is an actual condition).
If you have death anxiety, you could be anxious about your death or the death of someone you’re close to. Psychotherapist Brittney Chesworth, PhD, LCSW, says, in her experience, people anxious about their own deaths tend to be concerned with the dying process itself, what happens after, and leaving family (namely kids) behind. But you might also be worried about the death of a loved one who’s sick, which hospice social worker Lizzy Miles, LISW-S, sees with her terminally ill patients’ fam members.
Anxiety about death can be sparked by a health scare or the loss of someone you care for, says licensed clinical psychologist Katherine King, PsyD, who’s currently studying how mental health disorders or issues like burnout are related to death anxiety.
A fear of death can also come up for people with mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder or for people who have anxiety about their health (as seen in conditions like illness anxiety disorder or somatic symptom disorder) since they’re already prone to stressing about uncertainty or getting sick, says Dr. Chesworth.
Regardless of why you’re dealing with death anxiety right now, there are things you can do to help you worry less about dying and enjoy your life more—and for those of us who are not Edward Cullen or Damon Salvatore, that sounds pretty cool.
Think or talk about death more.
One way to get comfortable with any fear is to put yourself in situations where you’re reminded of it. And that goes for a fear of death too! You can pass by cemeteries on purpose, read about death, or watch movies where death’s a main theme. Heads up: If you have a severe fear of death and/or feel majorly panicked by it, you may not be ready to do this on your own and you could benefit from working through exposures with an actual licensed mental health pro via exposure therapy.
In exposure therapy, you’ll pinpoint what causes you the least and most anxiety, and then gradually move from one anxiety-provoking scenario to another that’s a little bit more anxiety-provoking until each of them, and your discomfort with death, feels less overwhelming, says Dr. Chesworth. Aside from confronting death-related things in real life, you can work on “imaginal exposures,” where you’re imagining scenarios you fear.
Talking about death with people besides a therapist can also help. If you have a religious practice, you might speak with spiritual leaders at your local synagogue, church, mosque, or other place of worship. Or you can try going to a Death Cafe (yes, these are real!), where people, typically strangers, meet for conversations all about death without any set prompts or scripts, according to the event's site. Of course, you could also bring up your fear of dying with your friends and see how the convo evolves from there.
Prepare for your own death or a loved one’s.
It might sound weird, but prepping for a death (it’s gonna happen to all of us, right?) by putting together legal documents like wills or just discussing last wishes with the important people in your life can make you feel a bit more at ease with it. That’s because you’re “facing the issue straight on” by getting major things done, Dr. King says. (JFYI, the platform Death Over Dinner can help you plan those conversations with a short questionnaire about who you want to talk to and what you want to talk about.)
You can also clean your home like you’re dying tomorrow, aka the Swedish concept of death cleaning or “döstädning,” where you declutter your house and life before others have to do it for you, according to The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson.
Make a list of ways you can live your life with purpose.
Some small studies suggest that people in their 20s are more prone to anxiety about death. And while it’s unclear why that is, it could have to do with the pressure to make sense of your life at that age, says Dr. King.
“If you're still hungry for an authentic life, chances are the anxiety [about death] is going to be greater,” says existential therapist Jane Prelinger, LICSW, co-founding director of The Center for Existential Studies and Psychotherapy. Prelinger adds that this is part of the reason some therapists use existential therapy to help clients approach death anxiety by asking, if we’re all going to die, how can we live more fully right now?
So if you feel like you haven’t done the things you really wanted to accomplish or contributed to the world in ways that are important to you, thinking about how you can work toward those things might make you feel more at ease with dying, says Dr. Chesworth. Maybe you’re game for building stronger connections with certain people or spending more time not working. Whatever your goals, living a life that you’re more or less happy with can make it easier to accept death, Dr. Chesworth says.
Find a therapist to support you through your death anxiety.
If a fear of death is interfering with your daily life (and if therapy is accessible for you), it’s a solid idea to check out extra support. Apart from existential therapy and exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you change your thoughts and behaviors associated with death, says Dr. Chesworth.
One of the ways she does this is by asking her clients to examine the evidence around their fears. So, if you experience death anxiety because you’re worried about leaving your kids after you die, you could list the ways the kids may not be OK and reasons why they would be, she says. Maybe your kids are resilient and would actually be able to live fulfilling lives despite going through this painful time. Perhaps they’d have more support than you originally thought.
Some therapists may also use acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), where you’d learn to accept your thoughts about death (exactly how it sounds), says Dr. Chesworth. What you work on with a therapist and what type of therapy—or therapies—they provide will depend on what your concerns are and if there are mental health disorders tied to those concerns about death.
Be kind to yourself.
It’s great to open yourself up and take steps to accept and cope with your anxieties, but it’s also important to be patient with the process. Basically, don’t just start hanging out in cemeteries and totally overwhelm yourself, notes Dr. King. Do whatever feels tolerable and get additional support if you need it, but know that, for the most part, death anxiety is a natural experience that you can learn to face. “I would just encourage people to be brave and move towards [their death anxiety],” says Dr. King, “because I think on the other side of that anxiety is a richer and more meaningful life.”
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.