Your question: Why do I get scared when I think about death?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Through this blog I will tell you about the fear of death and why it is one of the most common fears in the world, delving into the origin of why death-related topics cause you fear, and how we can accept death from another perspective that is not so overwhelming.

Fear of death is the most natural and common fear in the world. According to a 2017 survey, more than 20% of people are afraid of dying. Culturally, death is a fascinating topic because it shows you that there are different ways of conceiving, understanding and experiencing it. It is the end of life, but it can also be seen as a new stage, an experience of transcendence, depending on the religion that each person professes.

Most people fear death to a lesser or greater extent. Whether they fear for their own death, for the death of loved ones or for the concept of dying in general. When the fear of death is intense and recurrent, generating a physical and emotional discomfort in the person that prevents him/her from performing normally in daily activities, it is called thanatophobia.

Thanatophobia, or death anxiety, is a growing and overwhelming fear that torments people through recurrent worrying thoughts related to death. These concerns might relate to your own death, someone else’s death, the process of dying, or what happens after death. The problem is when the fear of dying deprives you of enjoying life. This is where it is advisable to make changes to cope with the fear of death, accept it as an inevitable part of life, and not allow the thought of dying to stifle the joy of the process of living.

Psychological studies have shown that the fear of death is related to multiple variables, and that in general terms, more than the death itself, the fear is related to the circumstances surrounding it. People associate death with suffering and loss, and these notions generate an existentialist anguish that leads to anxious symptoms, particularly the fear of “not being remembered by their loved ones” (1).

Why are you afraid of death?

There are several reasons why people fear death, several of them are unfounded and irrational fears that aggravate the state of anxiety when the person thinks about death or approaches the process of dying.

  • “Death is painful”: Many people are not afraid of death itself but of the process of dying. They believe that death represents pain and overwhelming physical symptoms, as well as prolonged and debilitating illness.
  • “Death is mysterious”: Some people’s preoccupation with death is the conception of what lies in the “afterlife”. For many, the idea that there is nothing after death is terrifying, because this “nothingness” represents an unknown and inexplicable entity that generates an emotional void in the person, who fears the impermanence of life. Others are afraid that death represents the passage to another life, called heaven or hell, called reincarnation.These spiritual ideas cause fear because people feel that death will represent the passage to something worse, to an eternal punishment or to a worse life than the one they have.
  • “Death is sad”: People associate death with emptiness. Therefore, there is an inevitable fear that the death of yourself or a loved one will cause irreparable sadness. Death is linked with the physical departure of someone, and people find it difficult to reconcile the grieving process. They fear the death of their loved one (or their own) because the painful idea that they will never again be physically with that person is overwhelming.

How do you know if your fear of death is no longer “normal”?

Thinking about death is natural, even healthy. Death is at the center of age-old philosophical debates. From the earliest signs of humanity, people questioned what death meant in their lives and how they would deal with the emptiness left by the death of something or someone.

While it is necessary for you to think about death in order to deal with the issue of your mortality, and to realize that it is part of life and whether you want to or not you will experience it at different times, thinking about death can generate a deep fear that paralyzes and incapacitates people.

For example, a healthy fear of death teaches you to value the relationships you have. You think “I should be kinder and spend more time with my parents and grandparents, because you never know when they will no longer be with me”. A problematic fear of death locks you in a spirit of sadness and panic because you think that the death of your loved ones is imminent and tragic. This fear isolates you and prevents you from enjoying life by reimagining the misfortune of death.

Pathological fear of death or thanatophobia is related to anxiety. Anxiety causes overwhelming and repetitive thoughts, sometimes false or exaggerated, that haunt your mind constantly leaving you terrified. Anxiety can make you think that a cough is synonymous with illness, and illness is synonymous with death, because you will begin to feel fear of dying in the face of physical symptoms that may be harmless.

This is why to overcome the fear of death, you must work on the underlying anxiety and dysfunctional thoughts that you have around death.

How can you overcome your fear of death?  

It is useful to understand that all the ideas you have about death are learned, and therefore, can be unlearned. In Eastern cultures, death has an important special meaning, so that funerals become more of a celebration than a mourning, because they consider that the person who passed away reached a maximum spiritual level. By that I don’t mean that you move to a different country to deal with your fear of death, but that you can reconstruct in your mind the frightening things you have associated death and the dying process with.

Cope with your thoughts

Thoughts can ruin your lives if you let them. Your fear of death is related to those dysfunctional ideas you have created around the concept of death. You can write down all your fears related to death in a notebook. From saying “my biggest fear is to lose my mother” to “I panic about drowning”. It is a therapeutic exercise that can be very emotional, but by writing down these thoughts you are facing those terrifying ideas. Exposure and acknowledgement of these ideas decreases the levels of fear of them.

Breathe and count

Diaphragmatic breathing is useful, and should be practiced regularly during different times of the day to train your body and mind to enter a state of relaxation, thus decreasing hypersensitivity. Inhale and exhale calmly, at six-second intervals, with eyes closed in a relaxing space. Practicing these exercises for at least 20 minutes a day helps to decrease the general symptoms of anxiety and with it, the feeling of constant fear of death.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In my experience as a psychologist, cognitive behavioral therapy has proven to be extremely effective in treating any type of fear, and fear of death is no exception. In this therapeutic process, a qualified psychologist will help you find the thoughts and emotions related to your fear of death and will apply specific strategies that, over the course of the sessions, will decrease your levels of fear and constant anxiety related to death.

In my experience…

Death is terrifying because it disrupts your hopeful ideas of what life will be. It is an end, but it is also a beginning. Dying can be tragic, painful and indescribable, especially when the death in question is abrupt and unexpected. However, the view you can take of death is one of acceptance. You have the right to feel anger, sadness and grief when death comes into your life, as well as to go through the various stages of grief necessary for healing.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this message proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health.

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