Your question: Why do I have anxiety about dying?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Through this article, I will explain why you feel anxiety when you think about death and dying, exploring the origin of this natural human fear and formulating strategies to cope with the fear of death and reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

Along with fear of the dark, fear or anxiety about death is one of the most primitive fears of human beings. This has its origin in that culturally we associate death with pain and tragedy, because it represents on the one hand the departure of loved ones to whom we feel an inevitable emotional attachment, and on the other hand, because it means confronting our own mortality, facing the fact that our life span is limited.

It is common to feel anguish at the thought of death or dying, this is called death anxiety (1), but when this worry becomes chronic, i.e. intense and persistent on a daily basis, the problem is more complex. Thanatophobia is an intense fear or anxiety about death or the process of dying, which disturbs the person so much that it causes discomfort in their daily performance.

If you are reading this, it is because you want to determine how normal it is to feel anxious at the thought of dying, as well as to look for alternatives that make you feel better. First, I would like to tell you that regardless of whether your situation is death anxiety or thanatophobia, there are strategies with which you can feel better, and manage your fear of death in a healthy way, understanding that it is part of life.

How common is your fear of death?

According to a 2017 survey(2), more than 20% of people are afraid of dying. This fear is diversified into several branches. Some people have a specific fear of corpses (necrophobia), avoiding going to funerals, other people feel extreme anxiety at the thought that their loved ones could die at any moment, and other people feel intense fear at the thought of their own death, feeling panic because they think that at any moment something or someone could kill them.

Fear of death is especially common in Western society because unlike other cultures, people grow up learning to fear death and to consider it as something tragic and frightening. In some Asian cultures funerals are a cause for rejoicing and celebration, as they spiritually consider death as a desired accomplishment at a certain point in adult life.

This does not mean that you should move to another country if you want to overcome your anxiety about death, but it does mean that as you have learned negative ideas about death and the dying process, you can also unlearn them and modify them into more functional ones. It will always be important that you learn to regulate your emotions in the face of death, allowing yourself to feel fear, sadness and pain when you face it, but avoiding that these emotions become the only ones in your life.

What symptoms can you experience if you have death anxiety?

The symptoms of death anxiety are similar to those of any type of anxiety. They are a set of physical and emotional sensations that disturb the person’s daily life. In general, when you think about death or the process of dying, you feel:

  • Tachycardia, sweating and muscular tension.
  • Tremors and chills.
  • Intense fear of losing control.
  • Chest pain, headache and/or pain in the stomach.
  • Intense worry that you or a loved one is going to die soon.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Feeling that you are going to faint.
  • Desire to avoid going out for fear of dying.
  • Disturbing mental images of death and violence.

Why does the thought of dying give you anxiety?

There are different reasons why you may be experiencing death anxiety or thanatophobia, all of which are unfounded and related to dysfunctional thoughts. In my experience as a cognitive behavioral therapist, I have noticed that most people’s fears and anxieties have their origin in dysfunctional thoughts that cause deep distress. Some reasons why you feel anxiety at the thought of death are (3):

  • You think death is painful: You have the idea that the dying process is always tortuous and painful. You may believe that death means prolonged suffering and debilitating illness accompanied by physical and emotional agony.
  • Trauma: If you have had traumatic experiences related to death, for example the accidental death, murder or suicide of a loved one, you may eventually feel a deep fear or anxiety about your own death. This also occurs if you have had near-death experiences, such as a traffic accident.
  • You think death is mysterious: Possibly your anxiety about death is because you question what is in the “afterlife” and what the afterlife means. This happens whether you believe that after death there is nothing but emptiness, or whether you are a believer in heaven and hell. What you feel is intense worry because you are not in control of understanding what is after death, and the ideas you come up with are distressing and terrifying.
  • Generalized anxiety: Generalized anxiety is an anxiety disorder characterized by an intense, everyday fear or worry about different things in daily life. For some people, generalized anxiety manifests itself in an intense fear of death and/or the process of dying, so they avoid anything that they think may cause them to die. In some cases it is so severe that people avoid leaving their home because they think that something or someone may kill them.

What can you do to overcome you fear of death?

Strategies for you to overcome your fear of death are usually related to psychotherapy. Like any type of anxiety or fear, it should be addressed by a mental health professional if you feel it has gotten out of control and is preventing you from having a fulfilling life. Cognitive behavioral therapy is quite effective in these cases, as it adapts to each patient’s unique experience of anxiety and formulates personalized strategies. There are some techniques you can apply at home that will help you cope with your anxiety about death:

Relaxation techniques

Progressive muscle relaxation is a holistic relaxation technique that is extremely useful for coping with episodes of fear and intense anxiety(4). To apply it, you should find a quiet space free of distractions. Lie down, wearing comfortable clothes, and close your eyes. Take short breaths (3 seconds to inhale, 3 seconds to exhale). Rest one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen. 

Now, focus on each muscle group in the body, either from head to toe or toe to head. The point is you should squeeze each muscle group tightly for five full seconds before releasing the tension.

Confront your thoughts

Thoughts related to death are the main cause of your anxiety towards it. Therefore, it is necessary to respond to that part of your mind that sends disturbing and upsetting ideas about dying at the most inopportune times. Writing these thoughts down is the first step. In a journal, every time you feel death anxiety write down the thought you are having, whether it is “I am afraid of my mother dying” or “I am afraid of drowning”. By writing it down, you are acknowledging and identifying it.

Conciliate with death

Unlike other everyday fears, for example people who are afraid of certain animals or heights, there is no way to escape the fear of death, as it is an inevitable part of life. Therefore, it is necessary that you make peace, little by little, with death and the idea of dying.

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

Was this helpful?

Thanks for your feedback!