How to Overcome the Fear of Death, Part 1

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Thanatophobia, or “fear of death,” affects millions of people worldwide. For some people, it can produce anxiety and/or obsessional thoughts. [1] While thanatophobia is the fear of death and/or one’s own mortality, a fear of dying people or dead things is known as “necrophobia,” which is different from thanatophobia. Both of these fears, however, can be similarly related to a fear of the unknown aspects related to death, known as “xenophobia.” In another sense, it is the possibility of encountering something beyond what is already known. [2] This can be especially true for people who are nearing the end of life, as uncertainties around the death process can multiply as the reality of death becomes more imminent.[3] In order to become more comfortable with the unknown end of life, you need to understand your phobia and work to overcome its hold on you.

1

Write down the times when you think about death. The first thing to determine when dealing with a fear of death is how – and how much – your fear affects your life. We are not often immediately aware of the environmental triggers or causes of our fears and anxiety. Writing about the situations in which they arise can be a helpful tool for working through these issues.[4]

  • Start by simply asking yourself, “What was going on around me when I started feeling afraid or anxious in that moment?” For a number of reasons, this can be a very difficult question to answer at first. Start with the basics. Think back over the last few days and write down as many details as you can remember about the times you thought about death. Include exactly what you were doing when the thoughts arose.
  • The fear of death is very common. Throughout human history, people have been concerned and preoccupied with the idea of death and dying. This can happen for several reasons, including your age, your religion, your level of anxiety, the experience of loss, and so on. For example, during certain transitional phases in your life, you may be more prone to having a fear of death. People may have a deeper preoccupation with death in the ages 4-6, 10-12, 17-24, and 35-55.[5] Scholars have long philosophized about the prospect of death. According to the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, death can be a source of fear for people precisely because it is that which “comes to us from the outside and transforms us into the outside.” [6] The process of death, therefore, represents to us the most radical unknown dimension imaginable (or, in a sense, unimaginable). As Sartre points out, death has the potential to transform our living bodies back into the non-human realm from which they initially emerged.

2

Make note of when you feel anxious or afraid. Next, write down any of the times you can remember deciding not to do something because you were afraid or anxious. Write down instances even if you aren’t sure about whether or not the emotions were necessarily related in any way to death or dying.

3

Compare your anxiety with thoughts of death. After you have one list of thoughts of death and one list of anxious moments, look for commonalities between the two. For example, you might notice that every time you see a particular brand of candy you feel some degree of anxiety, but you’re not sure why. Then you realize that you think about death during these same situations. You might remember that the brand of candy in question was served at your grandparent’s funeral. Then you also began feeling some degree of fear at the thought of death in general.

  • Such connections, between objects, emotions, and situations, can be quite subtle, sometimes even more so than the scenario described above. But writing them down can be a great way to start becoming more aware of them. Then you can better influence how you manage the way you’re affected in such moments.

4

Recognize the link between anxiety and anticipation. Fear is a potent force that can potentially influence just about anything you do. If you can start to look beyond your fear, you may find that the actual event you’re dreading is not as terrible as think it is. Anxiety is usually wrapped up in anticipation about how things will or won’t go. It is an emotion that looks to the future. Keep reminding yourself that fear of death is sometimes worse than death itself. Who knows, your death may not be as unpleasant as you imagine it to be.[7]

5

Be honest with yourself. Be completely honest and fully face the fact of your own mortality. It will eat away at you until you do. Life becomes much more valuable when its temporarily is realized. You know that you will face death sometime, but you don’t have to live life in fear. When you are honest with yourself and face your fear head-on, you will be able to start deconstructing this phobia.

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