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I Can't Stop Thinking About Death: Why it Happens and When to Seek Help



Tuesday, 19th June 2018

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Since the beginning of time, people have looked up to the sky to find meaning in life. The fragility of our existence and wonderment at what “lies beyond” have inspired some of the most beautiful works by poets, authors and artists alike.

Whether we’re religious and hold close thoughts of an afterlife or whether we believe that when the time comes the lights simply “go out”, thoughts surrounding our own mortality are something each and every one of us will experience at some point in our lives.

But for some people, these thoughts become all-consuming. This kind of preoccupation and fear of death can develop into a condition known as thanatophobia or “death anxiety”.

What exactly is thanatophobia or death anxiety?

The word thanatophobia derives from the Greek god of death “thanatos”; a god perhaps fittingly shrouded in mystery - referred to often, but rarely seen.

Thanatophobia - or death anxiety - is characterised by persistent thoughts about death or dying which spark a sense of fear and panic, usually with no logical explanation. In extreme cases, these thoughts might be so terrifying that the sufferer ends up isolating themselves completely, avoiding leaving the safety of their house in the fear that something terrible might happen.

(Note: thanatophobia is different to necrophobia which is the fear of dead or dying things. Similarly, worrying about losing a loved one, parent or child also isn't thanatophobia. Death anxiety always manifests as a fear of one’s own death, as opposed to someone else’s).

If you find yourself worrying about death a lot, the first thing to do is to remind yourself that you’re not alone. When we find ourselves in the throws of anxiety, it’s easy to think that we’re the only one experiencing these kinds of thoughts or fears.

Death anxiety is real. It just tends to be less talked about in a culture which prefers to hide away from the more uncomfortable aspects of human life. Fortunately though, this is starting to change with celebrities such as Lena Dunham and Rita Ora coming forward and speaking openly about their own struggles.

What are the symptoms of death anxiety?

Persistent thoughts of death or dying
Thoughts might be triggered when talking about something related to death or they might just creep in out of the blue when you’re least expecting it. Either way, they’ll be persistent and generally instill a sense of panic.

Thinking about death impacts everyday life
No one looks forward to funerals or enjoys a trip to the hospital, and it’s normal to feel a sense of apprehension in these sorts of environments... But refusing to leave the house and cancelling plans because you’re scared of what might happen, or obsessing over an illness for no logical reason might signal that there’s something more at play. If worries about death are starting to impact the quality of your life or preventing you from taking part in normal activities, then it could be time to reach out.

Physical symptoms of anxiety/ panic attacks
Thinking about death might spur on emotions such as anger, guilt or avoidance, but also physical symptoms of anxiety too - feeling sick, dizziness, increased heart rate, fainting etc.

Going to extreme lengths to avoid situations where thinking about death is necessary
We’re all guilty of avoiding the things we’re scared of. If you find yourself actively avoiding conversations or situations where you think you might have to think or talk about death then it could be time to take a closer look.

Self-diagnosing yourself with illness
Spending hours symptom-searching on the internet, going to the doctor with health complaints very frequently or fearing the worst every time you get a sore throat are all things to look out for. Death anxiety has ties to health anxiety, both stemming from a desire for control and certainty.

Whilst it’s normal to be apprehensive about the uncertainty of death, if thinking about it has started to interfere in your enjoyment of everyday life then it might be time to seek professional support.

Why can’t I stop thinking about death?

As the name suggests, thanatophobia is a phobia. Phobias are generally caught or taught. Death anxiety might happen as a result of a trauma from the past, something you’ve had trouble coping with at the time. Or it might serve as a disguise for other general anxieties we're hiding away.

Death anxiety might even appear as a reflection of our own failings as a society to deny what is essentially a fact of life - that all living creatures must die, ourselves included... When we’re taught to ignore a truth rather than face it, it’s only natural that we might begin to fear it.

Death anxiety can happen for lots of different reasons, depending on the the individual. Here are just a handful of situations that could trigger it:

Previous trauma around death
Phobias can often be traced back to a specific event or series of events in someone’s past. A trauma, accident or near death experience might bring about the onset of death anxiety.

Over-exposure to death
Doctors and nurses who work in A&E are confronted with death every day. This can be enough to trigger death anxiety.

Losing someone you love
Losing someone close to you is devastating, especially if it’s unexpected or comes about very suddenly. Losing a loved one can cause us to contemplate our own mortality and spur us to start thinking about what might happen when we die.

A fear of losing control
We can spend our lives planning for the future, but no matter how hard we try we’ll never be able to control our own death. This realisation alone is enough to bring about anxious thoughts.

When to seek help

It’s time to reach out if you’re experiencing any of the following:

  1. You feel anxious every time you think about death.
  2. Thoughts about death or dying have started to interfere in the way you live your life.
  3. These thoughts are impacting your relationships with loved ones.
  4. It has persisted for a period of 6 months or more.

Frequently, death anxiety goes hand in hand with other anxiety and depressive disorders. The good news is that by treating the underlying cause, many people find that their anxious symptoms lessen elsewhere.

We spoke to one of our therapists, Gareth Willet (CBT and ACT), who said the following,

“Fear of death usually links with symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, such as increased worry and an intolerance to anything that can seem uncertain, and with death being the great mystery of life it can be all too easy for an already anxious mind to get carried away with a concept that the brain has little understanding of”.

For many, overcoming death anxiety means taking control of your general anxiety. This means the first step is to acknowledge that anxiety is a problem for you.

Once we see an issue for what it is, we can take tangible steps towards feeling better. There are many ways to overcome your fear of death and speaking to a therapist can help you identify the cause of this fear and come up with better coping strategies for dealing with anxious thoughts when they arise.

Getting up close and personal with death

A mystery until the very end, we can never be certain what will happen when we leave this world. And it’s normal to be afraid of the unknown. But as something each and every one of us shares, it feels strange that death is so rarely talked about in the western world. Only when we come face-to-face with it; maybe when we lose a loved one, have a near miss or fall sick do we realise that we live with its closeness everyday.

It’s human nature to avoid the things we don’t understand. But denial is the ultimate disservice. As Jung famously said, “what you resist persists”. Maybe then the answers lies in moving towards death rather than away from it. This certainly rings true for Bhutan, a small country tucked away in the Himalayan mountains where people are encouraged to contemplate death up to five times a day as part of their Buddhist practice. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Bhutan is regularly named “the happiest country in the world”.

We might consider thinking about death to be morbid. But in reality, it’s the most natural thing in the world. The real problem lies in the failure of acceptance. It’s simple - the more we deny something, the scarier it becomes.

Contemplating death can actually be very positive. The more we think about death the more it can inspire us to embrace life more fully. And when we embrace life fully, giving it up doesn’t feel so frightening anymore.

Death might be the biggest mystery of all, but maybe it really is as simple as what Alan Watts once said,

“Try to imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up… Now try to imagine what it was like to wake up having never gone to sleep”

If you can't stop thinking about death and it's making you feel anxious, then it’s important to seek the support of a qualified therapist who can help you understand the root of your anxiety. Read more to find out how therapy works and how it can help.