Death anxiety is a subject that almost no one wants to speak about. There’s a good reason for this. It is a terrifying issue that the majority of people face. The simple fact is that humans evolved by fighting for survival. Thinking or talking about death is always going to be uncomfortable at the very least.
Most people assume that death anxiety is something you just have to avoid. Try not to think about death so that you don’t spiral into an existential crisis. There is no cure for death, so why should death anxiety be any different?
However, whether or not we give it our attention, death anxiety drives many of the biggest decisions we make. This is sometimes a good thing – it prevents us from making reckless mistakes – but more often takes our lives out of our own hands.
The good news is that death anxiety can be treated. While it will necessarily accompany us throughout our entire lives, we can learn to live with it. Here are the two main approaches to treating death anxiety.
No other Western psychologist has treated death anxiety with the openness of Irvin Yalom. The founder of Existential Therapy, Yalom disucssed the subject in depth in his book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (2008). For anyone who has grappled with death anxiety, this book is certainly worth a read.
Yalom tells stories of people struggling with death anxiety, and goes into the various ways he has helped them. He speaks of his own death anxiety as well. His approach to therapy in general is open to the subject. In existential therapy, you grapple with questions of existence. You “stare at the sun” instead of looking away.
By speaking about the terror of death, you begin to find meaning in it. This may relate to an increased appreciation of the life we get to live. It may relate to the meaning we find in how our impact will go on. And it may simply provide the impetus to make the most of the time we have left.
Existential therapy is meant to be incorporated into other therapy styles. Ask your therapist about the subject if you are interested in taking this approach to death anxiety.
Mindfulness Therapy provides an alternative way to manage your death anxiety. Mindfulness is helpful for people struggling with anxiety because of its approach to all feelings: they are both necessary and temporary.
When you engage in mindful practice, you let your thoughts, feelings, and urges come and go. Anxiety becomes detrimental when we cling to it. Why do we cling to an emotion that feels so horrible? We do so because the message we get from anxiety is that we need to fix something.
Anxiety can be useful, because sometimes things do need to be fixed. But death is not something that can be fixed. It will happen no matter how hard we try to avoid it. There is no solution to the related terror. Once you accept this, you can let your death anxiety go.
Mindfulness does not expect you to never feel death anxiety. On the contrary, it suggests that you feel it now. The feeling will come and go, as long as you allow it to come and go.
These two approaches to death anxiety can complement each other. Either way, you are making the decision to acknowledge your death anxiety rather than pretending it does not exist.