Death Anxiety Fear of Death & Dying
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Danny Hickling. BSc (Hons). Couns. MBACP. UKCP
The fear of death and dying is one of the most common fears in mankind.
The fear, of course, is a vital one – keeping us safe and away from danger. It is a basic survival response that allows us to see a risk of death from a dangerous activity or situation. For instance it would be our primeval fear of death that would stop us standing too close to a cliff or diving into a ferocious sea. What is less useful is the common fear of death that can overtake the life of the victim so that all of their thoughts become fixated on the inevitability of their death whilst in actuality their life is at no immediate risk.
Awareness of this basic fear has lead many eminent psychologists to examine its potential triggers. Freud hypothesised that the irrational fear had its origins in an aspect of childhood that was unacceptable and at conflict with to the consciousness of the reciprocant. Later psychologists such as such as Rollo May and Victor Frankl saw a link between a lack of sense of meaning or achievement in some aspect of their lives, such as a sense of not being ready to die or un-achieved ambitions and these appeared to heighten the level of death anxiety in individuals.
Ernest Beckett, a famous anthropologist, believed that human kind’s fears of death were so widespread and intense that they were suppressed by a person’s conscious self and were displaced into behavioural form as fears and phobias. These then manifested themselves as a fear, such as a fear of heights, being alone or confined spaces.
Fears can take over our everyday lives. At first the fear may be small. We notice a trigger so instead of investigating the deep down fear, we avoid the situation so that the fear is not aroused. Before we know it we can begin to avoid a bigger spectrum of situations. As an example Jack was a 60 year old single man who had always desperately wanted to settle down and have a family – he walked his dog on a longer route at weekends. To take the long route he had to walk through the cemetery. He noticed that Sunday evenings he was full of troublesome thoughts of his death and eventually noticed that the walk through the cemetery was the trigger. He avoided this route but the thoughts continued on Sundays and had become a habit. He passed on the dog walking responsibilities as he had found that when he walked his dog the thoughts started and the feelings followed close behind.
In classic avoidance style Jack was now avoiding, cemeteries, church walks, even the local supermarket (opposite the undertakers).
So how do we stop our fears getting out of hand and stop our minds from dwelling on unhelpful thoughts, especially if this fear of death and dying is so prevalent? How can we avoid its impact on our lives when sadly we can’t avoid death itself?
SOME TIPS TO HELP TAKE THE POWER OUT OF YOUR FEAR:
TALK ABOUT YOUR FEARS WITH OTHERS
The old adage is a problem shared is a problem halved. Whilst many of your friends or family might not have been aware of your worries and fears they have probably noticed a change in your behaviour. Begin to open up to those you most trust – they may be relieved to know what is troubling you, and whilst they can’t make the worry simply ‘go away’ the renewed closeness that you may share can make life feel more precious and help distract you from some of your thoughts.
“When we face our fear of death and slow down our busy lives, we come to realize our relationships are precious, a part of life’s foundation. Knowing this fact helps us to understand that death’s true purpose is to teach us how to live.” Molly Friedenfeld, The Book of Simple Human Truths
In addition to sharing the thoughts initially with friends and family you may want to use time with a trained professional such as a counsellor or psychotherapist to explore your fears at a greater depth. They have techniques to examine your fears, feelings and thoughts and can help you place strategies that make life more bearable and fulfilling in their place.
Fear often brings with it obsessive thoughts, and while creating a space of relaxation where the thoughts you are trying to avoid can be examined may sound crazy – it is often useful.
A huge amount of energy can be spent running from these thoughts for the fear of what the experience may be like… but by creating a calm experience, practicing slow and deep breathing as described below you can create either a space free from thoughts, or you can create a place where your calmness helps the thoughts pass through, a place where the thoughts have less power as you are in control of your breathing and so you’re in a calmer, stronger state.
Find a place where you feel warm enough and where you won’t be disturbed by visitors or callers.
Sit or lay comfortably, breath out slowly counting to 6 then breathe in counting to 8.
Follow this procedure at least ten times – you can put a finger out each time so you don’t have to worry about counting…. then just sit in silence and notice how the breathing has affected your body’s responses.
NATURE and DISTRACTION
When thoughts overwhelm you, try to think of this moment, this moment when you are alive. There is a growing consensus of opinion that increases in depression and anxiety have a link to the artificial worlds we now live in where we have a detachment from nature and its seasons.
Using the relaxation techniques described above to prepare you for a receptive frame of mind examine closely the details of everyday objects – a flower, a leaf, a crystal or a feather. Don’t rush it, take a good while and try to lose yourself in this activity; if it’s a flower count the petals, noting the textures and shapes. Not only can getting closer to nature help sooth us, the distraction of the activity can become learnt behaviour and take us away from obsessive thoughts.
LIVE FOR TODAY
Many of us dislike change – in particular, change that is beyond our control and wishes; we may still feel 21 when our years have far exceeded this age! For a moment contemplate embracing the opportunities that life may bring. Try as much as possible to enjoy the moment in which we live rather than the worry of what tomorrow may bring.
“As you grow, you learn more. If you stayed as ignorant as you were at twenty-two, you’d always be twenty-two. Ageing is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. It’s more than the negative that you’re going to die, it’s the positive that you understand you’re going to die, and that you live a better life because of it.” Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie.
IMPORTANT NOTE ON SUICIDAL THOUGHTS
The above article was written about obsessive thoughts concerning death and fear of that death – if however you have obsessive thoughts about bringing about your own death, it is important that you try to talk about this either with someone close or, if this is difficult and if you live in the UK, you can call Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 they are available 24 hours a day.
Additional information can be found at http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/suicidal-thoughts.html