Written by Caleb Bishop, clinical psychologist
“Death anxiety is the worm at the core of mental health“, Menzies & Menzies
Death anxiety, or anxiety about death is actually very common. As humans, we grapple with understanding and accepting our own and others’ death and this can cause distress that underlies concerns people seek psychological help for.
Death anxiety can lead to feeling powerless, lonely, and lost.
Death anxiety has been termed ‘the worm at the core of mental health’ (Menzies & Menzies, APS InPsych, 2018). It refers to the fear and worry about one’s own mortality or the idea of death in general. While many people may not consider death anxiety to be a significant concern, it can underlie various mental health issues and impact a person’s overall well-being.
Particularly when people have experienced longstanding difficulties with anxiety and/or low mood, death anxiety may be part of the picture. Research suggests that death anxiety predicts the number of mental health diagnoses a person experiences as well as their severity.
Death anxiety is present in much of our media. Death anxiety can be seen across myths, rituals, literature, movies, music, plays, and so on. Breaking Bad, for example, could be thought of in terms of death anxiety, as Walter continuously works towards building a legacy and defining who he is, how he wants to act, and what reputation he wants to build. In a more direct discussion of life and death, the movie Synedoche, New York, by Charlie Kaufman, is a fascinating look into what it means to be alive. A more recent example would be Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, which discusses the meaning of life through an existential lens.
We learn to understand death as we grow up. When we are about 5-6 years old, we learn that those who have died cannot come back to life. Between 7-9 years old, we learn that death can only happen to living things, that all living things will die eventually, and that death involves all bodily processes stopping. By 10 years, we learn that death is caused by these functions stopping. During our youth, we may learn about death through various means, such as the loss of a family member or beloved pet. In adolescence, we gain the ability to think about things more deeply, as we can think about things more abstractly. Naturally, death can be a common fear for any person, be they a child, adolescent, or adult.
Death is something that we will all face during, and at the end of our lives, in various ways. We understand our own mortality and worry about it. Consequently, many of us struggle with death anxiety. This might present as worry about death, with persistent attempts to pursue health and longevity through activities like dieting and exercise (sometimes at the detriment of other valued activities). Alternatively, we might engage in frequent distraction, such as using our phones excessively, watching videos or maintaining a high level of busyness to keep ourselves diverted. If these behaviours become obsessive or start to impact negatively, it can be useful to look deeper into what is causing this.
Death Anxiety and how it can underpin psychological difficulties:
- Health anxiety, compulsions or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and panic attacks: anxiety is often a response to things we think are dangerous. For example, a person might worry about their health and might Google their symptoms and ways to try and improve health in order to live longer. Alternatively, someone with OCD may have obsessive thoughts about death, leading them to engage in compulsive behaviours to try to keep them safe.
- Worry: worry is often an attempt to reduce or avoid more acute forms of anxiety such as panic. People who worry a lot about a range of topics, and who rely on frequent reassurance from others.
- Depression/low mood: death anxiety can also be relevant to low mood, where a person might feel low because of fears of death, being confronted by death, contemplating their own mortality, questioning their sense of purpose, legacy and success in life.
What can we do to help manage death anxiety?
Death is something that many of us feel anxious about, and this makes sense, as it is something that affects us all and is inevitable. Death anxiety can lead to avoiding thoughts, conversations, and reminders about death. In some cases, this can negatively affect wellbeing.
If death anxiety is high, moving towards neutral acceptance of death can help people experience a greater sense of wellbeing, and less vulnerability to anxiety and low mood. This may involve confronting the fear of death by talking about it openly with trusted members in your social circle and family. This could entail making practical arrangements such as writing a Will or end of life plan, or more reflective exercises such as reading and writing a eulogy. Finding what brings meaning to your life and pursuing this can also be helpful.
If death anxiety is something that bothers you more frequently and pervasively, you may consider pursuing therapy for further assistance to be able to speak to someone who can assist you in exploring these thoughts in a safe, non-judgemental, and accepting atmosphere.
Menzies, R. E., Menzies, R. G., & Iverach, L. (2018). Curing the Dread of Death: Theory, Research and Practice. Australian Academic Press.