Fear of death is one of the more common but misunderstood forms of anxiety people struggle with.
As a psychologist, I spent years helping people to better understand their fear of death and work through it in a healthy way. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do with this guide.
You will learn:
- How to discover the origins of your fear of death.
- Identify habits and patterns in your life that are making it worse.
- And over a dozen specific strategies anyone can use to work through it.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
This is a pretty sizable guide, so to help you navigate all 17 of the sections (plus extra resources at the end), feel free to use the following links to jump straight to any section that looks interesting:
- Understand the origins of your fear of death in the past
- Identify the habits that are maintaining your fear of death in the present
- Validate your fear of death
- Get your chronic worry habit under control
- Cope with your death anxiety symptoms in a healthy way
- Cultivate death acceptance
- Distinguish fear of death from fear of dying
- Clarify your values and purpose
- Try some positive death visualizations
- Create a memento mori practice or totem
- Address your need for control in a healthy way
- Schedule “death chats” with supportive people
- Start reading obituaries
- Avoid morning dread by getting out of bed immediately
- Restructure catastrophic thinking
- Channel your fear of death creatively
- Try some existential therapy
- Extra Resources and Further Reading
1. Understand the origins of your fear of death in the past
For a lot of people who struggle with fear of death, it can seem like it came out of nowhere—either gradually or suddenly becoming a major struggle in their lives.
And this uncertainty about the origins of fear of death can make the whole experience that much harder because it can feel embarrassing or even shaming to have this struggle but not understand where it came from.
The good news is that you don’t have to understand the origins of your death anxiety in order to work through it.
NOTE: Throughout this guide, I’ll use the terms fear of death and death anxiety interchangeably)
That being said, it can be validating and reassuring to get some clarity on where this fear comes from. And it can also help encourage and empower you to work through it when you have at least some understanding of its origins.
Common causes and origins of fear of death
While there can be many possible causes of fear of death, here are a handful of the most common:
- Severe illness. Many people first develop a fear of death after a major illness that either brought them close to death or had the potential to—heart attacks and strokes, for example. But if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that a severe illness—even one you recovered from completely—might get you thinking more about your own mortality and future death. And if that thinking about death persisted and grew to extreme levels, it could easily turn into a serious struggle with death anxiety.
- Traumatic events. Many of the folks I worked with who struggled with fear of death described exposure to a traumatic event as a possible trigger. Car accidents, for example, are very common triggers. Assaults and abuse are another set of common examples. In any case, when you’re exposed to extreme danger—either actual or potential—it’s not surprising that the topic of death would become more prominent for you.
- The death of someone close to you. Even if you have never had an experience that brought you close to death, simply witnessing someone else die (or come close) can have similar effects. When we lose someone—especially someone we were close to—we very understandably end up reflecting on them, their life, and of course, the fact that they are now gone. Naturally, then, this could lead to contemplating our own possible death.
- Terminal illness. One of the most common triggers for death anxiety is a terminal medical diagnosis like untreatable cancer. When we are forced to live with the knowledge that there is something literally killing us, we can easily end up worrying quite a lot about death and dying.
- Panic attacks. This one surprises many people because the link between a panic attack and fear of death isn’t always immediately clear. But by definition, a panic attack is an extreme event that makes you think you are either going to die or go crazy and lose touch with reality (which in some ways is very similar to death). So, even though panic attacks themselves aren’t actually a threat to your life, because they feel like it in the moment, they can be a trigger or cause for longer-term fear of death. If you’re interested in learning more about panic attacks and how to deal with them, this guide I wrote on How to Stop a Panic Attack might be helpful.
- Old age. This one frequently gets overlooked because it’s so ordinary. But old age is by definition intimately related to death. When we know and really feel that our days are numbered, why wouldn’t death become a more prominent idea in our consciousness? Importantly, one pattern I’ve noticed is that people who are isolated and suffering from loneliness in old age seem especially vulnerable to developing a significant fear of death.
- Evolutionary biology. Okay, this one’s a little cheeky, but it illustrates an important point: We are all literally designed by evolution to be afraid of death to some degree—our survival depends on it! There’s nothing abnormal or unhealthy about being afraid of death to some degree. And just because that fear of death can get to unhealthy levels that really interfere with your life, it’s important to remember that some amount of that fear is totally normal and built into our very nature.
Those are some of the most common causes or origins for fear of death, but they’re by no means the only ones. Remember that even though it can be helpful and validating to understand where your fear of death may have begun, it’s not a requirement for managing that fear in a healthy way.
Even if you never understand the cause of your death anxiety initially, you can still reduce it tremendously by understanding what is maintaining it in the present. Which brings us to our next point…
2. Identify the habits that are maintaining your fear of death in the present
For a long time, I struggled to build the habit of flossing my teeth every night. But a few years ago, my dentist explained how I was at risk of gum disease, which was scary! So, I bought some floss that afternoon and thus my evening flossing habit was born.
I floss just about every night now and have for the last few years. But here’s the thing: Even though fear of gum disease was the initial cause of my flossing habit, it’s no longer the maintaining cause. Now I floss because it actually feels good afterward and gives me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction—not because I’m terrified of getting gum disease.
The thing that causes a habit in the past is not necessarily the thing that’s keeping it going in the present.
Here’s an example related to fear of death specifically:
- Witnessing your father die at a young age from a heart attack may well have been the original or initial cause of your fear of death—the thing that initially got you worrying about and scared of death.
- But over time, you may have gotten in the habit of avoiding things associated with death—leaving conversations when the topic of death comes up, not watching movies where you know death will occur, etc.
- This avoidance of death-related topics, while anxiety-relieving in the moment, is actually training your brain to be more afraid of death. Or more specifically, you’re training it to be afraid of the topic of death.
- So now, each time the topic of death comes up, your brain makes you even more anxious because by trying to avoid the topic of death, you’ve taught your brain to fear it.
At this point, your father’s death has relatively little impact on the intensity of your fear of death. Instead, the thing causing it to stick around and get worse is your habit of avoiding death-related topics.
So while understanding the origins of your fear of death can be helpful and validating, it’s almost never a solution because those origins are rarely the things actively maintaining the fear now.
To genuinely deal with your fear of death, you must understand what causes are at the root of it in the present and work to address those.
3 common habits that maintain fear of death in the present
In my experience, these are 3 of the most common habits that maintain people’s fear of death and death anxiety in the present:
- Chronic Worry. Chronic worry is an easy habit to fall into. Unfortunately, worry tends to generalize your fear of death to other related topics and situations, making it more easily triggered and more intense in the future. For more on how to manage chronic worry related to fear of death, see #4 below.
- Avoidance of death-related topics or situations. Like the situation I described above, avoidance of death-related things only makes your fear of death stronger in the long-run because it extends that fear of death to more and more things (even though it often feels like a relief in the moment). What’s more, the less practice you get dealing with and tolerating your fears of death, the lower your self-confidence becomes. And the lower your confidence, the more emotionally fragile and anxious you’re going to feel.
- Reassurance-seeking. The problem with reassurance-seeking is that it kills your confidence and makes you more vulnerable to anxiety and worry. If every time you experience some fear of death you immediately “outsource” the management of it to someone else by asking them for reassurance, you are essentially telling your own brain that you can’t handle fear of death—which kills your confidence and leads to low self-esteem. It’s hard in the short-term, but if you want to get over your fear of death for good, it’s critical that you build the courage to confront it and accept it instead of running away from it or using other people to temporarily make you feel better.
The take-home message of this section is pretty straightforward:
Don’t get so caught up in the origins of your fear of death in the past that you ignore the factors in the present that are making it worse.
The rest of this guide will focus on more specific ways you can understand and deal with behaviors, habits, and beliefs in the present that are feeding your fear of death.
3. Validate your fear of death
Validating your emotions means that instead of running away from or trying to “fix” painfully feelings and moods, you instead acknowledge them directly and remind yourself of one critical idea:
Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean your feelings are bad—or that you are bad for feeling them.
When it comes to your fear of death, validating those fears might look something like this:
- Ugh… Ever since he brought up his dad passing away I’ve been feeling anxious and panicky. But I have to remember: even though it feels uncomfortable being anxious and worrying about death, it’s okay that I feel that way.
- There goes my mind again throwing all these worries and scary scenarios at me about dying young like my mom. I hate it when I start spinning up like this. But I know that it’s understandable that I would have some worry about death sometimes given how traumatic my heart attack and recovery were last year. Death is a scary thing and so it’s natural that I would worry about it sometimes.
If it helps, think about emotional validation from the perspective of other people: If a good friend came up to you and confided that they were really worried and anxious about dying, what would you say?
- Chances are you would not tell them that it’s ridiculous to be scared of death or yell at them to stop worrying so much or tell them how irrational their fears of dying are.
- Instead, you would be compassionate and understanding with them. You would help them to feel less alone in their fears by reminding them that everyone worries about death sometimes. Or that you occasionally feel anxious about dying too.
In other words, you already know how to validate emotions because you probably do it instinctively with other people’s emotions. It’s just a matter of applying the same thing to yourself when you’re struggling—especially with your fear of death.
When we validate our fears and anxieties instead of running away from them or trying to get rid of them, we teach our brains that, however uncomfortable, our fears aren’t dangerous.
And the more your brain believes that, the more confident and less overwhelmed you’re going to feel when fear of death crops up again.
If you want to learn more about emotional validation, I wrote a whole guide on it here: How to Validate Your Emotions in 3 Simple Steps
4. Get your chronic worry habit under control
Worry is the mental habit of thinking unhelpful and anxiety-producing thoughts about the future.
Of course we worry sometimes—especially about topics as understandably scary and unknown as death. But chronic worry is when you’ve gotten into the habit of worrying compulsively and excessively. And when you develop the habit of chronic worry around death, it intensifies your fear of death itself.
The reason is simple: To your brain’s fear center, worry is a sign that you think something is dangerous.
So when your brain sees you repeatedly worrying about something, it starts to see that thing as a threat. This means the next time you encounter that thing, your brain is going to shoot you up with adrenaline as a way to deal with this danger—only making you more anxious.
Now death itself is of course dangerous. The problem is, most people who have fear of death have gotten into the habit of worrying about things related to death, and so trained their brains to be not only afraid of death itself, but of all sorts of things just remotely related to death.
For example: If every time the topic of death comes up, you start worrying about what it will be like to be sick and dying and in pain in a hospital, you could start to develop anxiety around hospitals and medical care. Now your fear of death triggers fear of anything medical-related and visa versa.
The habit of chronic worry only intensifies and generalizes your fear of death.
If you can learn to resist the impulse to worry, you can greatly reduce the frequency and intensity of your death anxiety.
5. Cope with your death anxiety symptoms in a healthy way
Everyone and their dog has advice about specific coping skills you can use to manage your fears and anxiety. But when it comes to coping with your fears, you have to be careful…
Even though coping skills feel good in the moment, they can easily make your fears and insecurities worse in the long-run.
Here’s an example:
- Take deep breathing, a coping skill that’s commonly recommended for people who struggle with anxiety.
- It’s true that doing even just a few deep breaths can have a powerfully calming effect on you.
- The problem is that if you immediately start doing deep breathing as a way to avoid feeling anxious, you’re teaching your brain that it’s not okay to feel anxious. So even if you manage to feel a little better in the short term, it will have the unintended long term effect of making you anxious about being anxious.
- This means that the next time you feel anxiety, you’re going to feel a double-dose because you’ve taught your brain to be afraid of being afraid!
Be very careful not to use coping skills as an avoidance mechanism.
If you want to cope with your fears and worry about death in a healthy way—a way that doesn’t make them worse long-term—it’s critical to first validate the fear itself. Which, conveniently, is the topic of our next strategy…
6. Cultivate death acceptance
If you struggle with fear of death—and all the painful anxiety that goes along with it—I know how tempting it is to avoid thinking about it in the moment. But really this is just a form of denial, which never works out well in the long run …
When you live in denial of death (constantly trying to avoid it) you train your brain to fear even the concept of death. This means that even if you manage to avoid some anxiety now, the next time the topic of death comes up, your brain is going to make you feel even more anxious because it thinks the mere mention of death is dangerous.
On the other hand, when you accept that death is inevitable—that you will die—it actually makes you less anxious about death in the long-term because it communicates to your brain that even though death itself may be scary, the experience of thinking about death in the present isn’t itself dangerous.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself: Of course I accept that death is inevitable… I’m not stupid!
But here’s the thing:
It’s not enough to accept death intellectually—you have to accept it in practice.
And that means being willing to tolerate the topic of death when it comes up and all the anxiety that goes with it instead of avoiding it.
One good way to start cultivating death acceptance in practice is to use a small mantra. Here’s one I’ve found helpful with a lot of the people I’ve worked with:
I may not like it, but I accept that death will happen.
When the topic of death comes up, try to catch yourself instinctively avoiding it—changing the topic, thinking of something else, preemptively avoiding a situation where death is likely to come up, etc—and instead, simply repeat your mantra that I may not like it but I accept that death will happen.
With repetition and practice, your mind will eventually start to internalize what initially is just a statement. And when you do, you will be well on your way to cultivating death acceptance in practice, not just in theory.
7. Distinguish fear of death from fear of dying
Many people with death anxiety confuse fear of death with fear of dying:
- Fear of death is usually described as being afraid of what happens after death, the consequences of your death, or what death means. For example, many people’s fear of death comes from having a difficult time with the uncertainty of what happens to us after we die. In a sense, fear of death is an existential fear.
- Fear of dying, on the other hand, tends to be more about the process of death—specifically the pain and suffering that might be involved in the activity of dying itself. In this case, being scared of death might be something much more specific like a fear of how painful dying of cancer will be. Or if you’ll be alone while dying.
Now, more than just an intellectual distinction, figuring out whether it’s fear of death or fear of dying you struggle most with is helpful because different approaches tend to be more helpful for each.
For example, if it’s fear of death you’re struggling with, then it might be beneficial to do some exploratory therapy to look at what death really means to you and what sorts of beliefs you have around death. Existential psychotherapy can be very helpful in this regard.
On the other hand, if it’s more fear of dying—specifically the physical pain of dying—one of the most helpful things you could do is to talk to medical professionals or counselors who specialize in end-of-life scenarios to get a more accurate and realistic idea of what the dying process looks like for most people and/or what it’s likely to be like for you.
It might also be beneficial to work with a cognitive behavioral therapist to address unrealistic thoughts and beliefs about dying.
8. Clarify your values and purpose
No matter how hard you work, fear of death is not something you can ever get rid of completely. The question, then, is how do we keep it to a manageable size—one that doesn’t cause us too much distress and interfere too much with our lives?
I would suggest that at a certain point it becomes less about minimizing your fear of death and more about getting on with your life despite some lingering death anxiety.
And this is where values and purpose become important.
Having a clear sense of your values and purpose—things that really matter to you and give you energy—is a tremendous advantage when it comes to refocusing your mind off of your anxieties about death and getting on with life because they serve to outcompete your worries and anxieties.
Imagine two teams playing tug-of-war:
- Team A is full of strong anxieties and fears about death. These guys are beefy and exert a pretty strong force pulling your attention and focus in their direction.
- Team B is your values and purpose—the things that really matter to you in life and that you’re passionate about. This could be something as small as a hobby or favorite pastime or as big as a political cause you volunteer time for or a major art project you’re working on.
To defeat Team A, you need a really strong Team B. The more and better clarified your values and purpose are, the more likely it will be that you can resist the temptation to get lost in worries about death, and instead, refocus your attention elsewhere—on the things that really matter to you.
Of course, getting more clarity on your values is no small task. But every little bit helps when it comes to your ability to resist the pull of worry and move on from fear of death.
To learn more about values clarification, this guide I wrote might be helpful: Know Your Values: 7 Ways to Discover and Clarify Your Personal Values
9. Try some positive death visualizations
Okay, I get that this sounds a bit morbid—death visualizations?—but hear me out…
People with fear of death tend to alternate between one of two forms of thinking about death:
- Catastrophizing. Imagining all the horrible, painful, scary, sad, and otherwise negative aspects of death.
- Avoidance. Trying incredibly hard not to think about death at all.
Of course there are scary and negative aspects to death—no doubt about it. And you certainly wouldn’t want to spend all your time just thinking about death. But when you get in the habit of either ruminating on the negative aspects of death or avoiding it altogether, you paint a pretty impoverished and one-sided picture of death.
Because, strange as it may seem, there are positive (or at the very least, less bad) aspects of death and dying. And if you make a little time to imagine those possibilities, your overall idea of death can become a little more realistic, and as a result, a little less terrifying.
Positive death visualization means imagining versions of your own death going relatively well.
Like an Olympic swimmer who uses positive visualization to imagine swimming their perfect race, you can use positive visualization to imagine your ideal death (strange as that might sound).
- You might imagine yourself passing away peacefully in your own bed with your closes friends and family around you.
- You might imagine people at your funeral giving a eulogy and describing their favorite memories of you.
- You could imagine drifting off to sleep for the last time, finally free of the chronic pain you’ve struggled with for so long.
To sum up, positive death visualizations are a way to remind yourself that there are good (or at least less bad) aspects to death. And this can have the effect of counteracting an overly negative view of death that tends to cause excessive fear and anxiety.
10. Create a memento mori practice or totem
Memento mori is an ancient practice from stoic philosophy for reminding yourself of your own mortality on a regular basis.
For example: During the European Renaissance, when many old stoic texts were being rediscovered, it became fashionable to keep a skull on your desk or someplace visible as a reminder of one’s own mortality (this is why in a lot of Renaissance-era portraits, you’ll see a random skull on a desk or in the background).
While it’s an ancient practice, the psychology behind it aligns really well with what we know from modern psychology:
Avoidance of scary things leads to temporary relief but long-term anxiety; confronting scary things leads to temporary discomfort but long-term peace of mind.
When you deliberately remind yourself of your own mortality and death it is uncomfortable, especially when you first start. But longer-term, what you’re doing is teaching your brain that you’re not afraid of death however uncomfortable it makes you. This leads to confidence. And the higher your confidence, the less fear and anxiety you’ll feel.
So, to make this practice practical and consistent, it can help to create a small totem or physical object that reminds you of death or your own mortality and keep it somewhere where you’ll see it every day:
- I know someone who took a photo of their favorite short poem about death and set it as the background image on their computer.
- I had a client once who took an old Dia de los Muertos figurine and put it on their bathroom countertop so they’d be reminded of their mortality every morning and evening.
- Or you could just go old school and find a skull to set on your desk like those old Renaissance aristocrats!
A final point about memento mori: In addition to desensitizing yourself to your anxiety around death, this practice has another, perhaps even more important, benefit:
Being mindful of death helps us appreciate life.
One memento mori practice I have personally is to read a short book by the Roman philosopher Seneca called On the Shortness of Life every year on New Years. And while it’s initially a bit uncomfortable to be reminded that my days are numbered, I ultimately find it inspiring and motivating:
Yes, my days are numbered. Yes, I will die. But I am alive now! And I want to make the most of the time that I do have.
In the words of the great Mary Oliver:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
11. Address your need for control in a healthy way
For some people, death anxiety is really a control issue.
Specifically, when you can’t come to terms with the fact that your own mortality and death are not something you have much control over, it’s easy to fall into the habit of trying to exert control over other things in life as a way of compensating.
- Being excessively frugal
- Getting overly-involved in other people’s personal lives
- Over-exercising to the point where it becomes unhealthy
- Micromanaging at work
- Over-parenting at home
For some people, these tendencies briefly give the illusion of control and serve to distract from the core anxiety of not being in control of your own mortality. But like all forms of denial, the side effects are never worth it in the long run…
From chronic stress to strained relationships, we pay a heavy price for the illusion of control.
The trick is to face up to the fact that you simply have far less control than you would like and that there’s not really much you can do about it. And while this might feel depressingly defeatist, I’ll think you’ll find it actually is quite liberating and relieving.
It’s hard to realize how much energy you’re putting into trying to control everything until you finally let go.
If you want to learn more about control issues and how to actually come to terms with your mortality and finite time, check out this podcast interview I did with Oliver Burkeman about his book Four Thousand Hours: Time Management for Mortals:
12. Schedule “death chats” with supportive people
One of the strongest core beliefs that keeps many people stuck in their fear of death is that they’re alone.
Because death is not a topic most people talk a whole lot about in casual conversation, it’s easy to end up assuming that it’s just not something other people think about or fear at all themselves.
And while it’s true that most people probably don’t struggle with fear of death in a big way, it’s a mistake to assume that they don’t think about it at all—both because it’s untrue (they do) but also because it makes you feel more isolated and alone in your fears, which tends to only aggravate the situation.
On the other hand, if you can have more authentic conversations with other people about the topic of death, the result will be that you feel much less alone in your fears.
And when you don’t feel as alone, it’s a lot easier to work through them in a healthy way.
So, here’s a simple way to stop feeling so alone in your fear of death: Find someone you trust and are relatively comfortable opening up to and ask them if they’d be okay having some conversations specifically about this topic of death.
The conversations can be relatively free form and don’t necessarily have to be about your fear of death specifically—they could be partly philosophical; they could be about how death is portrayed in film and literature and what you think about it; they could be about how society in general tends to think about death.
The point is that when you open up dialog about the topic, you remind yourself that you’re not alone. And this is a surprisingly empowering thing to be reminded of—one that will help tremendously with the rest of these suggestions and your work to overcome fear of death more generally.
Btw… you don’t have to call them “death chats” 🙂 That’s kind of intense and, if I’m honest, I used it because it’s memorable. You could just as easily call them mortality conversations or meaning of life chats or Big talks. The name doesn’t really matter.
13. Start reading obituaries
At the end of the day, the only way to really address the root of your fear of death is to confront it.
Because by confronting death you teach your brain that, while unpleasant and scary, the thought of death isn’t itself dangerous. And the more your brain believes this, the more confident (and less anxious) you’ll feel whenever the topic of death comes up.
One simple little practice you can develop to begin doing this is to read obituaries in the paper.
There are a few really great things about this practice:
- Most importantly, it forces you to confront death fears and stop running away from them. And at the end of the day, that’s the only way to overcome fear of death.
- It’s also really simple and easy to do. Most obituaries are pretty short and can be read through in a minute or two. This means that you can turn it into a regular, even daily, habit. And the more habitual your practice of confronting death, the faster you will get over it.
- Obituaries are actually much more enjoyable and interesting than they are morbid and scary. In fact, many people I know who have started this practice continue doing it well after they’ve worked through their fear of death simply because they find it so interesting and enjoyable.
- Finally, reading obituaries is also a great way to practice gratitude. Reminding yourself of the reality of death will help to alleviate your death anxiety, but it will also help build up your appreciation for life. And as cliche as it sounds, life really is a gift and something worth savoring.
So, if you want a simple and straightforward way to begin slowly working through your fear of death, get in the habit of reading the obituaries in your local paper or online.
I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the experience.
14. Avoid morning dread by getting out of bed immediately
When I was working as a therapist, one of the complaints I heard from people most often is that they started worrying about death as soon as they woke up. And understandably, this pattern of beginning your days obsessively worrying about and becoming anxious of death is a rough way to go through life.
This is a specific instance of a more general anxiety problem called morning dread, which is when you simply wake up feeling already anxious.
Now, the key thing to understand about morning dread is that, like all forms of anxiety, it’s caused by worry. In this case, if you get in the habit of waking up and then worrying about things (like stuff you have to take care of that day, for example), not only are you making yourself anxious first thing in the morning but you’re also training your brain to associate being awake early in the morning with the act of worrying. Reinforce this association for long enough and eventually the simple act of waking up becomes an unconscious trigger for your brain to start worrying.
And if you’re the kind of person whose main worry is fear of death, then that topic is understandably going to be the primary focus on your morning dread.
Luckily, there’s a relatively simple (though not necessarily easy) way to break the habit of morning dread: Stop snoozing and get right out of bed.
If you’re in the habit of worrying immediately upon waking, you need to break that habit by doing something else immediately upon waking. But if you’re constantly waking up and snoozing in bed, well, there’s usually not a lot else to do early in the morning besides worry, so more often than not, you’re going to fall back into that pattern.
On the other hand, if you immediately get out of bed and make yourself a cup of coffee, take a shower, go for a walk, etc—literally anything else!—you’re far less likely to start worrying because your mind is occupied with other things.
And if you get in the habit of occupying your mind with other things as soon as you wake up, eventually your morning dread—and the fear of death it generates first thing in the morning—will eventually dissipate.
15. Restructure catastrophic thinking
One of the most common triggers for worry and fear of death is a more general mental habit called catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing simply means the tendency to worry and go straight to the worst-case scenario.
For example, after a lukewarm reception to your presentation at work, you think to yourself:
That was awful. They hated it. I’ll probably get let go and there’s no way I’ll find another job this good. I might not be able to find another job at all… Then I won’t be able to pay my mortgage and the bank will take my house. I could even end up homeless…
Now, that might seem like some ridiculous reasoning right now. But I think we all can remember times when we caught ourselves going down similarly unrealistic lines of thinking—usually ending up in homelessness, being alone forever, or straight to death!
Aside from creating a habit of anxiety generally, catastrophizing can very easily trigger death anxiety and fear of death specifically. Because catastrophizing is, by definition, going to the worst-case scenario, well, you’re going to find yourself at death fairly often.
However, it is possible to break the habit of catastrophizing. And a really helpful technique for doing so is to use what’s called cognitive restructuring to train your brain to think more realistically.
The basic idea behind cognitive restructuring is that you want to get in the habit of:
- A) Catching yourself when you fall into catastrophizing or other forms of unrealistic thinking, and
- B) Restructure or modify those unrealistic thoughts to be slightly more realistic and balanced.
- Suppose you caught yourself with the following worry: She hates me and is getting ready to leave me, I know it.
- You might first point out that that thought is pretty extreme and likely a form of catastrophizing.
- Specifically, while it’s clear that she is upset with you, there’s no evidence that she’s getting ready to leave you.
- Based on this, you might “restructure” your catastrophic worry like this: She’s understandably upset with me right now. And even though I’m afraid that she’ll leave me, it’s much more likely that we’ll have some difficult conversations but eventually work through it like we have similar disagreements in the past.
Now, the key thing to realize about cognitive restructuring is that the main point isn’t to feel better in the moment. The goal is to train your thought patterns to be less extreme and unrealistic and more balanced long-term.
So when you get in the habit of continually restructuring those catastrophic thoughts, over time you build a habit of more realistic and emotionally balanced thinking.
16. Channel your fear of death creatively
One of the most underappreciated remedies for anxiety is creative action. And I’ve found this no less true for death anxiety.
One way to think about unhelpful fear and anxiety is that it’s misdirected energy. Obviously, when you’re caught in spirals of worry and anxiety, there’s a lot of energy there. And it mostly just leads to feeling miserable and not doing much.
But what if you could harness that energy and direct it toward more productive, enjoyable, and meaningful ends?
A simple experiment you can try as a way to deal with heightened fear of death is to have a small creative practice that you can jump into whenever you find yourself worrying about death.
- I had a client once who loved to whittle and carve his own wooden utensils. So, he developed a little routine where, when he began feeling anxious, he took a breath, validated his anxiety, then went out into his garage and whittled for 5-10 minutes. He even kept some whittling supplies at his work and in his car!
- On a personal note, often when I find myself unproductively worried and spinning, I sit down at my computer and work on a new article. The act of doing something and making something useful has a powerful anti-anxiety effect most of the time.
So, think about some small way you like to be creative. Then, the next time you find yourself lost in worries and anxiety about death, try to channel that energy into a creative task or project instead.
17. Try some existential therapy
While several forms of talk therapy like cognitive-behavioral therapy have been shown to be quite helpful for exploring and working through fear of death, there’s a specific approach called existential psychotherapy that is often especially helpful.
Existential therapy focuses on issues of death, meaning, and responsibility that are often key factors in a person’s fears of death. By working with a therapist who specializes in these types of issues, it’s often easier to get to core causes of death anxiety that are more philosophical or existential in nature.
For example, if you think your fear of death is connected to a struggle to find meaning and purpose in your life, an existential therapist might be able to help you uncover what a meaningful life really looks like for you and what the obstacles to pursuing that are.
Plus, if you’re someone who naturally has a more philosophical bent then existential therapy can also be quite enjoyable since it can be hard to find other people in life to relate to on this level.
If you’re curious about existential therapy and whether it might be a good fit for you, this book is a very good introduction: The Wiley Handbook of Existential Therapy
Extra Resources and Further Reading
If you’d like to learn more about fear of death, how people think about it, and how to overcome it, here are some recommended reads:
- Death anxiety: body bags, catastrophic thinking and facing the inevitable. (Article) Interesting article about how some mental health practitioners think about and approach treating clinical levels of death anxiety.
- Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin Yalom. (Book) Fantastic book by a leading authority on death anxiety and existential fears.
- Death anxiety and its role in psychopathology: Reviewing the status of a transdiagnostic construct (Research) Good summary and overview of the state of the research related to fear of death and death anxiety.
- The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. (Book) Pulitzer Prize winning book about the central role of death (and our denial of it) in human psychology. One of the most underrated classic texts in modern psychology imo.
- Everything You Should Know About Thanatophobia. (Article) Good Healthline overview of the concept of thanatophobia.