Emotional Effects
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Anxiety and the Fear of Dying

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Anxiety and the Fear of Dying

Anxiety can both cause and contribute to a variety of fears. An overwhelmingly common concern is the fear of death. Some anxiety problems actually create the fear of death on their own. Sometimes the fear of death is a symptom of other anxiety disorders, and sometimes it is its own standalone issue.

The fear of death is a common cause and effect of anxiety, and even those without anxiety often experience this fear in some ways. This article will examine the fear of dying as it relates to anxiety and find solutions for managing it.

Death is a Natural Fear

It should be noted that death is more of a universal fear. You can have a fear of death without having an anxiety disorder since death is something that most people are naturally programmed to fear for the sake of evolution and the survival of the human race.

For some people, however, their fear of death can be unrealistic and disproportionate. At times, ironically, this fear of death can make it harder for people to live a normal life! In such cases, fear of death is likely to be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. 

Fear of Death From Anxiety Attacks

Your heart races. You feel sharp pains in your chest. The room appears to be spinning out of control. You don't know what's going on, but you know that something bad is happening. It feels like it may be a heart attack and you feel a sense of doom, as though the world is about to end.

You feel like you're about to die. But you experience all of this without dying and after some time, the fear starts to fade away (leaving you feeling drained), and you're left wondering whether something is wrong with your health.

What you may have had was a panic attack, and the fear of death is a symptom of the attack. Here the fear of death is caused by several factors:

Fight or Flight Rush

Anxiety is a poorly performing fight or flight system, which is the mechanism that your body activates when it thinks it’s experiencing severe danger. An anxiety attack is essentially the peak of this fear. Your body rushes with an intense amount of adrenaline due to changes in your brain chemistry and thought patterns - your body and mind is telling you that you're in grave danger.

It's the same way you would feel if you were holding onto a ledge above a 10 story building. your body is telling you that you need to be very afraid because your life is in danger. Unfortunately, in the case of panic attacks, your body and brain are wrong: you feel this fear of death in response to a threat that’s actually rather benign, like a looming deadline or something unusual about the way that your body is functioning, for example. 

Symptoms of Serious Disorders

Panic attack/anxiety attack symptoms are also very similar to other major health problems. Many panic attacks are so severe that they make you think you’re having a heart-attack. Thousands of people are hospitalized every year because of their panic attacks, only to find that their heart is actually in good health and that medical attention wasn’t necessary. 

But during a panic attack, it's very easy to believe that that cause is physical, rather than anxiety-based. After all, the pains and sensations are all real, and many people cannot help but fear that they indicate something very serious and that if left untreated, you may die. It's a very common problem in those with anxiety, even after doctor's visits.

This is likely to contribute to a long term fear of death, as well as a fear of further panic attacks because of a concern that they're something other than anxiety.

Hypochondria

Similarly, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that what you're experiencing is simply anxiety - and no matter how many doctor's visits you have - it's not uncommon to develop hypochondria, which is often directly related to the fear of death. Those with panic attacks often convince themselves that they’re likely have a broad range of health problems including:

Only a doctor can rule these out, of course, but no matter how often you visit your doctor you may find that it becomes nearly impossible to believe that there isn't something physical causing your anxiety symptoms. And this sort of anxiety, if it goes on for too long, can lead to serious health problems later on down the line.

All of these are reasons that the fear of death is common in those with anxiety attacks. If this sounds like you, don't forget to take the anxiety test now.

Fear of Death From Other Types of Anxiety

Other types of anxiety are also associated with a fear of death, although this symptom doesn’t occur as often in these disorders as compared to panic disorder. These other anxiety disorders include:

Fear of Death Phobia - a Cause

The more official name of the phobia where one fears dying is Thanatophobia. Thanatophobia is not always a phobia. Remember, nearly everyone fears death in some way. While some people fear it more than others, there is some degree of fear that is actually healthy. If you didn't fear death, you may put yourself in danger.

It's only when the phobia drastically alters the way you live your life that it becomes a serious problem. If you go out of your way to avoid certain everyday situations, or you are intensely afraid of anything that even resembles danger to the point where it causes significant disruption in your life, your fear of death represents a problem that may require treatment.

There are also lesser fears of death that aren't necessarily a problem but may develop other problems. Some theorize that many people with panic attacks may already have a fear of death, which is why their panic attacks were so severe. It's important to talk to a therapist if you are unsure whether your fear of death is a cause of a symptom of your anxiety - or simply if it’s causing you a lot of distress.

Can You Treat the Fear of Death?

Treating the fear of death is a bit tricky, because it's a fear that is generally healthy to have. You would never want your fear of death to go away completely. You simply want it to stop running your life.

You'll first have to find out if the fear of death is a symptom or a cause. If it's a phobia, you'll need to address it like any other phobia - see how your fear of death affects you and try to utilize desensitization techniques so that the fear isn't as powerful. A therapist will guide you through this process. 

If it's a symptom, then you don't want to target the fear of death itself. Instead, you want to target the type of anxiety that is causing those death fears. Only then should you successfully be able to live a life where the fear of death has less of an impact.

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