Anxiety can both cause and contribute to a variety of fears. But one of the most common fears is the fear of death. Some anxiety problems actually create the fear of death on their own. Some make anxiety disorders worse or more common, and some are completely independent - the fear of death may be a phobia itself, and not the result of an anxiety symptom.
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 overcoming it.
How Severe is Your Anxiety?
It's so easy to convince yourself that your anxiety symptoms are not anxiety at all - but rather a real medical problem. Visit a doctor, let them put your mind at ease, and in the meantime, take our free 7 minute anxiety symptoms test to score your anxiety severity and compare it to others.
Death is a World 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 fear at some point in their lives. That's why taking my 7 minute anxiety test is so important. It will give you an idea of whether or not you seem to be suffering from some type of clinical anxiety.
Fear of Death as a Symptom or as a Cause
It's also important to note that there is a significant difference between those whose life is altered by their fear of death, and those that have a fear of death that acts as a symptom of their disorder. Distinguishing between these is very important for treatment. The differences are examined below.
Fear of Death From Anxiety Attacks
Your heartbeat 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 a heart attack, and you feel doom, as though the world is about to end.
You feel like you're about to die. Then all of the sudden nothing happens, the fear generally 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 system that your body activates when it's experiencing severe danger. An anxiety attack is essentially the peak of this fear. Your body rushes with an intense amount of adrenaline, and this alters your brain chemistry and thought patterns to tell 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 is wrong, and the result is a feeling of death and doom despite no danger present.
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 directly resemble heart attacks and heart failure. Thousands of people are hospitalized every year because of their panic attacks, only to find that their heart is in good health.
But during a panic attack, it's very easy to not believe that anxiety can be causing the problem. 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 be likely to 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.
Similarly, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that what you're experiencing it's 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 likely have a broad range of health problems including:
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Lyme Disease
- Various Cancers
- Brain Tumors
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 more physical causing your anxiety symptoms, and that can create a fear of diseases that may contribute to an early death.
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 my anxiety test now.
Fear of Death From Other Types of Anxiety
Other types of anxiety are also associated with creating a fear of death, although these may be less common. These include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is a disorder where the mind often thinks negative and stressful thoughts. One of those thoughts may be about death and dying, and if you think about this thought too much it may develop into a fear or phobia.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Those with PTSD because of an especially traumatic event may easily develop a fear of death, often related to the event. This may be especially common in those that consider themselves lucky for surviving something, so they start to focus on dangers and fear the results of risks.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder While it may not affect 100% of all of those with OCD, many people develop obsessions about physical danger. For example: "What if I'm hit by a car today?" or "what if these germs kill me?" This may result in a fear of anything that resembles danger, which is very closely related to a fear of death.
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 many significant dangers.
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 social 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 may be a more serious problem.
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.
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.
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.
Take my 7 minute anxiety test to learn more. The test looks at your answers to help figure out the type of anxiety you suffer from, and then uses those answers to develop strategies for treatment.
Collett, Lora J., and David Lester. The fear of death and the fear of dying. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied (1969).
Starevi, Vladan. Pathological fear of death, panic attacks, and hypochondriasis. American journal of psychoanalysis 49.4 (1989): 347-361.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.