What is death anxiety?

Death anxiety is a complex phenomenon – a blend of many different emotions: the dread of death, the horror of physical and mental deterioration, the essential feeling of aloneness, the ultimate experience of separation anxiety, sadness about the eventual loss of self, and extremes of anger and despair about a situation over which we have no control.

Our definition of death anxiety refers to both the unconscious anxiety about death and the conscious realization of the fact that our lives are terminal and that we face separation from loved ones. Death anxiety can also be distinguished from the poignant feelings of sadness that emerge when we contemplate the inescapable end of our existence.

How do most people respond to reminders of the inevitability of death?

The arousal of death anxiety generally leads to an increased reliance on defensive behaviors and self-protective lifestyles. Any significant event, such as illness, rejection, accident or tragedy, or an unusual success or special acknowledgment, can precipitate feelings of death anxiety, which in turn often lead to a retreat to defenses typically used by the person during times of stress.
How can we cope with the anxiety surrounding our awareness of death?

We can never overcome the sadness associated with the future loss of ourselves and the loss of our loved ones. In a sense, people must mourn the anticipated loss to retain their capacity for genuine feeling. Expressing deep feelings of sadness and sorrow about existential realities appears to have an ameliorative effect on those who are open to this emotional experience.

Loving others and being loved make life bearable in relation to the predicament faced by human beings.  Indeed, if death anxiety is the poison, then love is the antidote. In addition, the search for meaning in one’s life through the pursuit of transcendent goals, although not a solution to the death problem, is a valuable by-product of facing the sadness, anxiety, despair, and dread surrounding the existential dilemma.

What are some of the defenses that people use to avoid experiencing death anxiety?

Denial is a major defense against death anxiety. There are two basic forms of death denial: literal and symbolic. Literal denial manifests itself in religion or religiosity and is the key defense that negates the scientific reality that human beings die like other species and that there is no scientific proof of an afterlife. Symbolic defenses refer to the attempt to live on through our work or creative productions, our investment in causes, and our children. The person imagines leaving a legacy or imprint that lives on after he or she dies.

In an attempt to avoid the reality of death and the associated anxiety, many people narrow their life experience and cut off feeling for themselves and others. They believe, on an unconscious level, that in preserving an imagined connection of fantasy bond with another person, they can evade the experience of death. They try to control all of their interpersonal interactions by rationing the amount of affection, tenderness, and sexuality they will accept as well as how much they will give. On a broader societal level, people’s adherence to a particular belief system or world view, their dependence on a particular group and/or leader, and their unthinking allegiance to a cause function as powerful defenses against death anxiety. .

When do these defenses against death anxiety begin to develop?  

The defenses and fantasy bonds [link to our definition of FB]] that the child forms early in life in response to stress and deprivation are strongly reinforced and become crystallized in the personality as the child evolves his or her understanding of death, usually between the ages of 3 and 7. Once defenses against death anxiety are developed, protecting them is at the core of resistance in psychotherapy and indeed at the core of resistance to a richer, more fulfilling life.

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