Why a Fear of Dying Often Helps… and Anxiety About Death Always Hurts
For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with my own mortality. My fear of death – and the anxiety that came with it – was so strong when I was a teenager that I honestly thought it would drive me insane.
At times, my mind would spin out of control as I struggled with the concepts of time, death and consciousness. I would just sit there in my car, staring into space, as the world around me faded into darkness and my mind circled the void in ever tightening circles.
I’d like to say that I conquered my anxieties about death… or that I managed to develop a philosophical framework that put everything into perspective and allowed me to live a normal life. But, the truth is that, once I left high school, my life took over and I was simply too busy to spend a dangerous amount of time in my own head.
I turned 18, went to university, got a job, dated, traveled, married and, eventually, had a son, who means more to me than anything else in the world.
Then, about three years ago, I had an experience that brought me face-to-face with my mortality. It also taught me the difference between a fear of dying and anxiety about death. And, this may have been one of the most important distinctions that I ever learned.
Getting the Best Possible Bad News
One morning, about three years ago, I woke up spluttering and coughing. Groggy, I rolled out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom.
Turning on the light, I had one of the biggest shocks of my life. My white T-shirt was covered in blood – as were my hands and my face. I continued to cough up blood for about 10 minutes before the “attack” ended and I was able to clean myself up and head back to bed.
In the morning, with a clearer head, I convinced myself that I must have had a posterior nosebleed (an internal nosebleed.) But, over the next few days, I continued to have episodes and decided to go to the doctor for a checkup.
I was extremely fortunate that my primary care doctor was also an internal medicine specialist. After witnessing one of my coughing fits, he cleared some time that very afternoon to do an endoscopy. He confirmed that the blood was coming from my lungs and asked me to get a PET scan.
We talked through the possibilities and there really weren’t many good ones. And, the speed with which he was pushing me through the system told me that he thought that there was a good chance that he thought that something was seriously wrong.
Later that week, I took the PET scan and went home to wait for the results. I have never been so grateful for the quality of care that the Swiss medical system provides. Within 48 hours, I was sitting in my doctor’s office, ready to talk through the results.
It was good news… but barely. The official diagnosis was “Foreign-body aspiration.” Basically, this means that I had managed to get a something stuck in one of my lungs. This can be a life-threatening condition, but, in my case, the object had either dissolved or was otherwise dealt with by my body. I was going to be ok.
What My Brush with My Mortality Taught Me About the Fear and Anxiety
As I mentioned before, I have always been afraid of dying. I just couldn’t get my head around not existing anymore.
But, the funny thing was that, when I was faced with a potentially life-threatening situation, I didn’t panic or break down. I just took steps to protect myself.
Looking back, I started to realize that fear and anxiety, while they are often connected, are two very different feelings. Fear is specific, immediate and action-inducing. Anxiety is intangible, long-term and paralyzing.
When you think about it this way, a fear of dying is actually an entirely rational, useful feeling. If you smell smoke in your building, your desire to live should push everything else to the side. Who cares if your boss was a jerk to you this morning if your life is in danger?
Anxiety is a trickier and, in my opinion, far less helpful, feeling to deal with. By definition, the anxiety that we feel towards dying is intangible and nebulous. Maybe there are people out there who can think their way out of anxiety, but, I am not one of them.
Why is the Difference Between Fear and Anxiety So Important?
If you want to solve your “fear of dying,” the first step is to figure out whether you are talking about a genuine fear, an anxiety or some combination of the two. Let me give you a few examples.
Many people are not really afraid of dying so much as they are afraid of living in pain in the final years of their lives. Other people are worried about whether they have done enough to get into heaven. Still others are concerned about what will happen to their loved ones if they die.
These are disparate concerns, but, to varying degrees, they are tangible and manageable. Taking care of your body can increase your chances of having a peaceful death. Dedicating yourself to your religion can help you to feel close to God. Building an estate plan and looking after your finances can help to ensure that your loved ones are taken care of.
If despite your best efforts, you can’t put your finger on why you always worry about dying, you may be dealing with anxiety, not fear. This is important because there are many ways to deal with anxiety.
If your feelings of anxiety are relatively minor, some of the following techniques may help:
- Practicing calming breathing exercises
- Accepting that you are feeling anxious
- Talking to yourself as if you were calming a child
- Working out or going for a walk
- Watching a funny movie or comedy show
- Taking part in an activity that you love
That said, if your anxieties about death are having an impact on your life, it makes complete sense to talk to a medical professional. They have many tools at their disposal from cognitive-behavioral therapy to medication and the best choice for you will depend on your specific situation.
The bottom line is that you don’t need to go through this alone. Just because the focus of your anxiety is something mysterious and mystical, like death, doesn’t mean that it is any less “real” than a fear of spiders. You don’t have to live with anxiety in any form.
Do you agree or disagree that a fear of dying is often different than an anxiety about dying? Why? Let’s have a chat!
Disclaimer: none of the information in this article is intended to be medical advice. You may want to contact a medical professional to get specific medical advice.