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I have a fear of death or death anxiety—what should I do?

As this breakdown on death anxiety from Psychology Today explains, the “pervasive fear and disdain of death, though amplified in Western cultures, is primal and archetypal.” In other words, it’s normal (to a certain extent) to be wary of death. Add to your baseline fears the unreasonable and overblown anxieties of decay and the corpse in the Western world? You may be downright terrified.

The best place to start facing your fear of death is to define what exactly it is about death that scares you. Name the fear (or fears) out loud. This video defines the major reasons humans have trouble coming to terms with death—Why Are You Afraid of Death?

Once you know why you’re afraid, there are exercises you can do to better understand and come to terms with the fear. Meditating on what will become of your dead body can prove immensely helpful (we promise!) Here is another video that addresses how to do so– Confronting Your Death.

Are you ready to go deeper? Here are several ideas.

  1. You may have read about living funeral ceremonies, which originated in South Korea, combining guided meditations on mortality and life affirming activities. You can experience a virtual living funeral ceremony here.
  2. Our founder collaborated with trusted colleague Alua Arthur to create a whole course dedicated to understanding and reducing your death fears.
  3. Consider alternative methods of addressing your fear of death. One example is death positive artist, A.J. Hawkins, who began studying decomposition to cope with her death-phobia.
  4. For teens and young adults who are experiencing death related anxiety or who want to talk about death and grief, our director has some advice for you in What’s Death Positivity and How Can It Help Us? If you prefer podcasts, she also address this subject on the death episode of the I’m Afraid That Podcast.
  5. Read this helpful article about living with more aggressive death anxiety: Life, Death, and the Anxiety In-Between.

Most important, remember that being death positive does not mean you don’t fear death. We believe everyone (including us!) struggles with fear of death. Being death positive is about our willingness to better understand those fears and how they manifest in ourselves, others, and the world around us. Read our manifesto on the topic, On the Fear of Death.

Won’t thinking about death be depressing?

No! It’s often quite the opposite. Sure, there can be emotionally difficult aspects—no one said being mortal was easy. But, on balance, the repression and denial of our fears and emotions ends up being is much worse.

But don’t take our word for it. The New York Times says—To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death. Or consider the 9 Reasons Why People Who Constantly Think About Death Are More Alive.

Let’s be clear -it’s a privilege to avoid thoughts about death, as many people around the world are forced to face death in their daily lives. To engage this idea more. begin with this piece on Cultural Death Illiteracy as Applied to Terror Management Theory.

The way you may feel comfortable engaging with death looks different than your neighbors. What may be uncomfortable for one person could be a perfect fit for another. Death engagement requires discomfort, but should be paired with understanding and compassion.

Artistic rendering of two nervous girls (one wearing a yellow dress and the other pink) and a brown dog being flirtatiously taunted by three skeletons behind them.

As a final thought, remember that thinking about death isn’t just self-help or self-care, or a way to achieve fulfillment or happiness. Our very futures may depend on it. Sheldon Solomon explained in The Atlantic that “if you look at the problems that currently befall humanity—we can’t get along with each other, we’re pissing on the environment, [there’s] rampant economic instability by virtue of mindless conspicuous consumption—they’re all malignant manifestations of death anxiety running amok.”

Are there other ways our fear of death affects our behavior?

Oh, you betcha.

Our favorite thinker in this area is Ernest Becker.

Becker was “an American cultural anthropologist and interdisciplinary thinker and writer. He wrote several books on human motivation and behavior, most notably the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Denial of Death. In it, he argues that “the basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.” (Keen 1973). Becker suggested that a significant function of culture is to provide successful ways to engage in death denial.”

Becker didn’t just influence the Death Positive Movement. He also influenced the group of psychologists who developed Terror Management Theory (TMT).

The theory was inspired by the writings of Becker, and was initiated by two relatively simple questions: Why do people have such a great need to feel good about themselves?; and Why do people have so much trouble getting along with those different from themselves?

More explanation on How the Unrelenting Fear of Death Shapes Our Behavior.

It is likely that the fear of death has influenced major events in world history. Many people and studies have shown how politicians like Donald Trump have won support and gained a loyal following by employing death and death imagery and by manipulating our fear of death.

Ernest Becker’s Final Interview

In 1974 Sam Keene would conduct a final interview with a dying Becker from his hospital room in Vancouver. In it they discuss everything from philosophy, to religion, and politics and how inevitably everything is tied to our denial of death. You can listen to the interview, or read a rough transcript, courtesy of the Ernest Becker Foundation, whose archive now lives on through ISSEP.