Death anxiety refers to an experience or a set of experiences (either conscious or not) that show up when we are confronted by our own mortality. In fact, a core characteristic of many anxiety disorders involves a belief somehow associated with dying. Important to recognise that evading the reality of death is nothing new. In some ways, many implicit values in current society such as productivity and efficiency, does so at the expense of recognising the finiteness of each moment. The pressure to have “it all” can be viewed as one of the many ways a denial of death can take shape. Though it has been argued that the terror of our own mortality underlies many disorders contextualised by modern psychiatry, Death Anxiety is not a diagnostic classification. Despite this, manifestations of Death Anxiety can show up through behaviours including excessive reassurance seeking, sleep disruption and frequent medical testing to name a few.

“You cannot stare straight into the face of the sun or death”

  • Francoise de la Rochefoucauld

A quote repurposed by Dr Irvin Yalom in his novel “Staring at the Sun” where he explores confronting death from within the therapy space and in his personal life. Notably, he highlights the way death anxiety both manifests and defuses through healthy examination. It’s important to note that these existential positions, predate modern psychology/psychiatry – and go all the way back to concepts introduced by philosophers such as Nietzsche, Epicurus, Schopenhauer. Epicurus held the view that we cannot coexist with death, and therefore whilst alive the unknowing emptiness of death looming is a source of perturbation – the freedom from which can carve a meaningful life. For Schopenhauer, the view of death as a welcome release from the misery or pains of existence, offers an alternative way to hold the concept of mortality. Nietzsche similarly highlights that with death being a finite termination, and without contemplation of an afterlife, this current existence can be appreciated entirely.   

Current interventions such as Acceptance and Commitment (ACT), Cognitive Behavioural (CBT) and Existential Therapy borrow from these ideas to form the foundation of modalities and techniques that enable this relatively taboo topic the space it necessitates. An example of one such technique includes cultivating a death acceptance: Viewing death as being (1) and escape, (2) an approach towards a specific afterlife or (3) a part of life that is outside one’s control (Gesser, Wong, & Reker, 1988).

Helpful resources:

Mortals – Dr Ross Menzies, Dr Rachael Menzies

Staring at the sun – Irvin Yalom

Gesser, G., Wong, P. T. P., & Reker, G. T. (1988).  Death attitudes across the life span.  The development and validation of the Death Attitude Profile (DAP). Omega, 2, 113-128.