8 Healthy Coping Skills for Death Anxiety
Coming to terms with death anxiety.
Posted Aug 11, 2020
One of the challenges that all of us face as we age is coming to terms with the reality of death. Escaping the question of death seems to work for most people most of the time. Avoidance is the most popular coping strategy. However, sometimes the usual ways of coping create existential anxiety and steal from our quality of life. To maintain psychological equanimity, it is necessary to have an anxiety buffer system to keep death anxiety at bay (Routledge & Vess, 2019; Juhl, 2019).
1. Creating meaning. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), possessing the sense that one’s life has meaning, or that life in general is meaningful, allow individuals to live with their awareness of death without constantly fearing it. When people are doing something significant and fulfilling, they will have no time to worry about death. So, it is important to clarify one’s deepest values and to live in the service of those values. Research studies suggest that any enduring source of meaning in life should involve devotion to something larger, such as work, relationships, science, and religion.
2. A shift in priorities. Death can inspire us to be creative. When you’re on the clock, you accomplish more. Scarcity contributes to an interesting and meaningful life. Scarcity prioritizes our choices and it can make us more effective. If we were immortal, we could justifiably postpone every action forever. It would not matter whether or not we did a thing now or tomorrow.
3. Authentic being. Authenticity is the feeling that one is being one’s true self. Authenticity requires lining up the following elements: values, preferences, goals, decisions, and actions. The increased awareness of death may translate into an increased desire to focus on what matters, while this is still possible. Pursuing intrinsic goals provide a solid buffer against death anxiety.
4. Generativity. The term generativity was coined by the psychologist Erik Erikson to describe an adult’s motivation to invest in the well-being of the younger generation through involvement in teaching, mentoring, volunteering, and other creative contributions. Generativity (a form of symbolic immortality) can be seen as an expression of self-transcendence (to leave a positive legacy). Generativity transforms the terror of death into deep satisfaction.
5. An attitude of acceptance. We have a biased view of life, and see death as something that would separate us from the objects to which we cling. Buddhism teaches us that we suffer because we attach to things in a world of change. The way to end our sufferings is to cease our attachments to things now (e.g., wealth, power). By doing so, we would no longer fear death, because we would have nothing to lose.
6. A cognitive-behavioral approach. Our emotional lives are shaped by our beliefs and values. The observer affects the observed reality. We can liberate ourselves from negative emotions by developing a capacity to choose how to interpret the situation. The stoic teachings suggest adopting an attitude of focusing on what you can control and not worry about others. Knowing that we have done our best given the circumstances leads to the calm acceptance of whatever happens.
7. Exposure therapy. The most powerful way to deal with the fear of death is to face fear rather than avoiding it. Research on anxiety reduction indicates that exposure to feared situations is one of the most effective treatments. In the context of death anxiety, exposure exercises include reading obituaries in the newspaper, reading literary accounts of death and loss, writing a will, planning funeral arrangements, imagining one’s own imminent death (e.g., news of being diagnosed with a terminal illness), and writing one’s own eulogy. What do you want to be remembered for after you are gone? These exercises may be very helpful in reducing death anxiety. Yalom (2008) notes that to truly face one's death with full conscious thought and feeling is to overcome death anxiety.
8. You matter to others. Mattering is a universal human need. The feeling of being needed and significant to others puts meaning in our lives. Interpersonal relationships reflect an ability to understand how one fits with the world and bolster one’s sense of self-worth.
In sum, confronting our mortality improves anxiety and enriches the experience of living. This awareness enables us to stop postponing our life (e.g., "I have lots of time, I can do that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow") and live a more meaningful life.
Juhl J, Routledge C. Putting the terror in terror management theory: evidence that the awareness of death does cause anxiety and undermine psychological well-being. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2016;25(2):99–103.
Routledge C, and Vess M. (2019), Handbook of TerrorManagment Theory. San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press.
Yalom, I. D. (2008). Staring at the sun. San Francisco, Ca: Jossey-Bass.