How Do People Manage Death Anxiety?
The role of death anxiety in daily life.
Posted Feb 18, 2020
The awareness of death is the downside of human intelligence. Life must end for all living beings, but only humans may grasp its existential meaning.
Intellectually we may acknowledge our mortality, but deep down, we deny it. The fear of death is so overwhelming that we keep this knowledge unconscious. The repression of information about mortality results in several cognitive strategies that people use to avoid existential fear of death.
- Fear of death is normal. We will do just about anything to stay alive. The instincts for self-preservation shape human behavior whenever one’s life is actually in danger. Under attack by wild beasts, we will fight or flee. Starving people will steal food. This is why societies reward this ultimate triumph of self-regulation with medals and citations praising the individual’s complete disregard for personal safety.
- Death anxiety is at the core of most of our phobias. Death anxiety is often considered to be one of the most common fears. It appears to be at the core of several mental health disorders, such as health anxiety (Hypochondria), panic disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depressive disorders (Iverach et al, 2014). For example, individuals with panic disorder frequently consult with doctors regarding the fear of dying from a heart attack (Yalom, 2008). Depression after retirement may sometimes function as an anticipation of the ultimate end of existence.
- The fear is unconscious. This uncomfortable truth constantly lurks in the back of our minds and ultimately drives everything we do. In his influential book Denial of Death, Ernest Becker (1973) argues that people do many things, from choosing to attend church, eat vegetables, go to the gym, passing wealth to the next generation, whom you love and whom you hate, and create companies. We are largely unaware of how death terror influences what we think and do because it is just too uncomfortable to think about. As La Rochefoucauld remarked: One cannot look directly at either the sun or death. No learning can remove the fear of death. As Winston Churchill once said, “Any man who says he is not afraid of death is a liar.”
- Self-esteem shields us against death anxiety. Self-esteem is the key to psychological security. Self-esteem means feeling good about yourself and believing that you are a worthy individual. To feel that we are good and valued is essential for managing our terror of death. One way to acquire self-esteem is to surround oneself with liked-minded people. Being with liked-minded people offers comfort against existential anxiety. For example, reminders of mortality can lead to favorable responses toward others who support one’s worldview and self-esteem, and increase hostility toward those who threaten one’s cultural worldview (Pyszczynksi, et al., 2004). Reminders of mortality have also been shown to increase the desire for conspicuous consumption and materialism (Arndt et al., 2004). Consumption can enhance self-esteem and gain social validation as well, at least for a temporary time.
- Desire to save. Saving money can function as an existential buffer and protect people from death anxiety. Saving money is associated with a sense of control over one’s future and peace of mind. A sense of abundance mindset (as opposed to scarcity mindset) and hope about the future can be a potent safeguard against existential anxiety (Zaleskiewicz et al., 2013). This mindset allows us to see the possibility rather than limits and can shift our outlook.
In sum, death anxiety is a uniquely human dilemma and a key therapeutic issue. The fear defies the power of reason and some people do not confront it rationally. The late psychotherapist Yalom (2008) provided a comprehensive existential framework for treating death anxiety. This therapeutic approach acknowledges that fear of death is a significant source of anxiety. The treatment is focused on encouraging meaning and purpose, building relationships, and improving coping skills.
Arndt J, Solomon S, Kasser T, Sheldon KM (2004) The urge to splurge: A terror management account of materialism and consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology 14: 198–212.
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.
Iverach L., Menzies R. G., Menzies R. E. Death anxiety and its role in psychopathology: Reviewing the status of a transdiagnostic construct. Clinical Psychology Review. 2014:580–593.
Pyszczynksi, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem?: A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130,435-468.
Yalom, I. D. (2008). Staring at the sun. San Francisco, Ca: Jossey-Bass.
Zaleskiewicz T, Gasiorowska A, Kesebir P. (2013), Saving Can Save from Death Anxiety: Mortality Salience and Financial Decision-Making, PLoS One. 14;8(11):e79407.