5 Defensive Strategies to Diminish Existential Dread

How do people protect themselves against the awareness of mortality?

Posted Jun 24, 2020

Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels
Source: Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

Daily life is full of reminders of death (e.g., news about the pandemic, doctor’s visits, and concern about looking old). Death reminders have the power to trigger fears of powerlessness, loss of control, and meaninglessness. Death threatens all things in life. So, how do most people keep that knowledge hidden most of the time?

When people are consciously thinking about their mortality, they try to deny their vulnerability to death by perceiving it less likely (“not me, not now” responses). For example, people tend to increase intentions to engage in healthy behaviors (buying high-SPF sunscreen) immediately after death reminders. However, as thoughts of death gradually fade from consciousness, people activate psychological resources to transcend death via symbolic immortality (e.g., wealth, academic achievements, parenting).

The denial about mortality results in several cognitive strategies that people use to avoid existential fear of death (Routledge & Vess, 2019).

1. Worldview validation

Reminders of mortality increase people’s need for self-worth and worldview beliefs validation. Cultural worldviews (e.g., national identity and political affiliation) provide people with beliefs that make life feel predictable and purposeful. The feeling of being part of something important and enduring can make life more meaningful and thereby reduce anxiety.

2. Self-esteem enhancement

Self-esteem is the key to psychological security that buffers anxiety. Self-esteem means feeling good about yourself and believing that you are a worthy individual. One way to acquire self-esteem is to surround oneself with like-minded people and react with hostility and prejudice toward members of the opposing culture. Being with like-minded people offers comfort against existential anxiety.   

3. A desire for attachment security

Death awareness drives people to seek close relationships to gain protection and comfort. Close relationships serve as a form of defense against the awareness of mortality. Thoughts of relationship problems and separation from relationships increase people’s death anxiety. Felt security buffers a person from the terror of death awareness and reduces the need for other terror-management defenses, such as cultural worldview validation or self-esteem enhancement.

4. Death anxiety is at the core of most of our phobias.

For people suffering from various phobias and obsessions, death fears are channeled into the terror of something more manageable, like panic disorder. For example, individuals with panic disorder frequently consult with doctors regarding the fear of dying from a heart attack. This suggests the need to address death anxiety as part of treatment for anxiety disorders.

5. Addiction

Some people resort to drugs to escape reality and subdue anxieties. Ironically, these individuals distract themselves from death with behaviors that lead to it. Drugs can serve to manage terror by reducing the capacity to experience anxiety and self-awareness. Those who lack sufficient meaning and self-worth are most likely to become addicted to drugs rather than using them in moderation.

Death anxiety is a uniquely human dilemma. Life must end for all living beings, but only humans know they are doomed to die. Intellectually we may acknowledge our mortality (saying, "Life is too short”), but deep down, we deny it.

Human beings are also capable of using their mental abilities to cope with the awareness of death. The challenge is to discover pathways to death acceptance. Conscious confrontation with death leads to the readjustment of one’s goal priorities to achieve feelings of authenticity. This means to choose goals that reflect one’s deeper interests, rather than external pressures.


Routledge Clay & Vess Mathew (2019), Handbook of TerrorManagment Theory. San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press.