Why We Fear Death and How to Overcome It
You might be surprised by the factors that influence our attitudes toward death.
Posted Sep 02, 2020
Death—what isn’t there to be afraid of? It’s the ultimate end! But while some people dread death, others accept it as inevitable. So why do some people fear it more than others?
It turns out that the way we think about death can affect how we think and act in daily life. For example, a 2016 study found that fear of death could amplify our desire for revenge and political violence. Palestinian, Israeli, and South Korean participants were prompted to think about personal pain or death, and then asked about their opinions about how specific political conflicts should be resolved. Those who were reminded of death were more likely to support military action than those who only thought about pain.
Fearing death also makes it harder for us to process grief. A recent study found that those who were afraid of death were more likely to have prolonged symptoms of grief after losing a loved one compared to those who had accepted death. For healthcare workers who care for dying patients, their own fear of death may get in the way of effectively communicating with patients and their families.
There are some things that may subtly, or not so subtly, affect how much we fear death.
1. Older people tend to fear death less. You might think this would be the opposite, but this pattern has been found time and time again in research studies. We tend to assume that the older someone is, the closer they seemingly are to death, and therefore the more afraid of it they should be. But interestingly, older age is associated with more acceptance of death.
This could be because older people have experienced more of life, so they have less fear of missing out. Or it might be because they have more experience with witnessing and handling the death of others.
2. Religious belief increases our fear (but it’s complicated). Here’s another counterintuitive one. You may think that religious belief, which usually includes confidence in an afterlife or a greater meaning to life, would make people feel better about the finality of death. But studies have found that those with stronger religiosity, regardless of culture or religion, have a stronger fear of death.
But it’s worth noting that there are also studies that show the opposite.
Perhaps being moderately religious puts people in the “existential sweet spot” for being afraid of death—they’re not as relaxed as non-believers, but they also don’t hold the same strong convictions about the afterlife that very religious people do. It’s also possible that the egg comes before the chicken—people who particularly fear death seek out religion as a coping mechanism, but they don’t end up being very religious.
3. Experience with danger. Your interactions with danger may also change your fear of death. Though some experiences make you fear death less, too much might increase your fear.
Here’s an example: In a very cool study, researchers recruited beginner, intermediate, and expert skydivers to share their feelings about death. Not surprisingly, beginner skydivers, with only an average of 1 jump under their belt, were scared of death. Intermediate skydivers, with an average of 90 jumps, were a lot less scared. But—and this is the interesting part—expert skydivers, who had jumped over 700 times, were more scared of death than intermediate skydivers.
This shows that simply risking death more doesn’t decrease your fear of it. There may be a learning curve, where getting some experience makes you feel less anxious (maybe because you gain a greater sense of control), but getting a lot of experience makes you more aware that you can’t cheat death after all.
4. Physical health. This one is less surprising: People with better physical health tend to fear death less. Researchers have found that those with better physical health tend to feel like there is more meaning in life. They also tend to have better mental health. These are the factors that make them fear death less. In a way, this can be encouraging even for those who cannot control their physical health. They may still be able to find meaning in life and work on their mental health to decrease their existential dread.
5. Attachment style. Attachment styles refer to ways we think about and behave in close relationships. These are shaped early in life so by the time we’re adults, we’re usually pretty settled into ours. Securely attached people tend to be confiding, dependable, and supportive partners. Insecurely attached people can be overly anxious and controlling, or distant and standoffish, or a mix of both.
When it comes to how they feel about death, people with secure attachment styles fear death less than people with insecure attachment styles. This is interesting because it shows that there’s a relationship and intimacy aspect to the way we think about death.
What can you do to become less afraid of death?
All of this research showing that fear of death may be fluid depending on our beliefs and experiences begs the question: What can we do to fear death less?
Some things that affect your fear of death, like your age, can’t be controlled. And most of us probably can’t (or won’t) go skydiving 90 times. But researchers have found some other things we may be able to do:
1. Help the next generation. The term “generativity” refers to a concern for younger people and a desire to nurture and guide them. When older people have a greater sense of generativity, they tend to also look back on their life without regret or anguish. This, understandably, leads to having less fear of death.
Even if you don’t have children or grandchildren, you can feed your generativity by mentoring younger people in a career or in life. You can volunteer with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, or tutor a neighborhood kid, or mentor someone in your career field.
2. Don’t avoid the topic. We try to avoid things, like death, that make us uncomfortable, but avoidance can make those things loom even larger in our minds.
An interesting study with funeral directors found that those who had directed more funerals feared death less. Among physicians, more years of experience, and more exposure to death, also led to less fear of death. But even if you’re not a funeral director or healthcare worker, you can still familiarize yourself with death by reading about it or volunteering with organizations that take care of those with terminal illnesses.
3. Have a (simulated) out-of-body or near-death experience. Here’s a fascinating one. Multiple research studies have found that having an out-of-body experience or near-death experience makes people less afraid of death. In the case of near-death experiences, it might be that the things we confront are less scary to us.
In the case of out-of-body experiences, it might give us the sense that we live on even when we are separated from our bodies. While you shouldn’t seek a near-death experience (we don’t want it to end up being not-so-near), you could try out a virtual reality program that simulates an out-of-body experience.
4. Cultivate your meaning in life. Now, this is the tip I think is the most important and impactful.
We know that reminding people of their own mortality tends to make them fear death. But if someone feels a strong sense of having meaning in life, this reminder doesn’t bother them.
Cultivating meaning in life is no simple task, but you can start by identifying your values, which are big-picture driving forces that guide how you move through life. Whether it be creativity, success, or serenity, brainstorm the values that are most important to you and govern your life with these ideas in mind.
Mark Twain said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
This is very wise! Based on the research, I think it would be more precise to replace “lives fully” with “lives meaningfully.” But for some people, perhaps these are the same. No matter what your meaningful life looks like, start to develop it now, and you’ll be too busy feeling fulfilled to be afraid of death.
A version of this post titled How to Master Your Fear of Death was originally posted on Quick and Dirty Tips.