Thoughts of death can be bad for your health

Thinking about death can prevent healthy behaviors.

Posted Nov 13, 2008

A theory published Goldenberg and Arndt in the October, 2008 issue of Psychological Review may help to explain why.

Their theory applies "Terror Management Theory" to health behaviors. I wrote about Terror Management Theory in another post in this blog on anxieties about death. According to this theory, people engage in many behaviors to help them reduce anxieties about death.

In applying Terror Management Theory to health behaviors, Goldenberg and Arndt suggest three principles for thinking about how anxiety about death influences health behaviors.

First, there are times when people are consciously aware of their own mortality. For example, you might hear about a friend who has been diagnosed with skin cancer after years of lying out in the sun. While you are consciously aware of these thoughts of death and mortality, you are likely to react by engaging in positive health behaviors that help to reduce these thoughts of mortality. For example, in this case, you might go out of your way to wear a hat and to put on sunscreen when you go outside.

Finally, the effect of thoughts about death is influenced by the degree to which the behaviors you must carry out are related to your physical body. Some health behaviors have a strong involvement of your physical body. For example, mammograms and breast self-examinations used to screen for breast cancer are quite invasive. In contrast, wearing a hat or staying out of direct sunlight can help to prevent skin cancers, but these behaviors have much less involvement with the body. People will exhibit more discomfort with health behaviors that are move invasive to the body relative to those that are less invasive. So, for example, women will be more likely to wear a hat or sunscreen than to perform breast self-examinations.