Pandemic Death Anxiety
Updated: Jun 9
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Death. Death. Death. Death. Death.
At this point, we’ve spent the past 15 months in lockdowns, sheltering in place, mask mandates, or vaccine releases of some kind. The pandemic has forced us to face the harsh reality that the human death rate can hit an uptick whenever Mother Nature says so. This time she said so in the form of a novel virus. At the time that I’m writing this piece, there have been 3.68 millions deaths worldwide due to the novel coronavirus. We have been talking about death much more lately than we ever have before. Some of us lost loved ones. Some of us just hoped our families wouldn’t be hit next. Either way we were suddenly all hypervigilant towards death and incessantly worried about death in one form or another.
We have each responded to the pandemic in our way. Unfortunately for some, this has developed into a paralyzing fear of death. Thanatophobia is the excessive, unreasonable fear of one’s own death. Thanatophobia, also referred to as death anxiety, can also be a fear of the death of loved one. This usually also includes:
Immediate Anxiety Response – exhibited fear must be in excess and out of proportion with what is general socially common or acceptable.
Example – person is constantly in a state of high anxiety or panic in fear of dying
Avoidance or Extreme Distress – person goes to extreme lengths to avoid dying and/or endures perceived risky situation with extreme distress
Example – refusing to ride in any form of an automobiles for fear of dying in an accident
Life-Limiting – phobia limits person’s ability to function in work, school, and/or relationships
Example – Losing one’s job because more time is spent on life-preserving activities rather than the duties of one’s job
Symptoms must be present for at least six months
Thanatophobia is a unique phobia in the sense that death is something that will eventually to us all. There is nothing that someone with thanatophobia can do to prevent their own death forever. It is out of our control. In many ways, death anxiety can be a manifestation of our extreme discomfort with not having control.
At some point, all of us must face the reality that our death is inevitable even when it is not imminent. This is uncomfortable and, for most of us, terrifying. However, many people come to terms with the acceptance that they will die and choose to focus on living a charmed life. Some find comfort in religious or spiritual beliefs in eternal life or reincarnation. Nevertheless, a minority of us are still unable to cope.
The pandemic has led to new people developing death anxiety, but for people who already had death anxiety prior to the pandemic, the past 15 months have been unimaginably difficult. We have had round-the-clock reminders that people were dying by the masses and that experts remained uncertain about the outcome of the pandemic or when we could “return to normal”. For people with death anxiety, “returning to normal” is likely not a welcomed idea. One can live much more safely at home. Thus, thanatophobia can develop into agoraphobia (fear of public places). Sheltering in place may continue for these people long after the pandemic subsides.
I Think I Have Death Anxiety
If you are experiencing death anxiety, know that you are not the only one and that you are not strange for feeling this way. Death anxiety is considered to be the most common of all phobias (Heshmat, 2020). The pandemic has only exacerbated that. Phobias and anxiety can be treated in psychotherapy using cognitive-behavioral techniques to help people learn to identify, challenge, and change the automatic negative thoughts that contribute to phobic reactions. Negative beliefs such as “I’m going to have a heart attack any minute now.” can be challenged with results from a recent doctor’s appointment or physical.
Exposure therapy can be used to expose the client to the feared scenario in a paced and psychologically safe manner. For example, if the client refuses to use automobiles as a form of transportation and this refusal is impeding their ability to live their life functionally and productively, a psychotherapist could leverage sessions to slowly help the client become more comfortable with automobiles. This may start as simply as standing next to car or touching the car, then working up to sitting in the vehicle. Once the client has successfully completed each activity without anxiety or panic, the psychotherapist increases the level of exposure. An ideal outcome in this scenario would be the client feeling comfortable riding in a cab or driving themselves to work.
Although death anxiety has the potential to become crippling, it doesn’t have to become that way. Even if it does, it can be treated. Working with a psychotherapist can equip you with the strategies you need to cope with anxiety and challenge phobic beliefs that you can use for the rest of your life. Contact us today to begin working toward anxiety recovery.
Heshman, S. (2020, February). How Do People Manage Death Anxiety? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/202002/how-do-people-manage-death-anxiety