Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/25/2022
Death scares us all, and it’s likely that the people who say otherwise are lying. Death anxiety is real. Religious, spiritual or otherwise, we’ve all got questions about the big unknown, and what happens after we die — that’s part of life.
If fear of death is normal, however, being crippled or paralyzed by that fear (read: having anxiety) is not necessarily normal — nor a good thing.
Having anxiety about dying should not keep you from living.
Read on for nine ways to overcome your fear-of-death anxiety. But first, it’s helpful to understand why you’re feeling this way.
Okay, if you’re saying that not wanting to die is a rational fear, you’re not wrong. But what about when it becomes irrational, or when the fear becomes so invasive and oppressive that it keeps you from enjoying the time you do have? That fear of death is something we don’t want — and it’s turned into anxiety about death.
Fear of death may affect us at any time, but it tends to receive the most attention for the population of people at retirement age, or around 65, who are beginning to reflect on achievements, disappointments and their life trajectories.
Terminally ill individuals of all ages may also experience a form of modified thanatophobia.
Fear of death is normal to an extent, but a fear of death is characteristically more debilitating in people who are overwhelmed by it, and suffer from a mental health disorder like panic disorder, anxiety, depressive disorders and hypochondriasis.
We don’t have a great picture of why some people experience debilitating death anxiety and why others don’t, but there’s a fair amount of research showing that certain people are more likely to deal with dread of death in their lifetimes.
People who are retired, elderly or terminally ill are common groups affected by the fear of death.
It’s fair to assume that this is because for these groups, the fear of death may represent a more acute, immediate and quantifiable “end” than for those who don’t have an expectation that death is just around the corner.
But death anxiety also tends to affect some people more severely, based on a variety of mental health factors. Fear of death may more intensely affect people who are experiencing mental disorders or who may be dealing with the following:
Lack of fighting spirit
Lack of religious beliefs
Lack of intimacy in relationships
Lack of fulfillment
Fear of death can more adversely affect people who are anxious or depressed, or who are dealing with unresolved distress, psychologically or physically.
Interestingly, people adjacent to those who are elderly or terminally ill also can develop a fear of death more frequently.
A 2010 report showed that death anxiety could not only impact patients suffering from terminal diseases like AIDS and advanced cancer, but it could also affect family caregivers. In fact, the caregivers showed symptoms of death anxiety similar to those dying from illness.
That said, the symptoms of death anxiety felt by the terminally ill were measurably greater.
Like almost any other type of anxiety, fear-of-death anxiety gets out of control when it begins to negatively impact your daily function.
If you’re becoming negatively impacted by your fear of death, you might be dealing with anxiety about death — and getting mental health treatment may be a beneficial decision for you to make.
Dealing with death anxiety is a complicated process, whether you’re terminally ill or not. Mortality is a hard topic to grapple with, whether you’re healthy or not.
If the fear of death overwhelms you, seeking out standard treatments for anxiety, professional help, or learning healthy coping mechanisms can be your ticket to relief and control over these emotions.
That said, here are nine ways to help manage your fear of death:
Studies show exercise can help in the management of anxiety. It may also help your body stay healthier for longer, which can increase life expectancy.
The inevitability of death has been a cornerstone topic for many religious and spiritual philosophies, and it’s no surprise that a search for peace has led in many cases to meditation practices.
Meditation is a great way to employ breathing techniques and other tools to quiet those intrusive thoughts about death over time.
If your inevitable death is a source of anxiety, talk to someone about it. A therapist or close friends and family are great resources when you’re having these feelings, and someone you trust can be a great person to air these thoughts to in a safe and healthy, supportive environment.
Exploring what triggers your thoughts about death and how you end up having those thoughts can be a great way to notice patterns and avoid future anxious thoughts. It may not make sense to avoid these triggers altogether, but knowing they exist will give you more agency when they occur in the future.
Even if you can’t prevent triggers from sending you into an anxious spiral, being able to recognize the signs of anxiety in your own daily life can help you spot attacks earlier and learn to temper those feelings with coping strategies.
Take this for example: Spending time with spiders is a great way to address your fear of spiders. So when it comes to death, learning to be comfortable in the discomfort is the same thing.
Exposure to death doesn’t have to look like a near-death experience. Whether it’s conversations about death or the afterlife, visualizing the aftermath of a funeral, or just talking about a terminal diagnosis, exposure might be the solution to quell anxious thoughts.
Getting help for anxiety may take one of many forms, but it all starts with a conversation with a healthcare professional about your symptoms. Talk to your healthcare provider or ask them for a referral. You can also find help online through Hims’ mental health services.
CBT is a system that teaches you how to identify and ultimately begin regulating anxious patterns of thought, and it can work for death anxiety just like with any other kind of anxiety.
Generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder and other forms of anxiety are effectively treated with the category of medications commonly referred to as antidepressants.
As with depressive disorders, these medications help your brain better regulate your mood by affecting certain neurotransmitters, and they’re really effective at it, to the point that they’ve become a go-to solution for anxiety.
You might be prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) as they’re considered the most safe and effective medications for anxiety on the market today, though other types of medications may be employed if those aren’t a fit for your needs.
Attitudes toward death vary greatly from one person to another, and our own feelings about death may change from year to year. But when the relationship between death anxiety and the life you're living becomes toxic, it's time to do something about it.
Whether you're dealing with death anxiety or you just have a negative attitude toward death, speaking with a healthcare professional can help provide you with the tools to cope.
Acceptance of death is a worthwhile pursuit. The fact is: Life is short, and every day spent wasted worrying about what comes after is a day lost. Speaking with a healthcare professional about your anxiety can help you learn how to stop worry about death — and feel better for your days to come.