How to Cope with and Alleviate Death Anxiety

by on July 16, 2013

heavenYou learned from our previous post that fear of death is normal, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Nor does it mean you have to live with it swirling around in your brain, robbing you of precious sleep or turning you into an anxious mess prone to panic attacks and phobias.

Instead of falling prey to death anxiety as a curse, you can instead take steps to help alleviate your death fears and much better enjoy your life.

Change Your Mindset

Ah yes, the mindset change, which always seems easier said than done. But is it? Switching your thinking from negative to positive, from anxious to excited or from fearing death to enjoying life can be as easy as switching the station on a radio. The key to changing your mindset is practice, and Salon offers several tips that can help in the process.

Accept the paradox. The paradox in the case of death anxiety is that knowing is not knowing. That is, the more you explore death, the more you realize you, your friends, your colleagues, your neighbors and even spiritual advisers and others of their ilk have absolutely no idea what happens when we die. Accept that no one knows – then take the next step.

Move forward with your life. Moving forward takes faith, and not necessarily faith in any religious beliefs. The faith that can help is faith that all will work out as its supposed to and moving forward doing what some call “the next right thing” keeps you, well, moving forward.

“This you can know with certainty: Movement is preferable to paralysis,” according to Salon.

Movement does not have to mean physical movement and paralysis involves being stuck, completely immobile, while the world advances and dances around you. Sitting still or even not acting on a specific issue is still action, provided you are not stagnant and turning to avoidance.

The proverbial “next right thing” can be something as simple as tying your shoe, taking a nap or sitting in the park. It could be delaying a decision to move or jumping on a new job opportunity pronto.

Switch from fear and anxiety to excitement. If you suffer from anxiety, you may already realize those prickly, anxious feelings that blossom in your stomach and scurry up your spine are the same type of feelings you get from excitement. Grab onto that thought and, instead of dreading “what happens next,” suspend judgment and turn to curiosity, with “I wonder what happens next?”

Borrow from Calming Philosophies

Embracing Eastern philosophy is the way to go if you want thoughts of death to propel your enjoyment for life, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study consisted of five experiments that checked out what happens when “mortality salience” was evoked. Mortality salience, or MS, is simply the awareness of death, and the study compared East Asians with European Americans.

When confronted with the awareness of their own death, the first three experiments in the study found East Asians were apt to:

  • Activate more life-related thoughts
  • Express greater interest in daily life activities
  • Enjoy daily life activities more

The final two experiments found that Eastern’s focus on holism, or the belief that we are all part of a greater whole, tended to make people:

  • Enjoy life in the face of death
  • Greater life enjoyment when thoughts of death were evoked

None of this held true for those with Western beliefs. Instead of screaming in terror as many Westerners may do when faced with thoughts of their own mortality, East Asians used the thoughts to fuel them toward more deeply enjoying their lives.

“From a Western point of view, we think of death as the annihilation of all we hold dear in our hearts,” Harvard University psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams told Pacific Standard Magazine. “But (from an Eastern perspective), when you are reminded of your own death, it can serve as a reminder that right now, you have a wonderful, glorious life to live, and you should make the most of it before it comes to an end.”

Sounds good to us.

This does mean you have to abandon any or all of your existing religious or spiritual beliefs, but you can read up on and even embrace parts of Eastern philosophy that may be helpful to overcome death anxiety.

Additional Coping Strategies

A slew of additional ways to deal with death anxiety comes from Huffington Post blogger Judith Johnson, who doubles as an author, educator, interfaith minister. She suggests developing a healthy respect for death, instead of fearing it, and additionally stresses the importance of taking control on how we live our lives in the here and now. Her other tips include:

Value life. All the jewels, money, cars and muscle tone in the world doesn’t come with us when we die. Johnson says to thus focus on things that are above the material, such as your time and energy. Use it to create and cultivate kindness, compassion and patience towards others as well as yourself.

Do all that preparatory stuff. Although thinking about or even speaking about death remains pretty much taboo in Western culture, getting all your affairs in order can take a load off your mind. Johnson adds that that preparing for your death is not only smart, but it serves as a “great act of loving kindness toward yourself and those you will eventually leave behind.”

Check out your beliefs and emotions concerning death. If you believe in God or an infinite, higher energy, for instance, spot check your life to see if you’re living it in a way that expresses that belief.

Explore and deepen your inner spiritual awareness. Realizing that there may to more to life than material wealth and muscle tone may help you change your perspective, your goals and how you live your life.

Death anxiety may not take a hike immediately, but it may lessen or even become transformed when you stop fearing death use it to enhance your joy. Perhaps Johnson sums it up best:

“When we accept the reality of our mortality and put our ducks in a row before we go, life takes on a richness beyond what we have previously known, and we are blessed with a renewed zest for life.”


Study info:

  • Ma-Kellams, Christine; Blascovich, Jim. Enjoying life in the face of death: East–West differences in responses to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 103(5), Nov 2012, 773-786.

Photo Credit: Daniel Pascoal via Compfight cc

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Felicitas August 11, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Hi Rich,
I just wanted to let you know that the “overview” for this post comes up as “How to Cope with and Alleviate Death” in the preview!
As that makes you sound like some sort of miracle worke who can “alleviate death” (haha!), it might sound more professional if you shortened the title to “How to cope with death anxiety” or similar…


Felicitas August 11, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Unless, of course, that was intentional… 🙂


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