Why Fear of Death and Death Anxiety Can be Considered ‘Normal’

by on July 2, 2013

angel deathAlthough science isn’t done yet, it has yet to establish a means of getting around this thing called death. When we’re young busy enjoying the sense of immortality and indestructibility, death may seem so far in the future as not to much matter. 

But sooner or later, reality can hit, sometimes followed by a surging fear of death or ongoing death anxiety.

Fear of Death vs. Death Anxiety 

If you want to get technical about it, a death anxiety analysis published in the international journal Research and Theory for Nursing Practice points out that fear of death and death anxiety are actually two different concepts.

  • Death anxiety involves the dread of no longer existing, or complete annihilation. It hits on the mental and spiritual levels, bringing an awareness of the loss of existence.
  • Fear of death, on the other hand, hits on the level of physical awareness, coming with a concrete belief that death itself is frightening.

Death Phobias

If you want to get even more technical about it, the feelings of fear can develop into a full-fledged phobia. Choices include thanatophobia, which is the fear of dying or being dead, or necrophobia, which is the fear of dead things and things associated with death, such as coffins and graveyards.

No matter what technical term your scary thoughts can fall under, all of the thoughts can hit hard, hit fast and result in sleepless nights, racing thoughts and even panic attacks if left long enough to fester and brew.

A distinguishing factor between fear and phobia is that the former can be rational while the latter is often irrational. This may not help much regarding fear of death or dying, as the fear is rational in the sense that it’s inevitable.

The thoughts and fears can come in waves intermittently or they can roost forever in the back of your mind, following you throughout each day like a lost dog that longs to bite you. As with many fears, fear of death and death anxiety can be particularly insistent at night when you are alone in the dark with only your pillow, your blanket and your galloping mind.

Why We Fear Death 

Four factors come into play with death fears and anxiety, according to a study published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology. They are:

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of suffering
  • Fear of loneliness
  • Fear of personal extinction 

One of the study’s tools was the Death Anxiety Questionnaire (yes, there is such a thing), which was created by the study researchers H.R. Conte, M.B. Weiner and R. Plutchik.

The Death Anxiety Questionnaire, or DAQ, asked participants to rate their feelings about death on a scale of 0 to 2, with 0 indicating “not at all,” 1 indicating “somewhat,” and 2 indicating “very much.”

Blinn College’s Social Sciences Department offers a copy of the DAQ on its website as a handout for students. Funeral Director Caleb Wilde also has a copy on his website. Wilde notes the questionnaire is not meant to pigeonhole people into a category that gauges “how afraid” of death they may be, but rather to offer means of reflection.

Death Anxiety Questionnaire 

  1. Do you worry about dying?
  2. Does it bother you that you may die before you have done everything you wanted to do?
  3. Do you worry that you may be very ill for a long time before you die?
  4. Does it upset you to think others may see you suffering before you die?
  5. Do you worry that dying may be very painful?
  6. Do you worry that the persons closest to you won’t be with you when you are dying?
  7. Do you worry that you may be alone when you are dying?
  8. Does the thought bother you that you might lose control of your mind before death?
  9. Do you worry that expenses connected with your death will be burden to other people?
  10. Does it worry you that your instructions or will about your belongings may not be carried out after you die?
  11. Are you afraid that you may be buried before you are really dead?
  12. Does the thought of leaving loved ones behind when you die disturb you?
  13. Do you worry that those you care about may not remember you after your death?
  14. Does the thought worry you that with death you may be gone forever?
  15. Are you worried about not knowing what to expect after death? 

Wilde says the researchers report the average score of the questionnaire is 8.5. Slight anxiety may hit if you score 8 or 9, he adds, while more severe anxiety and fear can hit if you’re on an even higher part of the scale.

More on Death Anxiety

The Research and Theory for Nursing Practice article took its death anxiety analysis one step further by noting several factors about death anxiety:

  • It’s likely universal to all humans
  • It tends to increase when people are going through identity issues or suffering from identity crises at various stages of their lives
  • Because “death is incompatible with living” it is “thus incompatible with core cognitive structures.” Core cognitive structures are mental processes we use to make sense of information and death apparently works against them since they are focused on sustaining life.

Our degree of death anxiety can be linked to:

  • How frequently we are reminded of death
  • Our beliefs in what comes after
  • How society has impacted those beliefs
  • Age, with the study pointing out: “Research has shown that death anxiety is higher among the middle-aged, declines during later adulthood, and then stabilizes in old age.”

“Death anxiety is closely related to core fear related to the annihilation of one’s existence and stems from fundamental limbic structures that are ancient, hardwired, and adaptive to survival,” the study says.

The last point can be of particular relief for suggesting not only could death anxiety be considered “normal” but it may be something that’s expected for humans who were born with the innate desire to survive.

Learning more about death anxiety can be a solid first step in effectively living with it without screaming in terror on a daily basis. You may also find yourself comforted that your anxiety and fears surrounding death are not suffered by you alone.

Also see: Strategies for Coping with Death Anxiety


Study info:

J Pers Soc Psychol. 1982 Oct;43(4):775-85.

Photo Credit: e_monk via Compfight cc

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nafeesa Sharf December 19, 2015 at 7:56 am

Hi sir I nafeesa sharf want this questionnaire kindly give me it’s copy and if you have the urdu version of this scale then plz sent me it’s copy too thank you


sana majeed November 6, 2016 at 7:56 am

@Nafeesa Sharf did u get the copy of this?
if yes please do let me knw. i need its copy and permission to use it but can find it anywhere


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