Death Anxiety

So I appear to suffer from an acute form of thanatophobia known as “existential death anxiety” (the profound discomfort experienced when one comprehends one’s own personal extinction as a necessary biological function); I’ve had it as long as I can remember with bouts of varying intensity and duration, but I had no idea what it was called, what caused it, or any of that junk… which of course resulted in my parents dragging me to a host of psychiatrists when I was a kid (all of whom I’ve now deemed utterly incompetent in matters of diagnosis; somehow, from the key information “abnormal preoccupation with death for a preschooler,” “persistent inquiries about God and the afterlife,” and “impeding basic social functionality,” it was determined that I was manic depressive). Years later, as an arguably competent adult, I’ve done the arguably competent adult thing by saying (to clinical psychiatrists in general), “Fuck you; I’m off to read some medical journals.” Thus, I read what I could (i.e., the articles that can be read for free) and did some very rudimentary self-analysis, which promptly revealed the primary triggers to be acknowledging my own existence as a currently-alive thing—and thus, as a subsequently-dead thing—and the state of being alone.

First, if the acknowledgment of my own existence leads expressly to a terrible and ineffable feeling of primal fear and wrongness, how exactly do I go about avoiding this trigger without more significantly perturbing my functionality in ordinary life? Well, right now I’m thinking that I don’t, or rather shouldn’t. Instead, I should go about my studies and whatnot during the day (when the fear is weak) and then plunge head first into the depths of it at night (when it is strong); assuming the principle of conditioning applies to the psyche as well, facing the fear would serve to mitigate it. Conversely, one might well argue that exposure would have the opposite effect, citing numerous studies by Abdel-Khalek (solo and et al.) which suggest that the presence of death (such as in war-stricken areas or in medical environments) only amplifies death anxiety—and I might add that experiencing in person the aftermath of death by traumatic rectal hemorrhage a week or two ago did not prove to be very palliative—but what I’m opting to confront is the anxiety itself, so exposure, if weathered, would ultimately be beneficial, would it not?

Also, why I’d react adversely to isolation is perplexing for a number of reasons, but just where death is concerned: I feel that one’s body must be functioning for one to experience, and thus that experience ceases upon death (at least in the subjective sense I know); that it is the experience of having a body (as a vessel of individuality) that gives rise to the ego (recognizing self); that the phenomenon called consciousness is peculiar to the state of having made this recognition, and thus how one would retain consciousness after the ego has been extinguished is equally beyond me; so that I would experience (an affectation of consciousness) loneliness (an affectation of the ego) after my body ceases to function stands in stark contrast to my consciously held beliefs, thus suggesting a dissonance somewhere in my thought process—and if this particular form of death anxiety is indeed a function of language, yet my logic (operating through language) is insufficient in alleviating it, then what? Does my logic just suck?

I’ll add more as time permits, but please join in with questions, comments, criticism, similar experiences, etc.

I don’t think it matters that you would rationally say that the death of the body included the death of consciousness; including its affects such as loneliness. Let’s put your intellect aside and speak to your emotions.

I’d like to isolate where fears comes in and where there is simply an unpleasant emotion. Fear would be something that provokes an action such as hesitancy, flight or even panic. You say that thinking about life in a certain context provokes unpleasant thoughts of death, but you manage to let those thoughts of life come even when they can be avoided; therefore I don’t think there’s much fear in that context. Then in your state of misery, reflecting on death, you may make claim to feel fear, but you have yet to explain the effects of that supposed fear, which is why I doubt it. A true fear of death is where one avoids doing things they deem as more likely that others to lead to an early death; such as avoiding risks, do you have that problem? If not then fear of death is not the issue.

Then you say that emotionally you related death to isolation. I assume you imagine the existential state of death as being in the dark, in a non-location, mostly deprived of other senses as well as sight, and to some extent asleep all the time, but to some extent awake, but without the presence of mind to think vocal thoughts. - Whatever the case, do you fear isolation in itself? It would be helpful to know exactly how social you are, and all aspect related to your need for socializing and/or for time alone. And have you any traumatic experiences of being alone or even of being given to little time alone?

Thank you for sharing a very articulate and frank post. You’ve raised a great subject, as it applies to all of us to one degree or another. Perhaps you are more sensitive than many, and thus experience death anxiety more fully and openly than we dare.

I would like to address the topic in a general way, as it applies to all of us. Here’s an outline, to see if my thesis is of interest to readers. I’ll reply to comments and questions if it is.

  1. We are thought.

  2. It is the nature of thought to divide.

  3. Thus we experience reality as being divided between “me” and “everything else”.

  4. This is an isolating experience which generates fear. Most personal and social problems arise in one form or another from this fear.

  5. The problem does not arise from incorrect ideas, but from the nature of thought itself. Thus, a process of analysis tends to feed the problem instead of curing it. A diagram of the problem might look like this:

Thought => Division => Fear => Pain

For those of us with less courage than you, most people, the diagram may look more like this:

Thought => Division => Fear => Pain => Avoidance

The global consumer culture which gets so much of our attention can be seen as a vast elaborate mechanism for distracting us from the pain which arises from the inherently divisive nature of thought, the medium we are made of.

Perhaps you can hear this fundamental pain, but most of us have turned up the volume of a blaring busy, busy, busy radio to make ourselves less sensitive so that we can’t hear our own fundamental pain, which is still there nonetheless, hidden but real.

Thanks again for an excellent post, and good luck with your personal situation.

dead is dead…cut out all the crap

The only reason the rational part matters is what I mentioned about existential death anxiety being a function of language.

The fear has most certainly provoked ‘actions’—the attempt to understand and come to terms with the cause of the fear, for one, though it has also spawned its share of panic attacks, deprives me of sleep, interrupts my ability to work, and makes me, as a twenty-five year old man, wish to stay with my parents, shut myself off from reality, and bury myself in anime, books and movies—because after one of them ends, I can always just pick up another (a symbol of continuity through and after conclusion, cessation, death); and by espying the trials and travails of others, I’m dissociating myself, living vicariously through the protagonists, and thus avoiding the acknowledgment of my own existence—which works very well, supposing you’ve cued up a long list of media to gorge yourself on, but reality inevitably comes knocking and you have to face the bills, and homework, and the concerns of others, and your own sneaking suspicions that you’re doing precisely what you are in fact doing, which is just stuffing yourself with the emotional equivalent of potato chips—at which point you also connect your decadent state (periorbital darkening from sleeping once every two or three days, declining interest in outside pursuits, muscular atrophy, cognitive atrophy, bed pains, etc.) with the very things you fear in the first place.

I think the best way I can describe the feeling is that it is very similar to being suffocated, but combined with a claustrophobic reaction to one’s own body. When it strikes, the effect is at first a pronounced, sickly, sinking sensation in the shoulders, gut, and groin, which then gives rise to a panic/exasperation usually accompanied by tears; it then splits here: sometimes I’m in a more catatonic state, and others I pace frantically about my studio, nervously combing my hands through my hair. In the past, I occasionally woke with hair entwined between my fingers from doing this combing unconsciously during sleep.

For the next matter, the specific form of the fear I experience (existential) doesn’t concern premature death, but rather the comprehension that I will die at some point; thus, because living is the behavior I “deem as more likely to lead to […] death,” the solution would be to avoid living, no? Yes, and I came to that conclusion, which is why, at the age of ten, I attempted to hang myself (as I’ve noted before on this forum). Thus, I was put on Prozac as a youth and then Lexapro in my teen years, which didn’t stop the fear, but certainly made it easier to dissociate myself. The fear was never seriously addressed, so once I saw the paradox of suicide in my case and no longer ‘entertained annihilating’ myself, the pharmakons were professed to be doing their job, and I was left to my own devices. I attempted to cope through avoiding the acknowledgment of my own existence in my adolescence and early adulthood; to this end, I avoided post-secondary education (in a formal setting), pursuing a career, and I’ve even been avoiding my own birthday. However, my empathic self (as alluded to in the first paragraph of this group) has been piqued to the point where I can no longer ignore it, and thus my resolve to face it.

I was chasing this part quite a bit last night, which returns to the suffocation and claustrophobia; I found myself fearing not a true non-existence, but rather the experience of something conceptually closer to eternal isolation in void than to proper non-existence. And in fact, the claustrophobic element seems closer to the inability to move due to enclosure (rather than simply being bound).

Concerning socialization, I have a few friends that I get together with once in a while, I’m talkative in class, and I regularly get together with my parents for dinner. Other than that, I’m alone studying, playing piano, composing, or taking part in all that basic shit we do every day. I thrive on discussion, but I avoid small talk.

As far as traumatic incidents, I’ve been told by my mother that a cousin of mine occasionally hit me while I was in the crib (he evidently said it was because I had a runny nose when she questioned him upon hearing me cry). Of note, he died five or six years ago (an overdose, it seems), and I just attended his mother’s funeral last November, which may explain (in combination with the morbid thing I saw recently) why the anxiety has peaked as of late, but not why it’s been so pervasive throughout my life. Now I know the crib-enclosure relation is very tempting, and indeed it may be a constitutive element, but I’m told by both parents that I “looked like a grape” upon birth (due to my being purple), and I’m wondering if this isn’t the result of a just barely prenatal experience, but I’ll have to look into it more.

“A primary responsibility of culture is to provide protection against knowledge and fear of
death.” Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.

Think also about the Western culture’s tendency to hide or limit the amount of sickness and death experienced by the public first-hand (such as using body bags).

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? What is dead?

the problem is facing that there is nothing more and then sucking it up…

However if you would read, you would see that the fear is not of non-existence, but of experiencing nothing but eternal void.

__________ : very interesting theme. Just got up and was into some heavy reacqaintance into kierkegaard and philip dick, and then opened ilp and this. Will get back to you on this, just wanted to convey my surprise on how this may be relevant, right here, right now.

 Later:   (though may or may not contribute substantially)

I think the fear is total personal extinction and then living with it…

And you’re entitled to think that, but what I’ve found (as previously noted) is that my fear is that my personal extinction might not be total, and that if it isn’t total, to what varying degrees of inchoate, unspeakable horror I may be subjected by my own meta-psyche.

The problem is facing that we don’t know if there is anything more or not.

that is not a problem for me…my problem is thinking too much about my never being here again…I just don’t believe in any sort of afterlife…I have life anxiety

I agree. It is a partial existence the the partial glass through whixht we can view darkly that which others see. The others we think , have a complete or at least a more complete view.

 This is inchohate , and it is always this gnawing fear of     the cohate , that creates the double bind of getting it and not getting it is what is frustrating.  

   It is of a disassociation to varying degrees , or an association if you want to look at it that way.  

    Hierarchies and categories , classifications are set up to enable the individual and society to navigate through this mess , and lead functional lives and penalties and negative definitions are set up to deter and pumiahw those who are unable to abide.

 The minimum of tolarable level of disassociation below which very few is able or willimft to go is fraught eight danger ,loneliness and confusion . Below that., there is death , living death  , an insular state of semiconscious attempt to cheat actual physical death.  In a total decompensation therefore there is nothing further to fear because the nothingness is unchanging.

But as I’ve noted, you must have the capacity for experience in order to be aware of your death; so if your existence has been completely extinguished, you’ll be ignorant to this fact; thus, death becomes almost soteriological in the sense that you will cease having the capacity to experience the anxiety. As I’ve also noted, this leads to death’s paradoxical existence as both ailment and aliment.

_______: you are describing the effects/affects for the reasons for the anxiety. Understanding of what is really going on, is the key.

The angst, brought in by modern life, has eliminated any semblance of the soul, whose feeling for eternity has been more or less eliminated. This anxiety, free flowing, is what effects distorted perceptions of what death entails.

 The capacity for experience and the awareness, and the anxiety thereof of death, are locked in a battle of no resolve.  It is only through extraordinary agency, through which resolution is to be sought.--A leap into faith.

What do you mean by modern, and what do you mean by “what’s really going on”?

 By modern I don't mean a framed picture of a chaplinisque character,  broken by increasing pace of living, but an evolving necessity to adapt to these, to a point where adaptation has become it's own rationale.  If there are critical points reached, they are inhumanly replaced by machines.  Machines can tolerate what men cannot, their replacement value is simpler, more cost effective.  And they can never really die.

 The issue of whether we ourselves are really machines or not, has never been satisfactorily resolved, therefore, the question of our death is problematic even from this point of view.

   What really is going on, has been disassociated from any paradigm aesthetic, therefore futurists may only declare, "we cannot see a future, except one with no structure,  constantly breaking down, disassociating."

I still have no idea what you mean by “what is really going on,” but by modern life, do you mean that it is distinguished by a necessity to adapt to an increasingly hectic environment, and to do so for its own sake; that the encroachment of techne into the domain of man, and man’s subversion in the workplace by techne whenever and wherever deemed profitable forces man to confront his limitations, and thus his own mortality is conflicted against the machine’s perceived immortality, which is the source of death anxiety; and furthermore, that this anxiety has killed the soul and is responsible for distorting our evaluations of death? Because if so, I would suggest that we’ve always been impelled toward de facto adaptation to more and more complex environments; that anxiety towards our relationships with machines is more metonymic to xenophobia than to thanatophobia; that the soul did not perhaps ever exist in the first place; and that our perception of personal extinction is obfuscated primarily by denial.

 Your suggestion is valid up to a point, where admittedly, we have always had this going on in terms of accelerating techne, from the earliest beginning.  Aristotle's anima is not that of today, admittedly, and as far as denial in concerned, it too has been a constant presence.  This difference has not been noted widely, of an accelerated pace, to the degree it has, the last few hundred years. Therupon the precariousness of the position of our life had advanced further then to a simple linear equation, and this lack of awareness has resulted in the increasing pressure and anxiety in modern life.

Non believers, in such concepts as God, immortality, eternity, heaven, are outpacing believers in an ever increasing curve, and the denial is in proportion to this.

So at what point is my suggestion invalid? And I’m confused as to your implication anent religion.