Disappointment – “I failed this exam, my life is ruined” or regret – “I am getting a divorce, I wasted so much of my life.” Patients present with a wide variety of complaints that can be understood as a form of death anxiety.
Fundamentally, patients come to see us to understand and explain their lives. One can reinterpret this as a patient asking, “If I died today, would my life have been good enough?” or “When I die, how will I look back at this moment in time and judge the choices I made?”
Other patients come to us attempting to use the same maladaptive defenses that did not serve them well in the past in the hopes of achieving a new outcome that will validate their lives. While it may be understandable that a child dissociates when facing abuse, hoping that this defense mechanism – as an adult – will work, it is unlikely to be fruitful and will certainly not validate or repair the past. This hope to repair one’s past can be interpreted as a fear of death – “I cannot die without correcting this.” This psychic conflict can intensify if one does not adopt a more adaptive understanding of his or her life.
Death anxiety is the feeling associated with the finality of life. Not only is life final, but a constant reminder of that fact is the idea that any one moment is final. Other than in science fiction, one cannot return to a prior moment and repair the past in the hope of a better future. Time goes only in one direction and death is the natural outcome of all life.
Death may have some evolutionary purpose that encourages the promotion of newer and more fitter genes, but one doesn’t have to consider its origin and reason to admit death’s constancy throughout humanity. People die and that is an anxiety-provoking fact of life. Death anxiety can feel especially tangible in our connected world. In a world of constant news, it can feel – for many people – that if your house wasn’t displaced because of global warming or that you are not a war refugee, you don’t deserve to be seen and heard.
This can be a particularly strong feeling for and among physicians, who don’t think that the mental health challenges generated by their own tough circumstances deserve to be labeled a mental disorder, so they designate themselves as having “burnout” – as they don’t deserve the sympathy of having the clinically significant impairments of “depression.” Our traumas don’t seem important enough to deserve notice, and thus we may feel like we could die without ever having truly mattered.
This can also be applied in the reverse fashion. Certain individuals, like celebrities, live such extravagant lives that our simpler achievements can feel futile in comparison. While the neighbor’s grass has always felt greener, we are now constantly exposed to perfectly manicured lawns on social media. When compounded, the idea that our successes and our pains are both simultaneously irrelevant can lead one to have very palpable death anxiety – my life will never matter if none of the things I do matter, or my life will never matter because I will never achieve the requisite number of “likes” or “views” on social media required to believe that one’s life was worth living.
A way of alleviating death anxiety can be through the concept of legacy, or what we leave behind. How will people remember me? Will people remember me, or will I disappear like a shadow into the distant memory of my near and dear ones? The idea of being forgotten or lost to memory is intolerable to some and can be a strong driving force to “make a name” for oneself. For those who crave fame, whether a celebrity or a generous alumnus, part of this is likely related to remaining well known after death. After all, one can argue that you are not truly dead as long as you continue to live in the memory and/or genes of others.
Legacy thus serves as a form of posthumous transitional object; a way of calming our fears about how we will be remembered. For many, reconciling their feelings towards their legacy is an avenue to tame death anxiety.
A case study
The case of Mr. B illustrates this. As a 72-year-old male with a long history of generalized anxiety, he once had a nightmare as a child, similar to the plot of Sleeping Beauty. In his dream, he walks up a spiral staircase in a castle and touches the spindle on a spinning wheel, thus ending his life. The dream was vivid and marked him.
His fear of death has subsequently reared its head throughout his life. In more recent years, he has suffered from cardiovascular disease. Although he is now quite stable on his current cardiac medications, he is constantly fearful that he will experience a cardiac event while asleep and suddenly die. He is so anxious about not waking up in the morning that falling asleep is nearly impossible.
Mr. B is single, with no close family besides a sister who lives in another state. He has a dog and few friends. He worries about what will happen to his dog if he doesn’t wake up in the morning, but perhaps most distressing to him is “there’s so much left for me to do, I have so much to write!” As an accomplished author, he continues to write, and hopes to publish many more novels in his lifetime. It is unsurprising that someone without a strong social network may fear death and feel pressured to somehow make a mark on the world before the curtain falls. It is scary to think that even without us, life goes on.
By bringing to Mr. B’s attention that his ever-present anxiety is rooted in fear of death, he was able to gain more insight into his own defensive behaviors. By confronting his death anxiety and processing his definition of a life well lived together in therapy, he’s acknowledged his lack of social connection as demoralizing, and has made significant strides to remedy this. He’s been able to focus on a more fulfilling life day to day, with less emphasis on his to-do list and aspirations. Instead, he’s connected more with his faith and members of his church. He’s gotten close to several neighbors and enjoys long dinners with them on his back patio.
At a recent meeting, he confessed that he feels “lighter” and not as fearful about sudden cardiac death, and thus has noticed that his overall anxiety has diminished greatly. He concluded that experiencing meaningful relationships in the present moment would give him greater joy than spending his remaining time engaged in preserving a future identity for himself. It seems elementary, but if we look within, we may find that we all suffer similarly: How much of our daily actions, thoughts, and fears are tied to the looming threat of death?
While modern psychiatry continues to advance with better understandings of our neurobiology, improved knowledge of pathophysiological processes of mental illness, and expanding discovery of novel pharmacotherapeutics, the modern psychiatrist should not forget fundamental truths of behavior and humanity that were once the staple of psychiatry.
Death anxiety is one of those truths; it is the ultimate stressor that we will all face and should be regular study and practice for psychiatrists. In this article, we explored some of those facets most meaningful to us but recommend you expand your study to the many more available.
Death anxiety is a constant reminder that life is final, and it is natural to feel anxious when thinking about it. Patients often come to physicians seeking validation of their lives or trying to use the same maladaptive defense mechanisms that did not serve them well in the past to achieve a better outcome.
In today’s world, death anxiety can feel palpable due to the constant exposure to global news and social media that can make us feel irrelevant. However, legacy, or what we leave behind, can serve as a way to alleviate death anxiety. For many, reconciling their feelings toward their legacy is an avenue to tame death anxiety. Therapy can help individuals gain insight into their defensive behaviors and process their definition of a life well lived. By focusing on a life worth living, individuals can alleviate their death anxiety and gain a sense of fulfillment.
Dr. Akkoor is a psychiatry resident at the University of California, San Diego. She is interested in immigrant mental health, ethics, consultation-liaison psychiatry, and medical education. Dr. Badre is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist in San Diego. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. He teaches medical education, psychopharmacology, ethics in psychiatry, and correctional care. Dr. Badre can be reached at his website, BadreMD.com. Dr. Badre and Dr. Akkoor have no conflicts of interest.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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Cite this: Overcoming Death Anxiety: Understanding Our Lives and Legacies - Medscape - May 23, 2023.