Death Anxiety: An Existential Crisis - Learn to Love Your Life
Today, my topic is death anxiety, or having an existential crisis. Hi, I'm Paige Pradko. Welcome to therapy for a better life.
A recent client of mine was a 15 year old teenager, a male, and he came in with extreme death anxiety. Now all humans experience, death, anxiety, and most of us really do build up some defenses to it, but some of us do not. And for some, it turns into quite an extreme fear.
If you look over the lifespan of a person, some research demonstrates that the height of death anxiety happens in our mid-twenties, but other research shows that there is a, another peak in death anxiety in middle age. In middle age we are coping, most of us, with the death of a parent. I find it interesting that research suggests that at the end of life, in the elderly, there is almost no death anxiety.
There is another important key factor in whether or not one experiences heightened death anxiety. John Hinton, a researcher, demonstrates that this concept has been duplicated many times in research. The concept is that the level of life satisfaction is directly related to their level of death anxiety. Irving Yalom, in his book, Existential Psychotherapy writes that a sense of fulfillment, a feeling of a life well lived, mitigates the terror of death. Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, writes, “what has become perfect and all that is ripe wants to die. All that is unripe, wants to live, that it may become ripe and joyous and longing. Longing for what is further higher and brighter.” What I see in therapy with my clients does coincide with these experts. the less satisfaction they have in their life, the greater the death anxiety. People with death anxiety seem to really have a fear-based life. It's a constricted life. They're avoiding pain. They're trying so hard to stay safe. This is the opposite of a growth or fulfillment seeking life. What we work on in therapy first, is understanding the fear and the anxiety. We're going to break through some of those avoidance and safety behaviors. Number two, we're going to try our best to increase life satisfaction for the client. We're going to be experimenting and broadening their sense of life. We're going to be searching, experimenting with their values and seek fulfillment and enjoyment. Number three, we're going to be really trying to find meaning in their life. I might have the client read, “A Man's Search for Meaning”. These kind of activities really do help. A client expands their mind and begins focusing on living their life instead of dying. Number four, we're going to dissect the fear in therapy. I'm going to ask them questions about their beliefs. Is their fear related to the dying process? Is their fear concentrated on the moment of death? Is their fear about what happens after death? What are their beliefs about afterlife? I'm going to talk a lot about death and dying because talking about it and thinking about it brings it from the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, to the cortex. In this way, thinking and discussing it can reduce the mystery and the fear of the unknown. This brings their fear down. We are desensitizing them to the fear of death just by talking about death. It also brings them comfort to know that at the end of life, people generally do not have that level of fear and anxiety. Most have accepted the cycle of life because they've had a life well lived.
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