Although not defined as a distinct disorder in its own right, Harley Therapy describes death anxiety (or thanatophobia, if you want its medical name) as "anxiety surrounding the fear of death, or the fear of the dying process." While it is common for all of us to worry about our own mortality or the mortality of our family and friends as they age, "these worries can develop into more problematic patterns of thinking." This is exactly what happened to me. Worries that felt 'normal' soon morphed into debilitating death anxiety. At best, it was frustrating. At its worst, it left me unable to participate in everyday life. And while deep down I know that a panic attack can’t kill me, that doesn’t stop the worry.
I recently watched a video by YouTuber Demi Donnelly titled "FINALLY talking about the thing that ruined my life for three months" and was surprised to hear her talking about her experience with death anxiety. It felt surreal; I’d never come across anyone that had experienced it too, which had made me reluctant to bring it up due to a sense of shame. It felt like a huge relief that someone else could relate.
In the video, Demi, who doesn’t often cover such serious topics, described how COVID-19 had taken a negative toll on her death anxiety. This really resonated with me. When COVID-19 started making its way into the newspapers, my death anxiety no longer manifested as regular panic attacks; instead it bled into my everyday life. Anywhere that wasn’t home didn’t feel like a ‘safe space’ for me. I hated taking public transport and being in shops and eventually I isolated myself from friends.
However, what I thought was going to be unlimited sofa days where I could keep my death anxiety at a controllable level drastically changed when I suffered one of my most traumatic panic attacks. I felt like I wasn't in control of my own breathing, it felt like being suffocated. An ambulance was called and I held onto the thought that maybe, just maybe, I could be saved.
I found out later that panic attacks and COVID-19 can have similar symptoms: high temperature, a tight chest, breathlessness. In fact, the hospital decided to treat me as a suspected case of COVID-19 and I was quarantined at home. It was my worst fear.
The weeks that followed were just as hard. I stayed in bed all day, barely ate or drank and lived in fear.
I got my first taste of death anxiety at university. The panic attacks I suffered were taking a toll on me, mentally and physically. My intrusive thoughts about death wouldn’t stop. University was meant to be the time of my life but instead I worried I wouldn’t make it out alive.
Death is a taboo subject in our society. We feel awkward talking about it and bottle up our feelings towards it. Because it is such a taboo, it definitely made it harder to seek comfort from others, as I didn’t think anyone would understand. I've since learned that just because something is taboo, it doesn’t mean you can’t be the one to start the conversation. I got myself though university with antidepressants, counselling and support from family and friends. At present I’m seeing a wonderful psychiatrist who is helping no end.
I reached out to Demi about her experience. "My death anxiety was caused due to the tragic loss of a family member," she told me, although her anxieties around death didn't actually arise until years later. "All I could think about was death and then it started to impact my life on a daily basis. I had many sleepless nights and I wasn’t able to switch off. It’s definitely been more difficult with COVID-19 since it’s so death-focused, and with not being able to see my family."
Demi feels like she's turning a corner now. "I’ve started to turn my negative thoughts into positive ones, which has helped my death anxiety." Although she is seeing a therapist, she doesn't think it's a solution that's right for her. "Death anxiety is something I believe I’ll always have, it’s about finding coping mechanisms for it."
Clinical psychologist Dr Gemima Fitzgerald breaks death anxiety into four separate areas: loss of self or someone else, loss of control, fear of the unknown – what will happen after death (nothingness, heaven, hell) – and the pain and suffering of dying.
She tells me that during the COVID-19 pandemic, death anxiety has become more common than ever before. "Many people are worried about catching the virus, or their loved ones catching the virus. The media has been full of stories of people dying and we are bombarded by daily death figures. The usual strategy of pushing scary thoughts away is no longer working because there are less distractions from thoughts about dying."
She says that understanding that these feelings are normal — especially at a time like this — is key. "You are not alone. Dying is a part of being human. As with any fear, the less we talk about it, the bigger and more frightening it becomes, so finding someone you can trust to talk to, maybe a psychologist or counsellor or minister, and breaking the taboo, can be really beneficial." She also recommends mindfulness, meditation or researching other relaxation techniques to help you cope with the day-to-day.
As for me, I'm going to continue my psychiatrist sessions and taking my antidepressants. As I've started to feel better, I've realised that both these things have helped me to realise that my death anxiety does not control or define me and I know that one day soon, the more I talk about it, the less terrifying it will feel to me to think about it.
Mental health was once a taboo but we’ve come so far in how we approach it. I can only hope that the same will soon be true of how we talk about death. It is, after all, just another part of life that we’ll all encounter. Death isn’t the nicest thing to think about but it shouldn’t get in the way of us living our lives to the fullest. My battle is far from over but I’m ready to tackle it head-on and knowing I'm not alone has been the biggest help yet. So start talking.