Ask An Adult: Why Am I Afraid Of Dying?
The Debrief: Do women worry about dying more than men? And what can we do to stop it?
Last month Rita Ora echoed the sentiments of many young women when she admitted that death is her greatest fear – a phobia for which she has sought therapy for the last few years.
But at what point does the fear of death stop being a reasonable response to a physical inevitability and become a concern for your current mental health? We spoke to Dr Annemarie O’Connor, director and clinical psychologist of The Mind Works psychological practice to find out…
The big one: Why are we afraid of death? Is it innate? Or learned?
Ensuring our survival, physically and psychologically, is innate; it’s evolutionary. We’re designed to try and protect ourselves from situations that could threaten our survival or be harmful to us – we’re meant to be effective at staying alive, so some fear of death is perfectly normal.
Beyond this level, it’s typically learned. Death is inevitable for all of us, but only some of us think about it, consider it and fear it.
At what point does fear of death become something we need to address, therapeutically?
Like with a fear of anything, it becomes a problem that requires intervention when it affects every day life and happiness. If the fear stops or restricts a person from carrying out things they’d normally do or would like to do, or is negatively impacting their life, then this is when the issue needs to be addressed. Fear tends to make us inflexible in our thinking and action, and life demands flexibility.
In your clinical experience, do women suffer from a fear of death more than men? Or do we just express it differently?
In my experience, there’s a slightly increased presentation in fear of death in women than men, but this could, of course, be accounted for by reporting biases – perhaps women tend to disclose these types of problems more readily than men. Some experts theorise that more women than men tend to have a fear of death because they hold a caregiver role; so they’re more anxious about dying as they need to be around to be provide care to children, for example.
Is there a difference between the fear of death and the fear of the world continuing without you?
There are overlaps in concerns and symptoms, but they’re specific anxieties in their own right. A fear of death or dying can be related to health/illness, or being injured through accidents, etc. A fear of the world continuing without you is different and can include sense of worth, purpose and identity concerns.
Do we become more afraid of death in our twenties because that’s the first time we start to understand our own mortality?
Fear of death can happen in childhood, for children as young as five years old. Life events are generally more informative than simple age brackets. A young person experiencing a close family member dying at a young age may suffer an increase in death anxiety if they don’t understand and have appropriate emotional support.
Fear of death is high in young adulthood (our twenties), but is most prevalent in middle adulthood. For some people, it’s about when they become aware that their parents are aging and will at some point die. As a child, you typically don’t think this way; you see life as a given.
How can people treat their fear of death if they think it is a problem?
Fear of death is a form of a specific phobia or specific anxiety, so a course of cognitive behavioral therapy would be the most preferable treatment. If it’s not at a point where clinical intervention is required, then a self-help book on anxiety or health anxiety may be of use.
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