The Question about Death and Death Anxiety
by Anubhuti Rattan, M.A. CHt. PLt. Regd. Ht.
Death, a word that can mean the end or the beginning. The interpretation solely depends on how we perceive death to be. If perceived as the end, it can instil a lot offear and anxiety while if thought of as a beginning it can bring in feelings of calmness, satisfaction and hope. Many of us are troubled by the fear of the ultimate darkness, as we perceive it to be – The Death. Is it really this bleak and dark?
To answer this question let us first understand what Death is. The Oxford Dictionary defines death as the “end of life; ceasing to be; destruction” (1985). In medical terms death is defined as follows: Death: 1. The end of life. The cessation of life. 2. The permanent cessation of all vital bodily functions. 3. The common law standard for determining death is the cessation of all vital functions, traditionally demonstrated by “an absence of spontaneous respiratory and cardiac functions.” 4. The uniformdetermination of death.
The fear of death has been rated as the most common and the second worst fear that troubles us. Many are traumatised long before they near their end from their impending death. Many fear the death of the loved ones. The fear of death is largely due to four reasons. Firstly, the fear of the unknown, secondly, the fear of losing our loved ones, thirdly, fear of pain and suffering and/or being alone at the time of death and finally, the fear of ceasing to exist or the finality of death. Is there a way to overcome it or can we only hear an agonised client while he or she seeks help which prevents them to live the life altogether? Many suffer from death anxiety but are able to function. Yet they fear for their lives and that of their significant others. Death is viewed, as a tragedy. Is it really? Many books, people, cultures, religions and spirituality have talked of death otherwise.
Let’s take a look at some of these views. Isaac Asimov the U.S. science fiction novelist and scholar (1920 – 1992) said, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” Pubilius Syrus (100 B.C.) stated in Maxims, “The fear of death is more to be dreaded than death itself.” The following statements from Bhagavad Gita (250 B.C. – 250 A.D.) in chapter 2 is apt to be quoted here, “For certain is death for the born and certain is birth for the dead, therefore over the inevitable thou shouldst not grieve.” And “Just as a man casts off his worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so also the embodied-self casts off its worn out bodies and enters others which are new.” Hugh Elliott writes in Standing Room Only weblog comments , “I am not dying, not anymore than any of us are at any moment. We run, hopefully as fast as we can, and then everyone must stop. We can only choose how to handle the race.” Leonardo da Vinci(1452 – 1519) said as a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death. Death is more universal than life, everyone dies but not everyone lives. A well said statement by A. Sachs. Osho’s comment on death is, “Life is only one of the ways of death’s expression.”
In my Hypnotherapy death is not regarded as a tragic event but a celebration and homecoming. It is believed that the soul’s home is in the spiritual realm and that it takes birth to experience and learn its lessons. Once the lessons are learnt and the assigned or planned work is completed by the soul, the soul departs for home and the physical body dies. Thus when one dies, hypnotherapy sees it as a joyous moment and not a depressing one (Rattan, 2005).
This brings us to the question what is defined as death anxiety? Death anxiety is the anxiety caused when one is faced by the thought, experience, and/or situation, reading material or mention of death in a conversation or in any other form in our daily life. In other words, fear of death is an intense fear of something that poses no actual danger. While adults with fear of death realise that these fears are irrational, they often find that facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety. A morbid or abnormal and persistent fear of death or dying is known as Thanatophobia or Thantophobia while the fear of death or dead objects is known as Necrophobia. Both have the same symptoms.
Symptoms of are:
Nausea or feeling sick
Trembling or shaking
Inability to think clearly
A fear of dying (Death Anxiety) or losing control or becoming mad
A sensation of detachment from reality or
A full-blown anxiety attack.
Many people are surprised to learn that they are far from alone to suffer from Death anxiety even though it is surprisingly common, although not often spoken about. The awareness of death’s inevitability is the central threat to experiencing a meaningful life (Fisher and Fisher, 1993). Every person is preoccupied with Death anxiety and is persistently defending against it with strategies such as simple denial, religious faith in immortality, exaggerated expectations of medical “cure,” and the acting out of heroic “Nothing can terminate me” fantasies (Becker, 1973; Zilboorg, 1943).
Interestingly, asking people to contemplate their own mortality reliably results in defensive responses even though people do not report being anxious or upset by thoughts of their own death. Becker (1973), in his book The Denial of Death , asserts that the fear of death is natural and present in everyone no matter how disguised it may be. The fear of death is an emotional manifestation of the self-preservation instinct. Most people probably rarely think about death or their ultimate individual value. Rather, they think about their goals and aspirations relevant to their careers, relationships, hobbies, and the means through which these goals are achieved.
The fear of death must be behind all normal functioning in order for people to aim towards self-preservation, but not constantly present in one’s mental functioning, else the person could not function. Continued questioning of one’s value as a person may ultimately lead one to a direct consideration of death and the experience of existential terror. The fear must be repressed enough to allow us to live comfortably and normally, yet accessible enough to allow us to react appropriately to any threat to our continued existence. Fear keeps us safe; it is adaptive in the sense that it signals the need for behaviour to reduce any threats (Pyszczynski, et. al., 1991). This may be why those persons who have near death experiences tend to rethink their priorities in life—death is a reality check.
Death anxiety is common in our society these days. Lots of people are afraid to die, and there can be endless reasons for this fear. Death anxiety can happen because of some past traumatic event. Maybe you nearly drowned or were in a car accident that almost took your life. It can even be something from your birth that you don’t remember, but still affected you in some profound way. Real Beaulieu, a Canadian Primal Therapist states in his article, “Why is death anxiety so common? Because a lot of us… have probably experienced at least one of those near-death events…most likely at or around birth.” The experiences being talked about here are called “first line traumas” in Primal Therapy.
Countless individuals, in therapies that allow access to very early traumas, have relived near-death situations like suffocating at birth (anoxia), being strangled by the umbilical cord, having their head crushed before they could even take their first birth, etc. such early traumas left a profound impression on the organism, a vague feeling that one’s life is in danger, an imprint that we could call “Death Anxiety” (Beaulieu, 1986).
Any event that deeply disturbs the “continuum concept” (Lieloff, 1977) of the child is likely to leave him/her with a profound sense of existential danger, something that, long after the traumatic event occurred, we call death anxiety (Beaulieu, 1986). Most counterproductive fears are learned. We are afraid of certain things because our experience tells us that there is real danger, and the “charge value” (Janov, 1983) of a counterproductive fear is directly commensurate with the position in time when the trauma occurred or the state of vulnerability of the organism. The concept of charge value implies that the earlier the trauma, the more devastating its effects will be and the more the individual will be motivated by its force (Beaulieu, 1986).
Dr. Paul T. P. Wong says in his paper that all human drama is, to a great extent, a story of how human beings cope with the terror of death, and how they overcome death anxiety through a great variety of conscious efforts and unconscious defence mechanisms. How we view death and how we cope with death anxiety can profoundly affect every aspect of our lives – either positively or negatively. Such wisdom and courage can only be acquired through accepting death and understanding its meanings.
Many people fear dying more than death itself. Most people are afraid of dying a violent or painful death. They prefer to die in their sleep – without pain and without awareness. Dying can be a positive and rewarding experience; it can be a time of personal freedom and growth. But dying well begins with death acceptance. Furthermore, dying well involves hard work, because dying is more than a physical process. Death is the only certainty in life. All living organisms die; there is no exception. However, human beings alone are burdened with the cognitive capacity to be aware of their own inevitable mortality and to fear what may come afterwards. Furthermore, their capacity to reflect on the meaning of life and death creates additional existential anxiety (Wong, 2002).
To summarise, it seems that each one of us lives with the fear of death in some form or the other. If it is not the fear of our death then it is the dear of our loved ones that torments us. If the theory that fear and death both are just illusions then is it possible that one can “cure” oneself of this anxiety? Would life without this anxiety be more rewarding and fruitful? Would anyone want to live such a life?
Beaulieu, R. (1986). On The Origins of Death Anxiety. Primal Psychotherapy Page.
Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death: A Perspective in Psychiatry andAnthropology . New York : Simon & Schuster.
Fisher, R. L. & Fisher, S. (1993). The Psychology of Adaptation to Absurdity:Tactics of Make Believe. Hillsdale , NJ : L. Erlbaum Associates.
Janov, A. (1983). Imprints: The lifelong effects of the birth experience . New York :Coward McCann, Inc.
Liedloff, J. (1977). The Continuum Concept . New York : Perseus Books.
Oxford Dictionary, The. (1985). New Delhi : India Offset Press.
Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J, Solomon, S., & Hamilton, J. (1991). “A Terror
management analysis of self-awareness and anxiety: The hierarchy of terror”. In: Ralf Schwarzer and Robert A. Wicklund (eds.), Anxiety and self-focussed attention . New York : Harwood.
Rattan, A. (2005). Use of Hypnotherapy to Reduce Death Anxiety . UnpublishedDissertation work.
Wong, P. T. P. (2002). “From Death Anxiety to Death Acceptance”. Conference on Life and Death Education in National Changhua University of Education, Taiwan .
Zilboorg, G. (1943). “Fear of death”. Psychoanalytic Quarterly , Vol. 12.
Anubhuti Rattan, M.A. CHt. PLt. Regd. Ht. resides in New Delhi, India . She holds a Masters degree in Counselling psychology and has been practising alternate medicine since 1997. She practises therapies like Reiki, Hypnotherapy, Past Life Therapy, Angel Therapy, etc. Currently she is pursuing PhD in Parapsychic Sciences from American Institute of Holistic Theology , Alabama . As part of her master’s degree she had conducted a research on death Anxiety that she presented in the research panel at the Second World Congress on Regression Therapies in March 2006. Anyone is free to use her paper as reference as long as appropriate copyright details are mentioned. To contact her please send an email at email@example.com
Contact: Linda Alexander, Clinical Hypnotherapy, Glasgow on 0141 632 1440 and 07875 493 358, also firstname.lastname@example.org