everyone you know someday will die
April 26, 2010 12:41 PM   Subscribe

Why am I unreasonably anxious about death?

I find myself often worried that my close friends will lose people important to them and I am constantly holding my breath, waiting for things to fall apart.

Additionally, although I'd also be devastated by the death of my brother, my parents, or any one of my friends, I almost feel like I would rather lose someone I care about deeply rather than see someone I care about grieving over someone they care about. While I understand that a fear of death is probably a normal human feature, this is beginning to get ridiculous. This keeps me up at night and has, on a few rare occasions, left me on the verge of tears.

What gives? Is there some sort of logical explanation for this?
posted by apophenia to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I worry about similar stuff to a similar degree so you're not alone. I don't know if that makes you not crazy or both of us crazy. :)

Do you get "too" emotional about other stuff too or just this?
posted by Jacqueline at 12:45 PM on April 26, 2010

apophenia said: "This keeps me up at night and has, on a few rare occasions, left me on the verge of tears."

I think you need to speak to someone who can help you a bit more than strangers on the internet. Being concerned about your loved ones is perfectly normal - crying about it and not being able to sleep because of it is heading more towards the not-normal end of the scale.

That said, I found Cognitive Behavioural Therapy very helpful for dealing with anxiety issues. It's very self-oriented and helps you stick a pin in the balloon of your illogic. You'll probably find pretty quickly that you're able to reframe this into something that's much healthier.
posted by Solomon at 12:52 PM on April 26, 2010

Fear of our mortality is a logical enough answer.

Any particular new stressors in your life? Any anniversaries of a death come, go, coming up? I recall one February where I experienced something similar. I was constantly worried about something bad happening either to me or to someone else, and it really upset me. Then, out of the blue while walking to class, it hit me that the anniversary of my grandmother's death had passed at the end of January without my acknowledging it. I had just forgotten about it, and once I realized it had gone by and did some mourning, the worry went away.

Similarly, any anniversaries of a particular trauma (either for you or someone you know) can sometimes trigger these feelings.

If it stays with you for much longer, I suggest speaking to someone to talk out some of it. This could be a therapist, as so often recommended on AskMe, or given the subject matter, a priest, rabbi, pastor, or other religious figure may do just as well for you if you subscribe to a particular religious view.

While fears like this are common, the fear keeping you up at night and leaving you on the verge of tears really shouldn't be happening. You yourself say, "This is beginning to get ridiculous." If it starts to actually be ridiculous and interferes any more with your life, talk to someone.
posted by zizzle at 12:52 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Solomon, what I find odd is that the idea of other people (who I care about)'s loved ones dying is almost worse for me than just the idea of my loved one's dying.

As petty as it sounds, in the last three novels I've read, at least one character has died. (If it's of any relevance, the novels were The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, Norgewian Wood, and Sputnik Sweetheart.) I'm wondering maybe if I'm just over-sensitive and somehow fictional tragedy has somehow managed to embed itself deep in my psyche.
posted by apophenia at 1:02 PM on April 26, 2010

Handling grieving people is a very difficult thing to do and is something that makes most people very upset themselves (at the worst possible time for helping others!) - maybe you could read up on etiquette related to funerals and ways to help the mourning so you feel better able to handle it when it happens.
posted by meepmeow at 1:03 PM on April 26, 2010

Yes, you really should talk to someone with a counseling background. For what it's worth, it sounds less like fear of death per se, and more like anxiety (for yourself, and for others) that is taking that particular form. A lot of times this type of anxiety comes from some past experience so no one can really speculate about why it's happening to you or even really attempt to help you without actually know you and your story. Just know that you don't have to live like this and there people out there who can help you if you seek them out.
posted by Kimberly at 1:07 PM on April 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Anxiety feeds itself. Every time you have an anxious thought, it's like a stream of water flowing over the ground. Over time, that stream starts to dig itself a channel. The channel gets deeper, so it holds more water. Over time, the little streamlet turns into a gushing river, and your anxiety starts to spiral out of control. The river doesn't care where it goes (it doesn't follow the logic that you care more about your own loved ones than other people's), it just follows the channel. Therapy will help you dam and redirect the stream.

Anxiety isn't logical. It seems logical that you'd worry more about your own loved ones, and to a certain extent that's true. But anxiety doesn't care about that. The river flows down the channel - it doesn't care where the channel is going.
posted by Solomon at 1:13 PM on April 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Farewell Chronicles by Anneli Rufus helped me deal with some of my death anxiety. But I'm still a very morbid person. My therapist encourages me to talk about it -- last week we were discussing my incredibly detailed funeral plans! (Not that I'm about to croak, touch wood.)
posted by vickyverky at 1:15 PM on April 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

If this is seriously unpleasant and disruptive for you, I would encourage you to talk to someone about it. You could just be of an introspective and theoretical nature, or you could actually benefit from therapy and/or meds, and none of us can really say one way or the other what would make you feel more comfortable.

I've learned in my own case that such thoughts, especially persistent and intrusive ones, mean something's not OK and I need to get it looked at. That may or may not be the case for you.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:25 PM on April 26, 2010

I would second everyone who is recommending therapy.

Of course it is normal for people to be frightened of death, when it confronts them. But healthy, young people do not typically obsess over it unless there is an underlying anxiety issue.

My personal experience with anxiety is that my brain is always looking for something to be anxious about. If I don't have any readily available problems, it always comes up with something. For a lot of people, death is kind of a "fall-back" for anxiety to prey on, because even if the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and everything is great, you can't deny that you and everyone you know will someday die. But the real issue is the underlying anxiety.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:45 PM on April 26, 2010

(I also see you used a lyric from "Do you realize??" as your title, which shows you have a sense of humor about this. That's a good first step!)
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:47 PM on April 26, 2010

I read through your question and the sensible comments but wondered how old you are. I am nearly 81 and I see heaps of people I know, gone now, and so at an older age, it seems very normal to focus upon the topic. But let the dead bury the dead.
posted by Postroad at 2:28 PM on April 26, 2010

I feel the same way sometimes, though not to the same extent. I think it's because the idea of a friend mourning for someone else is very sad, but fairly common and comprehensible (for lack of a better word), while the idea of my own family members or loved ones dying is based on something that happens only rarely (knock on wood) and when it does happen is incomprehensibly devastating almost to the point of not seeming real.

Maybe you can only feel the pain your mind is able to process, so the sad but not unimaginable feelings get through, but the truly painful ones can't?
posted by sallybrown at 2:31 PM on April 26, 2010

I nth talking to a therapist.

For what it's worth, my approach to these things has been that I can either spend my every waking moment worrying about these things and never be happy, or I can worry about them whenever they actually happen and spend the rest of the time being happy.

However, if you have really bad anxiety that probably won't do any good; it doesn't work for my mom, and she won't take any medication for it so we all just have to put up with her. Which is frustrating as hell: I have to field multiple phone calls whenever she has a bad dream about me because, even though they NEVER correspond to anything bad happening to me in reality, she always thinks this one time it might. Even if you can't make yourself quit feeling anxiety, it might be helpful to keep in mind that your anxiety doesn't affect whether something does or doesn't happen. For example, when I was younger I used to worry about a lot of things I had no control over because in some way, I thought worrying would make a difference and everything would fall apart if I didn't. My mom is always worrying about people dying or getting hurt, except she's been doing this for years and thinks her anxiety means something now. In reality, worrying isn't going to make anyone not die if they're going to die. I mention this because once someone gets it in their head that their worrying has some effect on anything, it feeds the idea that it's justified and it's just a short step to making everyone's lives around them miserable. If you're not at that point yet, awesome. If the advice in the thread doesn't make much of a difference, talk to someone before you reach that point. The anxiety can only make your life worse than it needs to be, not better.
posted by Nattie at 2:42 PM on April 26, 2010

"Solomon, what I find odd is that the idea of other people (who I care about)'s loved ones dying is almost worse for me than just the idea of my loved one's dying."

Maybe the idea of your own loved ones' death is too horrible for your imagination to cope with so it just shuts down, whereas them being in emotional pain is tolerable enough to wrap your mind around.

I think we also get a lot of practice being empathetically sad for other people grieving by watching TV and movies, but not a lot of practice (hopefully) for our own grieving.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:43 PM on April 26, 2010

I also get really anxious about death, but I find that it almost always coincides with a time with I'm anxious about things in general. Don't know what to tell you except you're not alone, and that finding someone to talk about it with makes it much better.

Also, sometimes it helps to be your own best friend. By which I mean, what would you tell your best friend if they were overwhelmed by anxiety about death? That it's normal, generally peaceful? Would you tell them that there's no reason to worry about something you can't change? Would you counsel them to seek comfort in the form of a higher power? Whatever you'd tell them, keep in mind for yourself.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 7:19 PM on April 26, 2010

If you want a taste of CBT without seeing someone, I'd recommend checking out Burns' Feeling Good. I found it an excellent resource for dealing with anxiety and distorted thought.
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 11:23 PM on April 26, 2010

As petty as it sounds, in the last three novels I've read, at least one character has died. (If it's of any relevance, the novels were The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, Norgewian Wood, and Sputnik Sweetheart.) I'm wondering maybe if I'm just over-sensitive and somehow fictional tragedy has somehow managed to embed itself deep in my psyche.

If it's any comfort, watching Six Feet Under when I was 21 (concurrent with a period of my life during which my grandfather died, my mom got cancer, and I was smoking a lot of pot) lead me to a three year existential crisis where I was constantly terrified about my own mortality. I'd known people who died before, but the confluence of all of those life events, combined with watching a TV show whose central theme is death and dying, helped me realize that it was going to happen to me, sometimes, too. And that was scary.

(And upsetting. I'm sure I cried about it, once or twice. Though I might have been stoned at the time.)

The funny thing is, it led me to talk to my peers and some family members about these fears, and I realized that it's a more common thing than I had previously assumed. Most people go through a stage where they have to deal with thoughts of death, and process them in some way. You need to let yourself mourn previously held, incorrect assumptions of immortality--yours or others'. Counseling might help with this, though I didn't go to counseling at the time.

Instead, what worked for me was time itself, and, weirdly, getting married and having my husband move in with me. Part of it is that it's harder to be afraid when you're not going to sleep alone. But part of it, too, was realizing that time keeps on moving forward--and while you lose some things, new, also-good things come out of it, too. Your family might change, for example, but the concept of family never dies--new families are forged in its place, and even as you're saying goodbye to good things in your life (always a bit melancholy), beautiful, wonderful, new good things arise in their place. I used to try to use all sorts of cognitive gymnastics to make myself feel okay with death--I'd tell myself that I wouldn't feel anything after I died, that the time before my existence was okay--but I never really believed whole-heartedly; they were never really a comfort. What has comforted me is knowing that life goes on, and that there's as much promise in the future as there was joy in the past. It's just taken me a bit of time to realize it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:06 AM on April 28, 2010

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