My thoughts about death have started making me afraid to live.
March 19, 2013 7:40 PM   Subscribe

For the last 6 or 7 days, I've been fixated on death, and not in a suicidal context. How do people normally handle constant thoughts about their mortality, and how can I stop this from crippling my ability to "live?"

The fixation is not necessarily the process of decomposition, but the permanently losing consciousness bit. That my life is a finite experience is not new to me - I know, because I've tried to shorten that timeline more than once. I'm freaking the entire hell out now not because I suddenly have something to live for, but because I am terrified (like everyone else) of the moment where I cease to exist. Seeking peace in a faith has not helped me, nor has atheism, and I am decidedly agnostic. This does not help me with my "I will cease to exist and I'm horrified" thoughts. I cannot just settle the matter by deciding to just be "pleasantly surprised" with an afterlife, if there is one.

I experience the nastier aspects of my fixation - anxiety attacks, trouble sleeping - at night. I can busy myself during the day for long enough that the omnipresent thoughts about death do not make me stop what I'm doing. As soon as the sun begins to set, however, I'm back to thoughts like "enjoy the tactile, visual and other sensations of living while you still can," and running thought exercises about what my last moments might be like.

This goes on for hours, and has started to interfere with other aspects of my life. Last night, it was bad enough that despite falling asleep, I kept waking up every two hours. At work this morning (a new second job, still retail), I was too tired to absorb any of the online training that I'm required to complete; no amount of caffeine could keep me alert. As I started to nod off, I would begin to think about death once more before snapping out of it.

Questions for the Hive-mind:

1) I was diagnosed with depression several years ago, and have an inconsistent history of treating it with medication. I've been off Citalopram for over a year. Is this some new manifestation of said depression that I haven't experienced before? -OR-

2) Is reflecting on one's mortality on a daily basis a normal thing for people, particularly people around my age (23)?

3) If this isn't a manifestation of depression, what could it be?

4) If you've experienced something similar, how have you handled it? Or handled fear of your own mortality in general?

Thank you. I will offer follow-up re: my health history if needed.
posted by Ashen to Health & Fitness (45 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I experience the exact same thing from time to time every since I was a little girl, and I have often thought about posting almost this same question, so you're not alone, I guess? Religion wasn't a comfort for me (what if I'm wrong?) and neither are atheist conceptions on the preciousness of the life we have.

On one hand, it's pretty rational to be terrified of death. On the other hand, it's not productive. I do find that I have more problems ignoring these thoughts in the winter when I have other SAD symptoms, so I wouldn't be surprised if it was related to depression/anxiety in some way.

I don't think my coping mechanism is very helpful, unfortunately - I usually stay up doing something distracting like reading a book or watching TV until I fall asleep without a moment for reflection.
posted by muddgirl at 7:47 PM on March 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

I used to be fixated on this a lot in my 20s. I just kind of stopped, but I can still get stuck at night -- I usually listen to audiobooks at night to stop myself from going in circles in my head. Also, doing acid a few times helped work some of those thoughts out, but I wouldn't actually recommend that for everyone.
posted by empath at 7:54 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think it's normal to go through periods of thinking about this. But it sounds like this is interfering with your ability to do daily life functions, and that is not normal. I would go see somebody about this - doctor, therapist, psychiatrist.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:56 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you discussed this with a therapist? This level of fixation sounds like it would be absolutely terrible to live with, and it seems likely to me that it is connected to your depression. I occasionally suffer from other types of upsetting intrusive thoughts and it's generally when I am having a bout of depression and/or anxiety issues. That said, it's not to the degree that you are describing - if it was, then I would seek anti-anxiety medication or whatever from a doctor to help get it under control.
posted by gatorae at 7:57 PM on March 19, 2013

Did you see this question? I think it helps address some of your concerns. Here's my answer.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:59 PM on March 19, 2013

If you've experienced something similar, how have you handled it? Or handled fear of your own mortality in general?

FAMOUS FATHER died back in July. I wound up in a place not unlike where you're at. Thinking about how crazy it is that we're alive and it's great and then we're dead, and being scared because I don't want to die.

This is your basic bog-standard existential crisis.

Here is how I handle it:

1. It's going to happen whether I freak out about it or not, so there's no sense in freaking out about it. If my time is finite, then spending any of it being upset about how my time is finite seems a little unproductively recursive. Death is going to get a lot of my time. Most of it, actually. This little bit of time I have? It belongs to me.

2. I tell myself, "If you're not worried about what it was like to not have been born yet, why worry about what it's like to be dead?"

3. If all else fails, ice cream.

But as LobsterMitten says, if it's interfering with your life, you should probably talk to someone about it. Fear of death is normal. Paralyzing, constant fear of death is not.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:00 PM on March 19, 2013 [12 favorites]

When I was about your age, I suddenly had a very clear thought that I was about to die soon. This was very odd, because I had no history of indulging myself in anything like beliefs that I could see the future. I thought it was going to be something like a car accident, and that there was nothing I could do about it.

The idea made me sad, but I also had a sense of peace about it. I want to live longer, I thought, but if this is the way the world has to be, then that's that, and I can accept it. I went on with my life and tried not to dwell on my morbid premonition.

After a week or two, it just went away. I almost hate to say this, because it sounds so glib, but have you tried just not paying so much attention to thinking about your death? I apologize if this is just grossly insensitive, since it sounds like this is causing you great distress.
posted by thelonius at 8:09 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

One way of dealing with a fear of mortality is to join Alcor. Seems like right now you realize you have a zero percent chance of waking up after you die. Cryonic preservation gives you a non-zero chance of waking up someday.
posted by Sophont at 8:11 PM on March 19, 2013

Gah, think about this all the time.

I was listening to a dumb self help book while walking on my lunch break today. (I think it was the Now Habit by Neal Fiore, fwiw.). He discussed this woman who was running a marathon, 7 miles to go, and she hit the wall. No more resources left. And she thought to herself, "ok, it hurts to take a step. But I would also be in pain if I tried to lay down, or sit down, or not take a step." And it got her through the last 7 miles. It always hurts, but there's no alternative. And it's better to own your actions. pS - also finished her master's thesis from these skills.

I feel like i'm rambling a bit, but it may help. Just trying. As one who thinks about this constantly, all I cay say is stay occupied when you're feeling the drain of mortality.
posted by Kronur at 8:16 PM on March 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

This sounds like an OCD/anxiety thing. (Not necessarily clinically, but just that sort of behavior)

I'd say let it work itself out. Indulge it, meditate on it and work toward accepting it. Stamping down intrusive realities tends to make them manifest in weird ways later on. We are all going to wake up dead one day. But the good news is that we won't know it. The same way I didn't experience Lincoln's assassination, I also likely won't experience the year 2100. I won't miss it; it just won't "be".

(And that's the worst case. If religion is real, maybe I'll finally learn to fly.)
posted by gjc at 8:22 PM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: 2) Is reflecting on one's mortality on a daily basis a normal thing for people, particularly people around my age (23)?

This was my death age too, just after my grandfather died and my mom got cancer and it really, truly hit me that I was going to one day die in a bone-deep way it never had before. I remember walking around thinking, "Don't these people all know they're going to DIE?! How is everyone not constantly shitting themselves with fear?!"

Because I was.

I tried to engage in all sorts of mental tricks about it (the whole "you didn't exist before and it didn't upset you then" line of thought and the "you won't feel anything because that's the definition of not conscious" line of thought) but they didn't really work.

The truth is, though, that there's nothing that you can do about DYING. So you have to figure out how to live a good life in light of the fact that yes, you'll die one day. For me what helped was:

1. Working on acceptance. Yes, this will happen. No, there's nothing I can do about it. Okay. Well, shoot, all right, then.

2. Finding some small solace in the fact that everyone has gone and one day will go through it. It feels very solitary, the end of your existence. When actually it's the one thing that tethers together all living creatures. Solidarity, man. I'll die, too. Sucks, doesn't it? But what can you do. It's okay. It's part of being human.

3. To quit smoking pot. I was smoking way too much pot at 23.

4. To decide that I wanted to think about other things. I realized that this was a problem that was getting in the way of my living a good, happy life and so I would have to make a conscious effort to disrupt those mental patterns. It helps, in a way, that my father was a depressed mofo who obsessed about death constantly, right up until the day he died. What a waste that was--all that time fearing it when he could have been living. This is your chance, your only chance. You have to make the most of it.

5. To exercise more. To read or watch television before going to sleep. My thoughts, like yours, were right before bed. Distract yourself. Make yourself too tired to think about this crap. Which goes back to number 4.

6. To live with someone else. This was probably the biggest thing that improved it. I suspect for me a lot of it was tied in with feelings of loneliness and anxiety about loneliness--feeling disconnected from other people, wondering if I'd always feel this way, right up until the day that I kicked it. Getting a cat helped a lot, but sharing a bed with my husband most of all.

I still think about these things, but maybe once a month instead of nightly. It gets better. I promise.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:28 PM on March 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Are you perhaps subconsciously anxious about something else? I went through an intense period of what you describe when I graduated from college and moved away from my hometown to a new city, at 21. Like you, I was constantly ruminating about death, to the point that I wasn't sleeping at night, and for some reason I had this strange feeling that I would die soon. I was envisioning my accidental death in every possible scenario. For a time, it felt like every day would be my last.

Consciously, I wasn't anxious at all about moving away and entering the "real world" - I've always been a "que sera, sera" sort of person - but I think this change in my life must have subconsciously manifested itself as an existential crisis, because it went away for the most part a few months after I got settled into my "new life." I just got so caught up in things that I stopped thinking about it. And it's strange, because if you asked me at the time, these were things that I couldn't just "stop thinking about" - they were seriously bothering me. But it just went away over time - I got fixated on other things, like passing exams or getting a job, and then the daily grind of work. Time has been the best cure for whenever I get really anxious or angry about something and I can't get it out of my head. No amount of logic or rational self-reasoning has ever worked to eliminate my intrusive thoughts; it's only intensified them.

I've never felt it as intensely as I did back then, but since then I have felt some kind of fatalistic "I'll probably never come back from this" feeling when I embarked on trips abroad - but instead of fixating on it I just feel something like "oh well, so be it" and let the thought pass. It just doesn't bother me as much anymore.
posted by pravit at 8:34 PM on March 19, 2013

I have had the same existential crisis going on since I was in kindergarten and I've yet to find solace in anything. Unfortunately, mostly I try to distract myself and not think about it. Getting my sleep schedule on track--using blackout curtains, melatonin, ZMA, sleeping at normal hours--helped as well because it minimized the amount of time I lay awake at night paralyzed with fear.
posted by Anonymous at 8:43 PM on March 19, 2013

Response by poster: Thelonius: I've attempted to be mindful of those thoughts as they occur - simply acknowledging the thoughts before letting them pass, without reflecting on them - but I am often left with a rapid stream of them, and become overwhelmed.

Muddgirl and empath, this is the third or fourth year that I've required background noise to fall asleep. I'd queue enough episodes of Law and Order so that they'd stop by the time I started snoring. This method of tricking myself into sleeping stopped working last week. No amount of noise is a sufficient distraction, nor is the presence of other people. I've noticed that when my housemates are gone on weekends (or have gone to bed), my anxiety worsens. But that was happening well before I went into Existential Crisis Mode.

I should add that I have also tried the "I didn't care about dying before I was alive" lines of thinking - those do not work for me. I am unconcerned with my smallness, and I am not particularly worried about what will happen after I am dead (I do not want children and will not have any to leave behind, many of my friends will have passed, as will relatives). The only thing that appears to be driving me mad is the permanent loss of consciousness.

Also, Pravit, it is wholly possible that this is the manifestation of something else. A lot of Troublesome Things happened to me since January and haven't been resolved, including a situation involving my 77-year-old father that may wrongfully place him in prison. People in my family are ill, I'm struggling to keep myself afloat, etc. etc. etc. But it hasn't felt any more stressful than college had been for me, and I definitely didn't have this fixation back then.

Sorry for the wall of text - will go back to reading answers. Thank you to all who have replied so far. I am definitely reconsidering finding a therapist in my insurance network.
posted by Ashen at 8:54 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ashen, how exactly do you know that there is going to be a permanent loss of consciousness. I'm not talking about having a religion or faith in something. The point is that we just. don't. know. anything about this scenario that we find ourselves in. We don't know what consciousness is or where it comes from. We don't know what the universe is or what happened before it. We don't know anything at all. We have no idea.

There are monks that are requires to spend months or more meditating on their own deaths until they are no longer afraid of them. They eventually get to that point, so it is possible. Think of all the people who have committed suicide specifically because the idea of nothingness that they believe will be the result is such a relief to them. So it is POSSIBLE to not be afraid at all of that and find it to be a welcome concept. It is a matter of perspective.
posted by cairdeas at 9:40 PM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Read Plato's Apology of Socrates. Read it a few times. Let Socrates's ideas about death work their way into your bones.

I am a religious person but frankly nothing has ever been as comforting to me at 3 a.m. when freaking out about mortality as Socrates's calm certainty that death is not to be feared, and his clear explanations as to why not EVEN IF death is mere extinction.

Seriously my whole college degree may have been worth it just for the comfort I get from that. As I am rather prone to fretting about mortality. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:42 PM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, Ashen, have you ever tried anti-anxiety medication? I have anxiety and it gets way, way, way worse at night or when I'm sleep-deprived or tired overall. There are lots of things I can't let myself think about at night at all. I'm not even just talking about really scary things, I'm talking about mundane things like getting all the tasks I need to do completed in a certain timeframe, or paying off my loans on a certain schedule, etc. I start thinking, "No, I can't. I can't. There's no way that I can possibly do that" and I start getting worked up and before I know it I am all frazzled and an anxious mess. But once I've gotten enough sleep? The very same thing can seem like the silliest non-problem ever. I have a feeling that even if it takes you a while to come around to a way of thinking about this that you are truly and fully okay with, it will not cause you as much acute distress if you try anti-anxiety medication.
posted by cairdeas at 9:51 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sometimes these are called ruminating thoughts. Lots of people have them to some extent, but they shouldn't affect your life in the ways you're describing. They can be a symptom of depression or stress, and from your update it sounds like you've been under a lot of stress lately.

But it hasn't felt any more stressful than college had been for me...

It could be stress showing up in your life in a different way than you're used to.

I've had ruminating thoughts in the past…not death specifically but I was spending a lot of time worrying about big things that I couldn't control (probably because I felt kind of out of control). For me, the way to stop them was to treat the underlying problem (depression in my case). The good news is that once I treated the underlying problem they went away on their own, without me trying to untangle them.
posted by balacat at 9:54 PM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: Can I suggest a book to you? It's called Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, and is written by a psychiatrist who specializes in treating people who are crippled by their constant awareness of the inevitability of death. He would say you're not wrong to give your death some thought -- but he offers ways to come to peace with it and free up your mind to focus on other things (like, namely, living).

The author himself is getting up there in years, and so part of the book also deals with the fact that he, too, is having to confront this issue. I found it a very beautiful and moving reflection on just what you're going through.
posted by artemisia at 10:34 PM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Thinking about the aspect of death that you described scares the absolute crap out of me. So much that I couldn't finish reading your post. When I think about it for too long, I get anxious and pace around and freak out. While some tell themselves heaven exists to make themselves feel better, I am pretty firmly an atheist.

Honestly, I just avoid thinking about it. I don't let me mind get to that place. When I'm feeling really anxious, I watch stuff that is happy and doesn't have any aspect of death. Re-runs of The Office or Parks & Rec that I know are innocuous. Etc. I got to the point where I had to fall asleep listening to The Office on a laptop beside my bed. I've seen/heard some episodes maybe 30 times (and was still amused by them). I would listen to the show to avoid thinking about stuff and fall asleep to it. I even made a bedtime edit of episodes back to back with the credits cut out, haha. It helped me fall asleep without ruminating. But then, I am not the type who can tune things out easily -- some people can ignore background noise easily, but I tend to focus on what I hear around me. So, I'm not sure that devoting more time to thinking about this is the first answer. I would try to just stop thinking about it. Move on and accept that it scares you and don't worry about it. The truth is, it's inevitable and there's not much to do about it, so you just need to let it go.

Maybe some will argue that's the exact opposite advice, but now I don't need to put anything on when I go to sleep. I got out of my bedtime anxiety, for the most part. A big part of that for me was feeling safe. Living in a place where I felt safe from intruders, fires, all that, even though logically I knew the odds of any of that stuff was so low to begin with. If it is very persistent and ruining your life, go see someone. But after a week, I think you make just be working yourself up. It's happened to me, where for like a solid week I was scared something horrible would happen to someone I loved. I just let myself get worked up and feed on my thoughts to make it worse. Nothing ever happened. I just had to eventually say I am being ridiculous and I need to steer my thoughts elsewhere. Good luck.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:14 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh and to answer one of your other questions, I don't think this is depression but probably anxiety. I have dealt with anxiety in different forms in my life, so I guess I am a little prone to it. You might be too.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:30 PM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: One more thought. I think one reason that the idea of loss of consciousness is scary is that when we're alive, we're vulnerable and helpless and have zero control of ourselves and what happens to us when we lose consciousness. However, in death, we're not vulnerable anymore at all. If you think this might be part of what is behind your fear, I think you could work on separating this for yourself.
posted by cairdeas at 11:39 PM on March 19, 2013

Agreeing with other commenters that it's anxiety.

Something similar has happened to me a few times, and it's linked to periods of high stress in my life, although the stress isn't specifically tied in any logical/rational way. That is to say, it's not like "Someone I know recently died. I'm going to die someday too!" -- it's like, "I just started a new job, and it's really hard and I'm kind of off-balance and my mind is running in circles. ... Damn, I can't sleep because I can't stop thinking about the fact that eventually I will die!"

So you may find that reducing stress in other parts of your life helps more than trying to intellectually 'solve' the problem.
posted by Lady Li at 11:46 PM on March 19, 2013

I'm exactly the same way. I hold to the Woody Allen solutions: do 5 things at once, focus on little things, and read Ernest Becker's book 'The Denial of Death'. Also try therapy, medication, and marijuana.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:03 AM on March 20, 2013

Keep in mind you essentially die every time you go to sleep.
posted by rmmcclay at 1:12 AM on March 20, 2013

I am occasionally terrified by death in exactly the way you describe. The fear, while intense, only comes occasionally for me, and passes quickly. From what I have read, I get the impression that it's not unusual. I have somehow developed a kind of mental sleight-of-hand by which I can think about it on some level (as I am doing now, to write this reply), while skirting the mental abyss of actually comprehending what it means. Unfortunately I cannot explain how I do this; it's a seemingly impossible mental trick, like "don't think about a unicorn", but somehow I have learned to (mostly) keep my mind out of that groove.

Philip Larkin's Aubade describes the sensation perfectly. "This is a special way of being afraid / No trick dispels..." he writes, and later: "And so it stays just on the edge of vision / A small unfocused blur...". Somehow I've found a way to avoid looking at that blur, though none of us can get rid of it. Maybe a therapist could help you to keep your attention off it.
posted by pont at 1:31 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Keep in mind you essentially die every time you go to sleep.

Don't do this, as it may cause insomnia as the death-fear keeps you awake.

I tell myself that other people exist, and they're fine, so I'll be fine. Or I read nonfiction or watch boring TV or listen to dramatic music.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:58 AM on March 20, 2013

Agree with the anxiety, although depression may be a factor. And of course, anti-depressants may help with anxiety as well. And the opinion of trained professionals should never be under-rated, if only for noticing the things that are so obvious that we miss them!

I don't get it to the same degree as you do, but I have thought about death most of my life. Things that help me are finding other people who think about death, preferably through their literary or creative output. Hamlet's famous soliloquy, for example—forget how many times you've heard "to be or not to be", the rest of it is where the deep thinking is. I continually marvel that Shakespeare nailed it in such a way that his words resonate hundreds of years later. Neil Gaiman's characterisation of Death helped me a lot too, in a weird way. And every time I am standing on a train platform thinking how easy it would be to slip and fall in front of it, I think of the film Look Both Ways which has one character who is obsessed with thoughts of death (not necessarily wanted) and another who is going to die. Amazing film.

Sometimes it helps to know you are not the only one.
posted by Athanassiel at 2:14 AM on March 20, 2013

I think you need anti-anxiety meds. IANAD, IANAPhilosopher.
posted by tel3path at 2:42 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had obsessive thoughts like this when I was 16-18 years old. Insomnia, panic attacks, social anxiety, etc.
Started taking Celexa and CBT and it went away for the most part. A couple of years ago - at 29, I went medication free for a year and everything came back. So... now I'm back on my meds.. and everything improved once again..

So... meds work for me.
posted by KogeLiz at 4:20 AM on March 20, 2013

I have this problem and have had it since I was a very young child. I used to be frequently reduced to a totally useless panicked blob because of these intrusive thoughts. The biggest problem was always that I knew my fears were rational -- I always envied people with "irrational" phobias (like a fear of tin foil).

In the end what helped me was trying to refocus on something very concrete -- I find that washing my hands is very soothing. Hot water, soap, nice smell, etc. If it's not too late at night I go for a walk. The only thing that works for me is some kind of distraction that encourages me to get outside my own head, otherwise I can't sleep.

All of that said I'm a very successful professional only a bit older than you, so even though I have the same fears (to what sounds like a similar degree) I've learned to manage it. Knowing other people suffer from this too has been comforting.
posted by blue_bicycle at 5:08 AM on March 20, 2013

I went through a couple of weeks of screaming convulsive fear about this; and then about 4am one night I realized hey, I'm not going to be there to worry about it at the time. And it just stopped right there.

My takeaway from that however is while there are solutions to it, one can't just hear a solution and be all right. The answer comes from within; and even if it's something you've heard before, you wouldn't have felt it like that before.

Anecdotally (and thus fairly unreliably) I'd recommend slightly altered states to try and get to that point. -Not- any sort of escapism; but something that makes the mental cogwheels slip and point you in a different direction when you're confronting the issue.
posted by solarion at 5:41 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had intrusive thoughts in my late teens. Your question reminds me of what my life was like then.

What helped:
(1) Recognising an upsetting thought as it arrived into my brain. Identifying it: "This is an upsetting thought. I will never get to the bottom of this upsetting matter. Ruminating upon this is not going to help me."
(2) Realising that the content of the intrusive thought was a red herring. The real problem was not the content of the thought - in my case "What if XYZ terrible thing happens? What will I do? it could happen. It has happened to other people before. I will just Google the risk of it happening. Oh, God, it looks like it affects lots of people. It could happen to me." But that was all irrelevant. The problem that was getting me down was not the risk of a terrible thing happening to me. The problem was that the thought was upsetting me.
(3) Distraction / diversionary tactics. I read a lot of comic novels back then, to take my brain away from the dark places it would otherwise go.
(4) Demystifying the thought, making it less scary. Some very wise Ask Mefi commenter once called obsessive thoughts akin to a pigeon flying over you and pooping on your path (apologies, I can't remember who said this and I can't track down the exact quote). It's just a thing, a blip.

I'm much, much better now but occasionally the upsetting thoughts do come back. Like yours, and blue_bicycle's, they were rooted in rational fears. But I am so used to dealing with them now that it has become almost a subconscious act. "Oh. Scary thought. Step over it, be careful not to get any of it on your shoes, walk the hell away."

I hope that wasn't too rambly and I hope it helped a little. Do be aware you're not alone, and do seek out therapy if you continue to feel bad.
posted by Ziggy500 at 5:43 AM on March 20, 2013

I think you should definitely try Benzodiazapenes. I've found myself getting caught up in ruminating about unpleasant things, and finally it occurs to me that it's anxiety, and I remember to take my Klonopin, and it's amazing how quickly the thoughts stop.

As to death specifically, I had a boyfriend once that had some ideas about death that I found interesting. He had come across the idea somewhere that what we think of as the afterlife is really a dream. There are a few minutes of brain activity after death/after the heart and breathing stop. He believed that what happened in those few minutes was a dreamlike state where anything was possible, which could seem like eternity because of how time works in dreams. It also explains people with near-death experiences describing some sort of afterlife. I always liked that idea, and find it rather comforting.
posted by catatethebird at 6:59 AM on March 20, 2013

If you like logic and philosophy, Shelly Kagan's class on Death (via Yale Open Courses) is mind-opening.
posted by crookedneighbor at 7:14 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Questions, paraphrased.

1. 'Is this a new facet of my existing depression?'
Maybe; medical professionals will be able to help you identify this as depression or anxiety or plain old excessive worrying. No one but your doctor can tell you whether this is related to your discontinuation of Citalopram; anecdatally, that stuff did nothing for my severe bouts of existential despair.

2. 'If not, is it normal to think about this stuff all the time?'
To me, absolutely. Reflecting on my own mortality makes me remember how the only thing I want from life is to leave the world a marginally better place than it was when I was forced to come into it. That can be done through friendship or politeness or sharing stories or volunteering or WHATEVER. Anything that is good, that's what I want to try to do, whenever I have the chance to do so; the reminder that death is unavoidable and omnipresent is a proverbial daily kick in the ass. Keeping it in the back (and sometimes very front) of my mind that I will eventually die -- and that I will never for a second have any idea how/when/where unless I am awake/aware when it is about to happen -- means that every moment has the capacity to be used to make a little change or do a little something to further progress on that goal.

3. 'What else could it be?'
Quarter-life crisis! Reading coming-of-age stories from similarly angsty and overanalytical people helped me with this. AHWOSG, for example.

4. 'Fellow 24/7 memento mori-ers, what do you do to handle it?'
As someone who was deeply entrenched in suicidal thoughts for most of her life, I only started to fear death after I stopped running headlong down a very self-destructive path, after I stopped actively putting myself in situations where death had a significantly higher likelihood of occurring than it would if I was just hanging out like a normal person. I stopped doing this pretty goddamned late in the game, around age 28 or thereabouts.
Now, every single time I wake up, a near-constant background hum starts up as soon as I open my eyes, and it goes, "Holy shit, I woke up! Awesome! Congratulations! I'm awake, I'm alive! What now? What now? What do I do now? I can do almost anything, it is a new day! How fucking weird is this whole thing? It could go away anytime, but let's do some nice stuff as long as we're still here!" This happens on even the worst days, even on the days where I start crying right away and can't stop. Just carry a bag of groceries for someone, give them your bus transfer, throw some spare change in the tollbooth, chip in to pay off a stranger's library fines, hold the door for the people behind you, never tip less than 20%, always say please and thank you -- do tiny nice stuff, and if someone does something tiny and nice for you, pass it on. It helps.

Realistically: I work in a cube farm, a line of employ in which I will probably remain until I kick the bucket. I'm not very talented at anything, I don't have a great romantic love or a great career or any education whatsoever. But I'm fucking alive! Yeah! I'm healthy with great friends and co-workers and the ability to consistently feed and shelter myself and my pets, and every moment I am allowed to keep this station in life makes me so damn lucky in a way that I know I'll never be able to truly understand. Every moment, every breath, every experience, even the most horrible ones, the ones that feel like they're shattering my spirit -- it's all suddenly so precious that it almost hurts. Every time I wake up it feels a little bit like my birthday (usually) with less cake. There is unimaginable suffering in every corner of the earth; it's up to us to do something -- anything! -- about it instead of just ruminating on why the world sucks so much or why you can't do more. Just do, and ask questions later. You'll have a lot of years to ask questions.

Yes, yes to exercise! HIIT is good. It tires your body and your wild mind. And meditation! To help you remember that every single thought is just a thought, and to help you realize that we have all always been here, and we will all always be here -- just maybe not in the location or form we're used to. The electricity in your brain that is creating your thoughts to read these words right now was, before you were alive, inside something else and in another place. After you have died, that very same electricity -- the precise 'essence' of you, all your wishes and hopes and dreams and memories and fears -- will go... elsewhere. It's just a law of physics. You probably won't know it, but it won't be the end! Maybe I'm weird in feeling that thought wrap around me like a warm blanket every time it crosses my mind, but it comforts me in a way nothing else does.

Possibly relevant: I bought a print of this and keep it hung in a prominent spot where I see it every single day. I also try to keep the Noble Eightfold Path in mind when I am presented with nearly any decision, because I know that taking the right view, intention, speech, and action will lead to greater peace, both with the acceptance of our eventual individual and collective demise and life as it is this very second.

Straight to the point, to quote the inimitable Nicole Blackman, how do you handle it? The ambitions are: Wake up, breathe, keep breathing. (Oh, and Klonopin.)
posted by divined by radio at 8:37 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Update:

Multiple posters have mentioned anxiety, and I decided to investigate my feelings this morning. I realized that a significant source of my stress is from what will take place this evening. The verdict, depending on its nature, has the potential to hasten his death. There's no need to elaborate here, except to say that I am a witness to previous events and it is an unlimited source of horror (and continued ire towards the legal system) that HE is the one facing a sentence. If found guilty, I am very certain that the man will die of sadness before ever setting foot in jail. I don't want his last moments to be in a cell, or anything other than going peacefully near people he loves, and that began to worry me shortly before my anxiety kicked in. Maybe that's why I'm suddenly worried about MY death?

If all goes well, maybe the nightly existential crises will go away after the trial. If not...then I will need the suggestions that you all have offered me. Either way, I am definitely going to find an affordable therapist.

Thank you so much for each your replies.
posted by Ashen at 9:59 AM on March 20, 2013

1) Possibly, yes. Depression and anxiety are kinda two sides of the same coin for a lot of people. In a way, anxiety was the good side for me, because it was unbearable and gave me motivation to seek treatment, whereas depression just sorta dragged on.

2) On a daily basis, no, not really. I asked my therapist about the norm regarding this during my freaking-out phase and she said, "No, they don't" and when I asked how she just said, "They just....don't." That sounds useless but when I'm well, it's actually the goddamned truth. When I'm well, I still know exactly what I went through when the anxiety or depression was worse, but it just seems incomprehensible and frankly, nuts, all the same. I do think that early 20s is a likely age for this but that doesn't mean it's "normal" or that you have to endure it.

3) Anxiety. It may be that you need to be motivated to consider your spirituality or life meaning or whatever, but it's my opinion that you'll be in a better place to do so without the constant background of terror.

4) Around the same age, I went through basically exactly what you describe (so memail me anytime)--also agnostic, the anxiety attacks, trouble sleeping because I worried I would die in my sleep or sleep freaked me out for being like death, generally worse at night, fixation during the day. I also woke from sleep a lot and during the worst of it I'd wake up about once a week freaking out (10 on a scale of 10) that I was already dead.

Things that helped a bit in the moment but did not address the problem:
-going to sleep listening to TV shows I'm familiar with
-calling my night-owl ex who had experience with mental health issues to talk on the phone until I would fall asleep and he would hang up (this worked well on about half my late night panic attacks, but left me feeling pretty guilty about the state of our friendship)
-calling anyone else at other times of day and talking about anything but my anxious thoughts

Things that helped, addressed the problem, but did not solve it:
-telling myself not existing after I'm dead is likely to be a lot like not existing before I was born was
-telling myself that every lifeform dies and dying is a part and parcel with living and living ain't so bad so why would dying be much worse
-coming up with something a lot like FAMOUS MONSTER's point #1: Dying is the one thing I absolutely *have* to do (I could opt out of literally everything else right now, but it means dying), in fact everyone ever born had or has to, and we only do it once (per incarnation, even if you're into that), though I may nearly do it a few times. Also, the anxiety attacks, real as they are, are possibly about as scary as dying is to begin with, because the stopping existing is nothing, it's all about the fear. So, by visualizing it and panicking again and again, I'm just making myself do the worst part of dying way more times than I have to, and isn't that silly. Marshalling your thoughts in this manner works awesomely on almost any type of unproductive worrying (sometimes a worry leads to preventative action or a change of decision, and that's the only kind that's worth your time), by the way, and is a skill that's almost but not quite worth what I went through to get it.

Things that totally did not help in the moment:
-researching any philosophical or spiritual thought on this matter because it just turned into late nights at my computer freaking out about eternity
-exercise (though I do believe it works for others)
-insisting that probably everyone should think about this a lot more and that I was just reacting to reality
-talking to the non-professional and non-experienced about the anxiety, people just don't get it but I can't blame them now that I know how foreign it seems

What really worked:
-talk therapy
-using books and the internet to learn about anxiety and believing it described me
-reading about CBT even though at the time it wasn't that effective for me (since medication, all the valient effort I put into making this work when it just wouldn't without chemical boost has really paid off, but I can't really recommend it all the same)
-setting my life up to spend less time alone
-having a Xanax prescription around. I never used but it allowed me to be less afraid of having another panic attack such that I actually had fewer
-being willing to try new, uncharacteristic things based on the logic that my intuition wasn't exactly working for me at that point and so just because I believed it wouldn't work didn't mean that was true (aka living life on "opposite day" mode)
-and just the passing of time. My anxiety waxes and wanes for reasons I can't adequately quantify.

And now that I've seen that things can change once, whenever I have a brief spell of it again (mostly of the waking up terrified, man, that sucks), it helps a lot just to know that it's temporary, and it helps to know what worked before. I know it's really hard to see that the first time which is why I think being willing to go counter to your intuition for a while is important.
posted by zizania at 10:33 AM on March 20, 2013

As Wittgenstein said, there's no reason to fear death because it is not an event. You don't experience death, so why should you fear it? You only live, that's the thing.

Of course, the irrationality of the fear of death is often what makes it worse.

But for me, knowing it doesn't make sense to fear non-existence, is helpful, and I try, in a way, to look forward to it. Why is existence any better than non-existence? It isn't; it's just that our lizard brain survival instinct tricks us into a false sense of needing to be alive.

Death will be kind of nice, I think. Relaxing. But no reason to rush it, either. It will come at some point - until then, there's no reason to dwell on it. You try to enjoy the present. That is all you can do.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:31 AM on March 20, 2013

Meditation can help you learn how to control intrusive or just not helpful thoughts. In fact, there are meditations designed to help one accept the inevitability of death. Meditation is like exercise: most useful when practiced consistently. I am woefully poor at keeping a practice and I can feel the difference between times where I keep it up and times I don't. Although there also seems to be a threshhold where once you learn some skill here you can get back on it like a bicycle.

Like any exercise, start simply and slowly with the meditation on breathing and incrementally adding minutes to meditation before moving up to the really hard stuff like long meditation or meditating on the inevitability of death.

I found this book and the accompanying MP3s very useful:
posted by Skwirl at 11:56 AM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: If found guilty, I am very certain that the man will die of sadness before ever setting foot in jail. I don't want his last moments to be in a cell, or anything other than going peacefully near people he loves, and that began to worry me shortly before my anxiety kicked in. Maybe that's why I'm suddenly worried about MY death?

These are not rational thoughts. This is atastrophizing--it's anxiety talking, not your brain.

The reason this is making you contemplate your death is likely because this is the first time you've contemplated a parents' death (even if, again, it's not rational). Our parents provide us with a sort of buffer from having to contemplate our own mortality--so long as they're around, we feel safe to assume we are, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:05 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm 41 and still have major death issues (probably underlying my anxiety and agoraphobia). Recently, one of my 3.5yr old twins has begun asking about death ALMOST EVERY NIGHT as we try to get her to sleep ("When you die do your bones all come out?" "I don't want to get any older or die, but just stay a kid").
One thing that helped--among many that have been mentioned--was reading "The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker (though I don't know how much I fully comprehended at 21). I don't know WHY it helped--for example, he argues that the least bad option is to use self-delusion (religious faith--something I don't have and don't want) to mitigate this primary death anxiety. He thinks we need illusions.
Perhaps I got to bask in the, er, knowledge that at least my suffering was honest...or accepting that death anxiety was natural and paralyzing (and fighting nature or being paralyzed wasn't going to help anything).
Still, since death is unknowable, I think you're attitudes toward it are based on you--and vary accordingly, depending on how you feel (and it sounds like you're in a bad place at the moment with a trial and catastrophizing it as a death, etc.).
posted by whatgorilla at 1:17 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Twenty-one was the first age where I became truly aware of mortality. It's shocking to realize that what you think of as real is a transient experience, nothing more than a single point on a continuum stretching all of time and space. I don't think that mortality-awareness is a special condition of being in your early twenties, but that is certainly a time of change and uncertainty, and such times force us to reconsider what our lives will mean when we're gone.

As for me, I want to say all the philosophy and thanatos-heavy literature helped, but I think in the end, I just stopped giving a shit that I am going to die. Death, to me, is a big cosmic joke. I decided that my existential dread was better spent as the furnace of my creative work. Instead of spending so much mental effort trying to "solve" my fear of death, I'd rather spend that energy doing something constructive. I mean, of course I'm scared of death – who isn't? – but so what? Fear of death itself isn't interesting – it's how you respond to your impending death that matters.
posted by deathpanels at 10:14 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a sudden realisation once that it's not actual death I needed to worry about (because, obviously, I'd be dead) but the idea of my death. That might sound silly, but actually it kind of reduces the size of the issue you have to grapple with.
posted by nihotaniwha at 4:48 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Last update: the case was dismissed. Last night, the death anxiety dropped down from a 10 (panic attacks, all night) to a 5 (worrying, but I can be distracted). AND I slept a solid 7 hours and even remember my dreams during that period, so y'all were right! Anxiety in one area of my life influenced the presence of anxiety in another.

I'll look at this thread whenever my anxiety ratchets up to a 10 in the future.

Thank you again!
posted by Ashen at 6:36 PM on March 21, 2013

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