I can't stop thinking about death.
January 25, 2007 9:55 PM   Subscribe

I can't stop thinking about death.

Pretty much every night before I go to sleep, I'm thinking about not waking up the next day. I'm checking my pulse constantly through the day, often feel ghost pains in my chest and arms, and feel like my breath is coming exceptionally short. All of this leads me to think that I'm going to die, and if it hits hard enough, I can't fall asleep and start hyperventilating and shaking and generally freaking out. All the while it's impacting my daily life; during the day I'm so miserable that I don't really know what to do with myself. I often find myself drinking myself into a state of semi-numbness in order to find a way to dull what has become an ever present pain, which often makes the next day even worse. It's become a cycle I don't really know how to stop.

The thing that irks me the most is that nothing's outright wrong. My life is actually going very well for once; I've been writing lots of music (I'm a music comp major at my college), I've got a 3.2 GPA for the first time ever, my course load is easy, I got promoted at work, all encounters with my family have been fine, and I've got very, very solid relationship with an amazing girl that's been going for a year and a couple months. I don't really understand why now of all times I've been freaking out about my medical health, even if I consciously know nothing's wrong with me.

The question I have is, where do I go? I've never been one for asking others for help, but at this point I feel like I need to do something in order to get to sleep at night / stop feeling so damn down during the day. I need help and, frankly, I'm at a loss of ideas of where to go to for that. I can't continue drinking myself into the ground, and I sure as hell can't spend the rest of my days feeling like there's nothing I'm living for.

(A little background; I'm twenty years old at a private lib. arts college in New England, have been an athlete for many years, am in decent shape, have never had any health problems, etc.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The fact that you know you need help, and are willing to ask for it, is a very positive thing... If you don't have a local doctor, go to your student health services and tell them exactly what you've told us... They will steer you toward someone who can help (either a medical doctor or a therapist, or both)... There IS help for you and you CAN feel better.
posted by amyms at 10:03 PM on January 25, 2007

Yes, go to student health services or counselling services on your campus. Just go. No big deal, almost everyone in college goes through at least one very hard psychological time like this -- please believe me that I've talked to a *lot* of students with similar feelings -- and the first step is just to go talk to someone about it. Call, and then go talk to the counselling services people. You could even ask around to see if any of their staff is highly recommended by other people you know.

Often your health insurance will pay for several appointments with a therapist in town, if you don't want to go talk to someone on campus. And many therapists can take a few students on a reduced-fee basis, if money is a problem.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:17 PM on January 25, 2007

Anon, if you'd like to e-mail me, I have some thoughts I'd like to share privately. (This is word for word something I've been through.)
posted by Zosia Blue at 10:19 PM on January 25, 2007

It sounds like you're having panic attacks. It's not something you can just get over any more than you could diabetes. Go see student psychological services, tell them what you told us. Insist on a consult with the campus psychiatrist (not just a therapist -- not that I'm knocking therapy), only he can tell you whether you'd benefit from some medicine or other.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:21 PM on January 25, 2007

If it helps you to put a name and definition to this issue, it sounds like you are suffering from anxiety. I went through the same thing about two years ago when my husband was in a severe motorcycle accident. I didn't think about *me* dying but I was tortured nonstop by thoughts of him dying, even after he was home and recovered.

Anxiety manifests itself in obsessive thoughts that often feel like they spiral out of control, no matter how irrational you know they are deep down. "What-if" thoughts, when they become paralyzing, are particularly common. You can get help for this, and you are not alone, not by any margin. IANAD, just sympathetic. I was able to deal with my anxiety without drugs. Good luck.
posted by Brittanie at 10:25 PM on January 25, 2007

Maybe the reason you're freaking out is because there is nothing wrong with you. On the surface your life seems great and yet you're still constantly plauged by thoughts of death. Why? Maybe because you realise (on a subconscious level), that having the perfect life doesn't stop it from ending, that nothing you do no matter if you study hard, work well, etc, will stop that inevitable descent off this mortal coil.

Death freaks us all out and there are times in our life when that impending fear of it happening no matter what can take over. The best thing I found to overcome this, albeit temporarily, is to talk through it. I know you said you're not one to ask for help but this question shows that you realise its time that you need to do it. Whoever it is, a family memeber, a friend, a professional, be honest and upfront. You'll probably be surprised when you find out that they have gone through similar experiences themselves.

Just voicing your concerns may alleviate some of your worry and may also help put it all into perspective. I hope I have been some help. Enjoy life, it's the only one you have.
posted by liquorice at 10:25 PM on January 25, 2007

As has already been mentioned, this sounds like classic anxiety disorder and panic attacks. Something I'm all too familiar with, I'm afraid.

When I was at my peak (which was, incidentally, when I was your age), I was constantly thinking that I was having a stroke or a heart attack. Like you, I'd check my pulse constantly. Once, I rushed to the doctor and was hooked up to an EKG machine only to be told that I was perfectly normal and healthy.

As with all ask.me posts relating to a medical condition, the answer is simple: go see a doctor. If you're dealing with something more than an anxiety disorder, you'll want to know ASAP. If not, you can start exploring treatment options right away - anxiety problems and panic attacks are entirely treatable.

In my case, I found that Paxil made all of my symptoms disappear. I simply felt normal. You might find a similar medication that works for you. Or perhaps talk therapy will work. The point is, you don't have to feel miserable anymore.

If you look through my comments and posts, you'll notice that I've written a lot about these issues on MeFi. My email is in my profile if you'd like to talk it over off site.

Good luck!
posted by aladfar at 10:35 PM on January 25, 2007

I can't tell you exactly "why" you're having these problems, but it's something I certainly can relate to. For me, it started when I was in my early 20's, and meant I was building up to having my first anxiety attack (I've dealt with these "attacks" on and off for the last 10 years).

My solution was counseling (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and anti-anxiety meds.

I still think about death quite a bit and find it strange when others don't think about it ;) How can you not? Come on... However, those constant dark thoughts did become debilitating. I've been able to manage them with time.

I would suggest counseling at least (maybe your student center?). Meds worked for me, but I don't want to come off like a pusher.

As you can tell, you're certainly not alone in what you're going through. And best of luck in your music degree.
posted by Kloryne at 10:35 PM on January 25, 2007

I agree with many of the people above -- I had this exact same issue several years ago. I've come to realize that death was simply the "sure thing" my anxiety could latch on to that would freak me out every time.

Some quick advice: first, get help. Second, cut your caffine intake if it's high. This did wonders for me.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:46 PM on January 25, 2007

Everyone stresses out, true, but not everyone feels it physiologically. It's really quite overwhelming. If it's affecting your daily life this much, it's worth seeing a doctor for. Some depressive disorders have anxiety as the main mood symptom rather than sadness. And all that fretting is just exhausting.

Surely there's a clinic on campus, even my little tiny liberal arts school had one. There's also probably a psychology department, and they can at least tell you where to start. The point is that this is no longer just in your head, it's in your body, so it needs medical attention just like anything else would. There are ways to fix these things. There are lights at ends of tunnels.

Email is in the profile.
posted by ultraultraboomerang at 10:53 PM on January 25, 2007

You are mired in the human condition. The existentialist dilemma. You can turn to drugs, jesus, meditation, extreme sports, music, sun-worship, tantric sex, or drinking the blood of virgins. Everyone has their preferred means, and many are inclined to espouse their view to others. I am not.

I sure as hell can't spend the rest of my days feeling like there's nothing I'm living for.

What if this is the truth? If you don't think it is, run with that.
posted by phrontist at 11:24 PM on January 25, 2007

Based on your description, you have a treatable mental illness. Go see a doctor, tell him or her exactly what you wrote above - heck, just print it out and hand it to the doc - and get into treatment.

Don't wait. The typical thing is to try to wait it out, to try to deny it's happening, to try to find do-it-yourself ways of dealing with it (like unhealthy amounts of alcohol) while all the while it's just getting worse and worse, meanwhile spoiling all the days.

Be smarter than that; nip it in the bud. Don't worry about what it's called; don't try to fix it yourself. We have professionals - they're called doctors - who can help you fix this, much the same way your car mechanic would help you fix a blown head gasket on your car.

Get right on down to student health. Go now. What, you've got something better to do?
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:38 PM on January 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wise words, as always, ikkyu2.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:47 PM on January 25, 2007

Ahh... the ol' palpitation shit i'm gonna die!! heartbeat while you are trying to sleep. It's happened to me on a few occasions. Scary shit I must admit. The heavy drinking is a big factor in that. I've talked to my doctor about it. Apparently it drops the blood pressure in your body due to the continual thinning of your blood (ergo, your heart has to work fairly hard to get blood to all your systems). I'm not a doctor, but when and if you see one, I guarantee he will tell you to stop drinking or cut down significantly. My last episode had me recanting on my supposed deathbed (which might be my next ask.meta.question). Just take a break from the booze...it's actually killing you.
posted by Totally Zanzibarin' Ya at 11:52 PM on January 25, 2007

Often it's called "Counseling and Psychological Services" (CAPS) at many schools. You probably get X sessions for free.

Sounds like possibly Generalized Anxiety Disorder--with anxiety or panic attacks (these are slightly different).

I'd highly recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) -- which is likely the course that a counselor would take with you anyway.

There is help, hope, and you will feel better and get through this! Isn't that great news? Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem for Americans (hence why you already have so many responses)!

(Yes, also: decrease the caffeine, increase the exercise, get enough sleep, and do anything else that you enjoy to destress: hang out with friends, watch movies, meditate--whatever works for you.) Often your body and mind get into a vicious cycle with this stuff: you take your pulse, which makes you nervous. You get nervous, which increases your pulse. Your heart beats faster, stronger, and this makes you more nervous. Body -> Mind -> Emotion and back to Body again. It also helps to recognize these triggers beforehand--so if you do drink a cup of coffee--expect that it will make you jittery and make your heart beat faster, so that you recognize it's the coffee that's doing it, not you.
posted by gramcracker at 12:44 AM on January 26, 2007

Sounds like me too. In my case, Xanax was a temporary patch, CBT a longer term solution (it took about six months of work). They'll also tell you to cut back on the caffeine and get some exercise.

It's not something you ever fully get over. I still have an attack every 2-3 months. But it's far better than every night.

It's nothing to worry about. Anxiety disorders are common (if you can't already tell), and there's lots of help out there. But get yourself to a doc and get a referral to someone who has experience with panic and anxiety disorders. Or call the counseling office on campus and see if they have any recommendations.
posted by dw at 12:50 AM on January 26, 2007

I'm yet another who can relate - I was obsessed with death from ages eight through nineteen, although my side benefits were various compulsive rituals rather than panicked hyperventilation (usually). SSRIs (first Zoloft, now Lexapro) swept me clean of most of my anxieties. I know how it feels to spend your life terrified. You deserve relief and happiness. Please seek help, and take care of yourself. Best of luck to you.
posted by granted at 1:49 AM on January 26, 2007

If you smoke dope, give it up. I suffer from anxiety/panic too, and dope aggravates it to the point of having panic attacks that last for hours.

There's nothing wrong with you. There are tons of people out there with similar issues, including me, and loads of people who can help.
posted by ReiToei at 2:33 AM on January 26, 2007

Definitely panic attacks. I suffered from them as a student. For a period, they were completely debilitating. For me, I only got over the problem when I saw a documentary about it. When I realised that's all it was, I was able to rationalise that there was nothing wrong with me and break the feedback cycle.
posted by salmacis at 3:18 AM on January 26, 2007

I'll chime in with everyone else and say go see your student health services. Most colleges have psychologists on staff to help students deal with stress and life issues, and a comprehensive health evaluation would not hurt, either.

My second year of college, I started having some similar symptoms. By the time I went to the doctor, I was really ill from the underlying medical problem that was ultimately at fault. I wish I had gone sooner and not tried to manage it myself (drinking so I could try to rest, etc.). If something is not feeling right and normal to you, it's time to find out what's going on.

Good health to you.
posted by bloggerwench at 7:46 AM on January 26, 2007

Everyone has pretty much nailed it so far.

But I'm surprised no one has mentioned this caveat so far: student mental health services are famous for outright incompetence, bordering on dangerous. (although maybe your school is different than mine was)

Definitely talk to them, but if you feel like you're not getting what you need from them, look for someone outside the school asap.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:12 AM on January 26, 2007

Do you realize—that everyone you know someday will die?
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes—let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn't go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round...

So sure, therapy can help. Anti-anxiety meds can help. Cutting down on caffeine and not trying to numb the fear with alcohol can help. Yoga can help. I took all of those steps to help reduce my own issues with anxiety (and depression), and in and of themselves they're certainly not off the mark.

But in the end, you are going to die. Your good grades won't matter. Even the most loving of relationships won't last forever. It is the essential existential drama -- and you have a choice in what to do with that knowledge. You can despair and let inevitability of death make your life meaningless. Or you can accept it in as a necessary precondition to making your life more precious and meaningful than ever. It's up to you.

I came very close to bleeding to death a couple of years ago. As I've mentioned elsewhere, it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened in my life.
posted by scody at 11:46 AM on January 26, 2007

Everyone has had great advice on here.

Ernest Becker's book The Denial of Death helped me when I was going through what you're facing. I also got into Erich Fromm around then. Try Goethe. And Freud too...You get so caught up in trying to figure out what he's talking about, you temporarily forget about dying ;-) Freud, love him or hate him, is one of the few moderns who had the courage to face issues around death and the human need to avoid/face/come to terms with/sublimate it, etc. So did the great tragedians of the past, and Lear and Hamlet are profound treatments of this theme as well. I find it comforting to read about what I'm afraid of, but you may not (if so, scratch that suggestion!).

If it's any consolation, a lot of high-achievers and famous people have what used to be called breakdowns at your age. John Stuart Mill and others. I know, I didn't find it consoling either ;-) But it's a classy club to be a member of!

My advice would be, instead of avoiding the unpleasant feelings, to let them inform and enrich your art. Keep doing your art! Art isn't a shallow distraction, cheat, or therapeutic balm. It's the way we transform our deepest fears, desires and impulses. And it gives you something to say, something really important that will make your music worth listening to.
posted by frosty_hut at 3:22 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've got very, very solid relationship with an amazing girl that's been going for a year and a couple months.

As someone who was the girlfriend in a similar situation, my advice is to tell her exactly what's going on. Even if you haven't told her already, she knows something is wrong, and since she's an amazing girl, she'll want to help. Trust her.

And yes, doctor & therapist, stat. It's confusing to find yourself freaking out when everything is going great otherwise, but this goes to show that this is a physical problem, not a reaction to life events. Go talk to the people who regularly fix these sorts of malfunctions.
posted by heatherann at 5:06 PM on January 26, 2007

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