Ever since she was little, UK reality TV personality Charlotte Crosby has lived with a fear of her own death.
“It’s the worst thing in the world. I feel my heart pumping through my chest and feel like my whole body is empty because I’m so scared about dying,” the 27-year-old Geordie Shore star told Heat this week.
Discomfort with death and mortality is a normal part of the human condition. But for some, the concept can be intrusive, even crippling, to the extent that thoughts and behaviours begin to interfere with everyday life.
This is known as death anxiety.
What is death anxiety, and who experiences it?
While there is no standard clinical definition, it’s generally characterised by mental health researchers and professionals as a morbid, abnormal or constant fear of death.
It’s considered to be among the most common fears, and though it has been observed in children as young as five, researchers have determined that it tends to peak among men and women in their 20s. Though unlike men, many women also experience a second spike in their 50s.
As Dr James Kirby of The University of Queensland explained via The Conversation, “The specific death fear will be different for everyone, but it can often be categorised into one of four areas: loss of self or someone else; loss of control; fear of the unknown – what will happen after death (nothingness, heaven, hell); and pain and suffering of dying.”
Many researchers argue that death anxiety is, in fact, at the core of a range of mental disorders, including hypochondria, panic disorder, and anxiety and depressive disorders.
As Australian researchers Lisa Iverach, Rachel Menzies and Ross Menzies recently explained on The Conversation, “This makes sense because when we look closely at the symptoms of several anxiety-related disorders, death themes feature prominently.”
Compulsive washers, for example, are commonly in fear of contracting a life-threatening illness; those with arachnophobia often fear a fatal bite.
“These people might focus their real fear of death on smaller and more manageable threats, such as spiders or germs,” the trio wrote. “Such phobias may appear safer and more controllable than the ultimate fear of death.”
Treatment and management of death anxiety.
Treatment for death anxiety will vary depending on how it manifests in the individual, but commonly involve cognitive-behaviour therapy and existential therapy, and in some cases medication.
People will also have different ways of managing day-to-day. Charlotte Crosby, for example, told Heat that positive thinking helps alleviate her feelings of panic around death.
“[I’d tell myself] ‘As soon as I get through that door and see [my mum] it will all be OK and I will feel safe,’ and that made me feel much better. But I had to tell myself that over and over again until I believe it.”
Dr James Kirby notes that breathing exercises can also be effective, but advises anyone struggling with death anxiety to visit a psychologist. And importantly, in the meantime, remember that you are not alone.
“We have tricky brains that allow us to question our existence,” he wrote. “This is not your fault but is how the human brain was designed. It is perfectly normal to have a fear of death; you are not alone in this struggle.”
If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, support is available 24 hours a day via Beyond Blue. Please call the 1300 22 4636 or visit the Beyond Blue website.