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  • Jason Steadman, Psy.D.

Thanatophobia and COVID-19: Don't fear the reaper

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

Thanatophobia is a fear of death - most often, of your own death. In this article, we explore what some existential psychologists and philosophers say about death anxiety, and how some of this plays out during a global pandemic.

"We're all going to die!"

How did you read this statement? Was there a bit of panic in your voice (picture any disaster movie - how do they say it there?)? or were you calm (or neutral) in your reading, a statement of fact about the inevitability of death? Believe it or not, how you hear this statement has an impact on your emotional response to it. Panic induces panic. Calm induces calm. And that's why, during disastrous times, we all look for a calming presence to carry us through, whomever or whatever that may be. This article is supposed to be the a latter - an acceptance, that, yes, death is inevitable, but a view of how life can be beautiful despite impending death.

It's no secret that COVID-19 has come with a considerable degree of panic/anxiety. If people who deal with infectious disease all the time (epidemiologist, infectious disease specialists, etc.) are worried, then you can bet a significant portion of the general public is worried too. And that worry isn't just about dying directly from COVID-19 (though that's a big one), there's worry that we might kill each other through COVID-fear-induced violence, or that we may never recover economically from COVID-related job-loss. There's also a bit of eschatophobia going around, or the fear of the end of everything. I've heard more than one of my clients express apocalyptic-like fears, seeing signs from Revelations (from The Christian Holy Bible) that signal the end is nigh. However the fear manifests, the source is the same - COVID-19 has forced many of us to wrestle with the question, "Am I ready for my life (as I know it) to end?"

,And, of course, being afraid of death is among the most natural things a living thing can experience. Every living thing avoids death - not just humans. Humans just think about it in ways other species (likely) do not. We have a deeper understanding of all the things in the world that can kill us than do our animal cousins, and so, perhaps, we have more to fear. There's an old, familiar adage that "ignorance is bliss," and I think that applies especially well to death anxiety. If we don't know, or think about, what can hurt us, we don't have to fear it. But the problem is that ignoring the elephant in the room is like, well, ignoring an elephant in the room. You can close your eyes so you don't see it, but you'll almost certainly still smell it. You can then hold your breath, but you can't hold it forever. You can stay with the smell long enough to go "nose-blind" to it, as the Febreze commercials point out, but eventually that elephant is going to start defecating, literally creating a "you-know-what" show of your new life. You can try to avoid all the piles of poo, but if you move around with your eyes closed and nose-blinded, you're gonna step in something nasty eventually. You could resign yourself to a corner of the room, but good luck keeping the elephant out of there without some sort of barrier. You could build a cage for the elephant, but, well, in this metaphor the elephant is death, and there's no way to cage death forever, and so let's just argue that you don't have any of the materials to build a cage strong enough to hold this particular elephant. Lastly, you could cage yourself where the elephant can't see, smell, or hear you, and thus doesn't even know you're there, but then, well, are you still really living - caged in a room alone for eternity - or are you just surviving?

See that's the thing about death - if we define death as the absence of life, there are more ways to "die" than just to have your biological "clock" stop ticking. Living is more than biology, and, for humans especially, fear of death is not just promoted by trying to keep that clock ticking as long as possible - it's also about fearing a life not worth living, or a life unlived.

A life without fear is a life without purpose

So, what do we do, then, when thanatophobia hits us in the face like a brick? Well, another thing about humans is that we are extremely creative in finding things in life worth living for. And that's really one secret to warding off excessive thanatophobia, seeing that fear is part of what makes life worth living. A life without any fear is a life without purpose. If we stick with the elephant-in-the-room metaphor I used above, it could be argued that as long as we had something to fight - the elephant, in this case - we had something to do that gave our life purpose. But survival is only the most basic purpose in life, and from that basic purpose we can also build beauty into our lifes. Fear gives us a reason to do more with our lives.

Beauty is another thing that humans instinctually do. We create beauty, and we have the capacity to create beauty in everything we do. Thus, another weapon against thanatophobia is our capacity to create beauty. And there is an enormous array of beautiful things we can create - love, life, joy, art, friendship, compassion, service, integrity, and so on. We could probably actually go on forever with ideas of beautiful things we can create.

So, the best thing I can say to you all right now, as we're all fighting COVID-related death anxiety (and again, death here is defined as the absence of living life, not just literally dying), is to remember, as often as possible, and preferably everyday, to create beautiful things.

I'll end this article by listing a few of the beautiful things I know I can create everyday. These are the things keeping me sane amidst everything else. If you feel up to you, feel free to comment with some of your own.

1) I can create joy in my daughter, even if only for a few minutes, every day.

2) I can help my wife in service to maintain the home.

3) I can observe beauty in nature, and in things created by others

4) I can always make music

5) I can serve my clients, helping to create beauty in their own lives

6) I can connect with other humans, my family, my friends, my neighbors, and even my clients. Human connection can always be beautiful.

7) I can feel the ebbs and tides of human emotion, both the ups and the downs, and even the downs can be quite beautiful, if I see them under a certain light

8) I can watch as, even though we still have our differences, humanity comes together in a crisis

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