Death Anxiety, for Those Who Die More Than Once

Death Anxiety, for Those Who Die More Than Once

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Mental Health

It’s Mental Health Month here on Puttylike! During the month of November, we’re publishing articles and stories that explore anxiety and depression, ways we’ve reached for new perspectives around mental health, and strategies that helped us to rest and nurture our busy brains.

Here’s today’s mental health inspired article!

**

During my regular comedy talk about anxiety there’s an important moment: the first time I mention my experience of suicidality.

A hush usually falls on the room, in sharp contrast to the earlier laughter.

After a few seconds, I puncture the tension with a simple acknowledgement: “Cheery, this bit, isn’t it?! A real comedy crowd-pleaser.”

It’s not an especially funny gag, but you can always feel the tension immediately release around the room. This only works because death is such a taboo.

Some people believe that all anxiety is ultimately about death. Whatever we’re worried about, it’s because deep down, we’re afraid of dying. Our internal lives are incredibly complex, so it’s hard to say for sure how true this is. But it certainly could be a helpful angle to consider.

In some cases, the link is obvious. You don’t have to squint hard to see the link between, say, health anxiety and death. Meanwhile, social anxiety could be anxiety about our acceptance into the tribe—if we’re ejected, we lose our safety net against starvation and exposure.

Some existential therapists claim that we can reduce the impact of seemingly unrelated problems by facing directly against death anxiety. I wonder how many struggles common to multipods could be illuminated by considering the role death plays in shaping our lives.

…cheery, this bit, isn’t it?

We Live Many Lives

I love this comic by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Let me share the dialogue from just the first two panels:

“HERE IS SOMETHING TRUE: ONE DAY YOU WILL BE DEAD.”

“HERE IS SOMETHING FALSE: YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE.”

The central idea is that we can regularly reinvent ourselves throughout our lives. The comic creator claims it takes seven years to master something, which allows us to ‘regenerate’ and live new lives as writers, painters, scientists, architects… whatever we like, as often as we like.

Of course, real life tends to be more messy, mastery of a skill may not always be the goal, and there are more constraints than just time available—but this is an incredibly attractive idea. Certainly, I don’t have to argue that multipods love this kind of regeneration. (Sometimes we may even be too keen, as our long-suffering loved ones may attest.) 

But perhaps we neglect to think about the flip side: by definition, each regeneration is not only a new birth… it’s also a death.

Regenerating a new ‘life’ means the end of my current self.

And these (metaphorical) deaths have many potential consequences. Perhaps we’ll experience sadness at the loss of our previous self, and this tempers our excitement for whatever’s new: “this new computer programming course is sure fun… but I miss the way I interacted with people in my old job.”

We might mourn that taking any particular path means not taking all others. Or perhaps we had hopes for the activity we’re leaving behind which were never quite realized.

One common manifestation of death anxiety is resisting change. Since death is the biggest change of all, it’s tempting to subconsciously fool ourselves into believing that if nothing ever changes, we’ll always be safe.

For example, sometimes tiny changes put me on edge and I overreact WAY more than necessary, even when I know the change will be fine—or even good. 

Are those reactions really about something deeper? And if they were, should I start putting myself into death-defying situations so I can handle my everyday anxieties better?! 

How to Face Down Death In Seven Lots of Easy Unknown Steps

I don’t have a simple solution to successfully getting out of bed in the morning, let alone death.

But merely acknowledging the issue can be an important first step. It’s such a taboo that we rarely talk about it, and most of us avoid dwelling on it ourselves.

In my experience, there’s a perverse comfort in considering the very worst that could happen. Suddenly, changes in my circumstances don’t seem so major after all.

Some traditions recommend taking time regularly to consciously meditate on death. Like anything, this isn’t a cure-all, but it may help to live a happier, more mindful life. Personally, I’ve tried meditating on death, and while I can’t be sure to what extent consciously facing down death helped to reduce my anxiety, I do believe it played a part.

That said, this may not be universal. Each of us has a unique relationship with death, and exploring our feelings about it could be arduous, or even impossible. (Plus, for obvious reasons, there are times in our lives when it’s too much for anyone to take on.)

But, when we’re feeling up to it, I think there may be value in considering the hidden ways that death plays a part in our day-to-day emotions. 

Regenerating ourselves through new passions is just one way in which death rears its metaphorical head in the life of a multipotentialite. Next time you’re considering a new passion, perhaps taking a moment to mourn your old self will help you live your new life even more fully.

Your Turn

Do you ever resist change? Or how else does death anxiety manifest in your life? Has addressing death anxiety been helpful to you? Share your story with the community in the comments.

**

Could you use some multipotentialite-friendly support as the holidays approach?

This time of year can be really stressful and difficult for people. It’s common to feel depressed or anxious around the holidays. We also often end up spending time with family members who might not be 100% supportive of our multipotentiality… So we’re doing something special in the Puttytribe to help. It’s called Slow Down December: a month of collaborative self-care.

Throughout the month, we’ll be running workshops and discussions on topics like anxiety, art/creativity therapy, and mindfulness, all from a multipotentialite perspective. There will also be weekly check-ins in the forum, live group meditations and light activities like making our own comfort boxes. Slow Down December is an invitation to, well, slow down and care for yourself—and to do it alongside your multipotentialite family.

To take part in Slow Down December, sign up for the Puttytribe waitlist, and join us when we open the doors on December 1 (or if you’re already a Puttytribe member, just show up!):

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a hilarious and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a novel set in the prelife. He also spends his time on humorous talks about mental health, standup comedy, physics, computer programming, and everything from music, video games, languages and pub quizzes. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello at enhughesiasm.com.

7 Comments

  1. LAASYA GULLAPALLI says:

    I’ve recently learnt that I am a multipotentialite I am resisting change way more than normal people do. I never thought that it would be a problem until very recently I realized it is what stopping me to be happy. I am in job search. I am attending numerous interviews for different jobs of my several interests, but some how ended up being job less from past 2 years since my post graduation.
    I managed to get a job and joined in it but was unable to work due to change in my timings. I was unable to spend the same time which I was spending with my family and the thought made me quit my job after working there successfully for 3 days.
    result: sleepless nights and now I am terrified of dying this way. Whenever I wake up from sleep, sometimes it happens midnight, I am making it sure that I am still alive.
    From childhood, I’ve dreamed a lot about my life and now it is scaring me that what if I die without doing anything in my list.
    The problem is, I need change but I am afraid of it. Any suggestions??

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Hi Laasya! Your story sounds very familiar, both from my own experience and stories I’ve heard from others. How to spend our time is an endless struggle, and there’s never a perfectly satisfying solution. Whatever we choose means not choosing everything else – so more time with work means less time with our family, and vice versa. For me, I just try to find a balance, and it helps me to recognise that if I’m very unhappy or anxious then I probably don’t have the balance quite right at the moment. I might not know HOW to change the balance, but I find making a change in the right direction usually helps, and then from there I can keep changing and tuning it until I’m less anxious. Not sure if this helps, but it hopefully helps you think a bit about what you can do to get out of the current cycle you’re in! Good luck, and thank you so much for sharing your experience here.

  2. Mary Dunn says:

    Emilie, thanks so much for introducing me to Neil.

    Neil, thank you for your transparency. I’ve often said, “I’m not afraid of death; I’m just not in favor of it.” I have mourned my past lives (dissolving marriages, changing careers, relocations) and it did make opening the door to a new life seem more exciting (vs scary).

    I was in a serious accident a few years ago and was disabled for a couple of years. I am now fully recovered and see that event as one of the most valuable in my life because it taught me to truly live while I’m here.

    P.S. I love the work both of you are doing and I’m happy to get to experience it.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Aw, thanks Mary, I appreciate that a lot, and I’m sure Emilie does too. It’s honestly a privilege to share thoughts and stories and find that people resonate with them and find them helpful :)

      I love that quote, too, I think it says a lot about a positive attitude towards death. Thank you for sharing both that and your experience – learning to ‘truly live’ is tough, especially after going through such a difficult time, and it helps to hear how other people have managed it :)

  3. Maryske says:

    Interesting thought… And I wonder what role this could play in my life – on the one hand, moving from country to country at the drop of a hat, but on the other hand, so far incapable of shedding off my no-longer-attractive career to replace it with something more interesting and engaging. And believe me, I’ve tried. For years by now…

    As for death itself, I can share a (possibly…) interesting anecdote. I’ve never been afraid of flying, and did so quite a bit. Until 9/11. Suddenly I was terrified that my plane might crash somehow, and I vowed I would never get on a plane again. And I didn’t. For several years, I did all my travelling by train and ferry and the likes: safely staying on the face of the earth.
    Until one day when provoked on the subject by a friend, I realized that on a conscious level, I am not afraid of either death or dying. Suffering: yes. Dying: no. As a Christian, death is actually something to look forward to: you go to heaven and there, everything will be absolutely lovely. And even if in the end, christianity would turn out to be a ruse, then my body will just decompose wherever it’s buried, but since I’ll be dead, I won’t be aware of it anyway – so what’s to fear?

    In that instant, I lost my fear of flying, and I’ve been doing it without the least anxiety ever since. (Mind you, wherever I can, I do prefer the train and ferry for *other* reasons, but that is just irrelevant here.)

    But how death anxiety would affect me *unconsciously*… that may of course be an entirely different matter…

    Btw, I owe you a PM. I think I’ve figured out one of the questions I was stuck on from The Shop of Prelife! ;-)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      The Shop Before Life? :p Looking forward to it!

      That’s a great story, though, I love how instant the transformation was as soon as you faced the death anxiety directly. Of course it’s usually much harder to know if it is—or isn’t—affecting us.

  4. Conney says:

    Thanks for this! Gave me a fresh perspective about my anxiety. :)

Leave a Comment