OK so it probably doesn’t come as any surprise to you that we’re not immortal right? We’ve all got to die sometime. However when you’re in your teens and 20s that fact feels far away: You’re too busy concentrating on living life, making career moves, doing crazy stuff. Even as you move into your 30s you’re likely to be focusing on relationships, the next power move at work, maybe nesting with a new partner, or creating a family to be too worried. Then suddenly 40 starts creeping up and so does the thought you could be over halfway through this life you’ve created and strived for? Anyone else get the cold sweats? OK warning here, I’m going to be talking about death.
That should have put most of you off reading on, so if you’re still here well done you. To be fair it could just be me that is absolutely petrified. You see I have had a phobic fear of death since being a teenager. It’s actually got a name too which I never knew until recently – Thanataphobia. It’s a pretty respectable name for something that’s pretty scary. Fear of dying. I was a teenager when these waves of terror first started happening to me. I’d lie in bed and then suddenly I would realise that one day I wouldn’t be here anymore. Then I’d get hot sweats, palpitations and get really tearful. Downstairs I’d go to my Mum and Dad who would reassure me I had years of happy life ahead of me yet. It seemed to pass for many years. Sure I’d get the odd time it would resurface but I got on with life and it seemed to leave me be.
The Phobia Returns
Then I hit 39 and oh boy it’s back. There have been many nights where I have laid in bed and realise that one day it’s going to happen. I won’t have any say and it could be any time or any place. I will probably know it’s happening and I won’t have any way to stop it. Then come the hot sweats, the cold fear, the palpitations, the anxiety, the sick feeling. Do any of you have this? I know I’m not alone in the world because I Googled it. Turns out there’s a few phobics out there. I didn’t realise it was an actual phobia until I did Google it though, and that actually reassured me a lot. It’s a thing. Not some loopy middle aged woman (hey I actually admitted I’m middle aged- this is big) just getting herself in a tizz. I’m amongst fellow humans who also sweat and palpitate.
Why am I so scared?
So why am I , and others like me, and maybe some of you, so scared? The common thought is some traumatic event happening when you’re young could be the culprit. I don’t remember anything like this happening to me although I do remember being told by my Mum to turn around once when someone got run over. I don’t know what happened after that, I just remember being told to turn round to face the shop window. Maybe there’s something deep down in my psyche that remembers that and fears it but I don’t know if that is the case. When I was researching this blog I looked for articles and insight into the whole thing but not many people are talking about it. I guess maybe it doesn’t make for sexy reading?? So I am just going to have to jump in here with my two pence. I think it’s about fear of the unknown, and the inability to control this experience. To have a ‘good death’ or to plan for it. To know when it will happen, to say our goodbyes. To know what happens after we die. Nothing? Anything? We just can’t know. We can control pretty much every aspect of our life these days; we can now even use a phone to turn our lights off and our heating on. We’re used to having that control and death is one thing we don’t get to create an app for.
Fear of the unknown?
We also don’t know how it’s going to feel or what comes after. Will there be nothing? Will it be like going to sleep? Will there be a tunnel with light? Will all our loved ones who’ve gone before us be there? Will there be angels or music? Who knows? We don’t and that’s half the problem. Perhaps if I knew it would help. But I can’t know, and I would like not to know for a very long time please. So I think that’s a big part of why I fear it.
Cue another reason why I fear it. I’ve learned to love my life a lot. I have a good life. Sure I only a have little money, I don’t have a big house or a fancy car. I don’t have much to call my own really but I don’t want much. I choose a simple life. I have a wonderful family and we get together often. I have love around me, I am learning to settle into myself. I feel joy in birdsong and sunshine and my little lavender collection and I get to walk the dogs to cows mooing in the mornings. I don’t want to give any of that up right now.
I think some of my worry also comes from my health. I don’t have any major health issues per se right now but I am classed as morbidly obese. I’ve had a problem with weight since being a small child. As anyone who is or has been over what is seen as a ‘healthy’ weight, you’re persecuted by doctors. No matter what you go to see them about, the issue ends up being about your weight. I joke about it with my friends; ‘got a sore thumb? That will be because you’re overweight’. Don’t get me wrong I know the health risks and perhaps that contributes to my phobia, but I also try to live a healthy lifestyle around that one challenge I never seem to quite solve.
People I’ve talked to about this phobia say ‘you’ve got years ahead of you yet’, ‘you’re a youngster’, ‘I wish I was your age again’ and I get they think I am being ridiculous. I should let it go and live for now. I also get that. I choose that, but at night time, particularly if I’ve had a bit of a difficult day or I am feeling anxious back it comes again. So what do I do to manage it?
Well I use a ‘being present’ mindful tool which is about getting yourself back physically in your body and grounding yourself. Do not be put off by the grounding bit. You’re basically just bringing your brain back down into the day to day, which automatically takes it away from thinking. So with any phobia, there’s an element of anxiety, and light headedness. What I do is physically feel my body against the mattress, feel my head on the pillow, and how my nightclothes feel on my skin. By starting to wonder how these feel – is the mattress soft, or hard? how does my pillow feel? what can I see around me?(OK it’s usually dark, but this also works in the day time for anxiety).
I then also put on some relaxing music – now for you this might be Greenday, but I really recommend taking a look over on Youtube at some of the sounds you can listen to. There’s something for everyone from science-ey sounding electronica to more traditional classical music. My particular favourites are Alone in a Peaceful World which is relaxing music played to beautiful time lapse scenic images, a cosy winter fire , rain on canvas , or these tibetan bowls. Don’t be put off if these don’t take your fancy, there’s so many more.
So these things deal with the symptoms of my fear, but how do I remove it altogether? That is a question I don’t yet have the answer to. I could go to a therapist and explore this fear I suppose, but I have had it for many, many years and it is very intermittent. It only comes at night usually, and when I have periods of stress or anxiety. So could it be related? Mostly likely it is increased by my anxiety which can be managed through meditation, through reducing my stress, and through taking some time out. I’m also reading a book which explores the possibility of life after death – maybe that will help? Right now I cannot tell you what the answer is. If any of you have experienced anything like this, or a similar phobia and have overcome it, please feel free to share suggestions and ideas. As a group of mindful livers we’re a powerful force to be reckoned with!