It’s Saturday night, the lights are dim, the music loud, and the restaurant is packed. I’m making my way through the crowd with a tray of martinis, full to the brim with sloppy pink liquid. The tray slips out of my hands and falls to the ground. The thin-stemmed martini glasses shatter into thousands of shards. I lose my balance and fall, face-first, into the pile of strawberry sludge-covered glass. One shard pierces through my neck and slices into my jugular, blood is squirting through my fingers and pouring onto the floor.
I laugh to myself and the thought leaves my mind. Extreme hypotheticals are always running through my head if I’m doing something that involves sharp, heavy, or elevated objects. For someone with thanatophobia, AKA extreme death anxiety, the mind is a wild place to be.
It’s no surprise that worrying about death is relatively common, which is why thanatophobia isn’t a clinically recognized condition. But for many people, thinking about death is more than just curiosity. It’s a constant set of horror scenes that leave you too scared to eat a grape without images of choking to your death looping through your mind.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been scared of death, although I’ve never been properly diagnosed with thanatophobia. Not just the process of dying, but ceasing to exist. Whether I’ll be six-feet under, sprinkled into the sea, or eaten for Sunday dinner ancient Amazonian style, I’ll be gone forever and that’s not an easy thought to confront.
Katie Miotła, 29, is a new mom who lives in the Toronto-area who suffers from thanatophobia. Miotła says her death anxiety isn’t about the thought of her own death, but the death of her mother. She first discovered her death anxiety after her mother made a series of trips to the hospital for unknown reasons. “The first time she went to the hospital I immediately went to visit her there,” she says. “I remember standing beside her bed and feeling nauseous, my face turned white and later on I woke up in a hospital bed.” Miotła had fainted due to the overload of stress the thought of her mother’s death brought. “A couple months later, my mother and I were getting ready for a road trip when she came down the stairs and said she needed to go to the hospital. I started to sweat and got dizzy again,” she says. “It was the same thing I had experienced at the hospital.” That was the moment when Miotła realized her mother was the trigger to her death anxiety.
Fears exist on a spectrum and affect people differently depending on underlying factors. Some specialists argue that death anxiety often comes coupled with other mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and general anxiety disorder. A recent study also showed that women in their 20s are more likely to experience death anxiety with a second spike in their 50s.
While there is no definitive answer to curb my curiosity, there is some relief in understanding how my fear developed.
For Andrew Gentile, co-owner of Toronto Hypnotherapy, treating clients with death anxiety is just a part of his days’ work. Using therapy in hypnosis, Gentile says he guides clients through a 45-minute “magic carpet ride” to rid them of their deepest fears. He dims the office lights, leaving just enough light to see his clients’ faces. They lay back, reclined, covered by a blanket. He watches them breathe, monitoring the rise and fall of the chest until just the right moment. The jaw starts to slack as relaxation sets in, the shape of their eyes shift from right to left underneath their eyelids. He waits for the body to start twitching, signaling a deep sleep before he takes them on a journey through the imagination realm.
“I have them imagine a beautiful place to create the tone of safety and calm their system,” says Gentile. “Once they feel like they’re in a good place, we can approach the difficult memories.”
Gentile’s philosophy is that death phobias and anxiety are generally a result of one of three things: lived trauma, religious dogma, or a fear of the unknown. Gentile customizes his approach with clients by evaluating the source of the problem. “Fears are learned and can be traced back,” he says. In hypnotherapy sessions, he is able to take his clients back to where it all began and reframe the childhood interpretation of the event that later manifested into a major fear or anxiety.
As someone who grew up non-religious and extremely curious, my anxiety toward death stemmed from having no available theory as to what’s after life. While there is no definitive answer to curb my curiosity, there is some relief in understanding how my fear developed. For someone whose anxiety is based off of fearing the unknown, resolution requires a different approach than those with trauma from lived experiences or religious dogma.
“You can’t have anxiety about the past. You can have trauma, regret, and shame which can all lead to depression, but anxiety is only about the future,” says Gentile. The future is always unknown, and many people associate the unknown with danger or being out of control, he says. The subconscious mind is always trying to protect us from danger so we imagine the worst-case scenario.
Luckily for me, my anxiety around death isn’t debilitating. Aside from some spooky thoughts, it hasn’t affected my life in any way. I still eat grapes like a champ and confidently weave through Toronto traffic like a Nascar driver while slabbing on mascara. People like Miotła, who has fainted twice because of her death anxiety, are not so lucky.
In my lifetime, it’s unlikely that I’ll have all the answers about death that I’m looking for. Gentile suggests having a creative outlet as another way to neutralize anxiety and curb triggers. Personally, I’ve managed to hone in on my anxious thoughts about death by aggressively ticking things off my bucket list—I’m currently writing my first book. And when all else fails, YOLO?