Hello to all, this is my first and possibly only post. I am offering my story of how I have overcome (and continue to overcome!) my death anxiety.
I am posting this mainly due to the fact that when I suffered this condition I looked on forums and the like and found no help. There was plenty of 'keep your hopes up' and 'distract yourself' and 'reach spiritual enlightenment' but I had been there, done that, and found it of no help. And as a person with no belief in the afterlife of any sort, I found no personal solace there. I wanted a way to live my life again, and no one seemed to have any physical answer. I don't know whether, like me, everyone who overcomes the problem forgets about it to the extent that they don't remember to post help or whatever. But I thought that this was something I should and could do, for myself, for closure, and for anyone seeking another option.
I suffered from this condition exactly one year ago. It came along very suddenly, for apparently no reason, and completely destroyed me, my sense of happiness, peace and self.
As a brief backstory for those interested or looking for similarities (I know because I did this very same thing!) here you go... I believe this started for several reasons combined:
1. I was going through a period of transition, having left Uni and not knowing where I wanted to go in life - i.e. a period of unsureness/stress. I am sure this did not help
2. My older sister was suffering from the tail-end of glandular fever. A particularly draining/weakening and persisting illness that lasted for a year or so before she was herself again. During this time I unwittingly raised my level of responsibility, and ergo stress and worry, whilst trying to ease her illness as I could.
3. I was at an age in life where OCD is triggered.
It is this third reason, my inherent OCD, to which I attribute my personal death anxiety problems. This may sound strange, or unappealing as an illness, and certainly I didn't believe it at first when I was told. However, through the methods given to me by my psychologist I was able to take back control and take back my life! I do not suggest that OCD is the cause for everyone's death anxiety, but if any of this rings true for yourself, or if any of these techniques help in any way, then I don't believe it matters.
I have always been a firm believer in 'simple solutions are best' and this is where I really benefited from the help I got; it was common sense, something I could do wherever/whenever, required no money, and gave ME to tools I needed to bring myself back to balance - this last one appealed to me as I need to see things to believe it. If someone else was doing all the work how would I know to help myself if it ever happened again?
Either way, back to the beginning!
My death anxiety manifested in a way I believe is quite 'normal' of the illness: intrusive thoughts on death that I couldn't escape from (incidentally mine revolved around the nothingness that would occur after my own death, and my inability to stop it), I would see death and anxiety everywhere (seriously, I couldn't even watch cartoons without feeling panicked!). The worry and thoughts and anxiety would loop round and round and I couldn't seem to stop my brain as it spun out of control, I knew this wasn't normal, hell I'd been fine most of my life!
But suddenly things changed, for the worse. I started to wonder why no body else was worried about this, I would look at elderly people and want to scream 'why aren't you worried!' I wondered why on EARTH you WOULDN'T think about death.
Then... things got really mad. Although at the time, I swear I was the sanest one amongst the lot of you. I started to think that I couldn't/shouldn't tell anyone about this, because If I told them what I was worried about, surely they too would realise the panick themselves. And then they would go home and tell their family and friends, who would then feel the same anxiety and then tell THEIR family and friends! Thus, soon I would single-handedly cripple the world into a non-functioning anxiety-stricken place.
Truly I believed I could 'pass on' my anxiety like a transmittable disease. Only after I begun to use my new techniques did I see how truly mad I had become.
It reached the point that as I couldn't visualise my own death I started to panick that the whole life/death thing couldn't be real and this was all some twisted dream. I remember spending one morning inconsolable in tears and panic on the couch trying to talk out of the problem but just getting deeper and deeper into my fears.
I tried many things at first: distraction, work, friends, comedy, tiring myself to exhaustion so that I wouldn't have bad thoughts when I fell asleep, hypnotherapy, breathing techniques, positive thinking. Not that any of these are bad, except I was using them as a distraction rather then facing the problem.
My excellent psychologist helped me to understand that trying to NOT think about death, replace the thoughts or distract myself merely made me hyper-aware of the very thing I wanted to avoid, thus I saw it everywhere, and the cycle would begin again. And that in much the same way as a bully, the only way to 'defeat' these thoughts was to face my fear. And think about them.
I should say that two or so days before seeing my Dr. for the first time, the anxiety got so bad that I called the emergency doctor for some medication. I was prescribed a fairly low dose of Diazipam (or Valium for any Americans out there). This, I believe, was what I needed to get me into a state where I could at least tolerate the topic and actually function and survive until my meeting, and allowed me to lower the level of panic to help get the real treatment rolling. I would never suggest this drug as a cure, its not, you can get swiftly addicted and also swiftly need higher and higher doses. But as an interim I think it is a fairly basic and harmless drug that fits the bill for lowering anxiety.
Next came my OCD 'homework'. At first due to my sceptism I was offered a simple test to see if the methods worked, and a questionnaire that showed your likelihood of having OCD by scoring 1-5 (then totalling) on a comprehensive set of questions (I came out as definitely OCD). This quiz was provided within a marvelous book that was suggested to me by my Dr. called: Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Dissorder, by David Veale and Rob Willson.
The method test was simple; I took a word that had been triggering my anxiety: 'always' and wrote it/said it over and over again for about five/ten minutes over two days, also trying to use it in sentences in normal conversation, such as: I always enjoy eating grapes. It worked, I was swiftly bored of the word and it had no significant meaning anymore. I could hear it in a sentence and on tv with no reaction. Brilliant!
The next step was trickier. Along with the increased homework I was prescribed a v. low dose of Cipralex, an OCD drug, and gradually weaned myself off the diazipam (One thing I have always been sure of is that I never want to be addicted to anything!...other then chocolate!). I never knew how much the cipralex helped, I believe most/or all of my recovery came from myself and after a few months I forgot to keep taking my cipralex altogether, and didn't miss it noticeably.
The homework I was given may well make some of you cringe and squirm if you are suffering from this illness when you read what I had to do, and trust me I was the same. However my dedication to NOT live the rest of my life in stress made knuckling down to it pretty easy. The most important thing I leant is that thoughts of death are just thoughts, a thought can't harm you unless you CHOOSE to empower it, so instead of powering a thought, I learnt to power-up myself. The start of my treatment
For no more then 5 minutes 3 times a day I would read/write/say aloud or type the key phrases my Dr. had helped me underline as the triggers for my anxiety.
NOTE: this is just my example, please at least read the above suggested book or see a psychologist before practising these methods, this is merely a reference.
My phrases were things like 'when I die I will be nothing, I will feel nothing, I will cease to exist, there's nothing I can do to stop it' etc. Its true, the 5 minute sessions were unpleasant at first, as they brought back some of the anxiety TEMPORARILY (and that's the key!), but after repetition, I found swiftly that the triggers were lessening, the panic was much less frequent. Most importantly whenever I had a 'death-thought' occur outside of homework I would repeat that specific thought until I either became naturally distracted or the thought lessened.
Over a few weeks I increased my sessions to 2 x 10 min sessions per day, as I found the shorter sessions no longer sparked any nervous reaction. Some days new triggers emerged, and I would then incorporate them into the homework. For example; I became worried about falling down the stairs, slipping in the rain when running out to get washing in, etc, thus I begun to include 'I could die any number of ways any day, each day could be my last'.
This flexible-thinking really helped crush any anxious reactions to the thoughts, and I was feeling happier and more confident very quickly, and much less plagued. I would also do practice this whilst driving to work, or during a boring bit of tv, whenever I was feeling the creeping anxiety I chose to target it rather then run away.
The process felt long, altogether the months I had the problem in were the longest ones of my life thus far! However, altogether, from starting my sessions with the psychologist - to stopping the planned homework sessions, the total time was just 2 months. Shortly after that the cipralex was long forgotten, and I hadn't so much as licked a diazipam since week 4.
That is not to say that after 2 months it was an instant cure; during the next 3 months I experienced SOME (so much less) renewed anxiety twice. I had expected this though, akin to suffering from a chest infection and thus having to watch out for colds. These times I found that doing some 'booster sessions' (like a booster shot for a disease) solved the problem right up, and for longer each time. All it takes now is a couple of sessions over a couple of days, a concentrated attack, and over the last year I have had raised anxiety (and again, even less now!) only two or three times. As long as I am focused in my response, these 'flashbacks' swiftly go away, again over 2/3 days. I predict that this can only get better, about 90 percent of my life now I have no worries about death, I have learnt to accept that the thought of death is just that, a thought, no more then 'the sky is blue' or 'that sandwich tasted funky'. I am not forever hounded by nightmares of sandwiches from hell, so why should another thought be a problem? I can't control them anyway, and if a thought comes into my head I can accept it as what it is and move on.
True, I am more anxious-prone during times of stress (such as currently moving jobs) but that is true no matter what your poison is, anxiety is apparently my personal problem. And now I know how to solve it.
Thank you for reading if you got this far, and if anyone wants to know anything more or has questions or similar success please let me know! I'd love to hear from you.