Recently I Have Had a Lot of Thoughts About Dying

Reader’s Question

Recently I have had a lot of thoughts about dying. It has never bothered me before, and nothing has happened recently to anyone close to me. I seem to get really worried and instantly start imagining something happening such as a car wreck or another horrific event. It happens multiple times a day, and it’s definitely not something I try to think about. Once this starts to happen I feel as though it is an omen of some future event. Is this something I should worry about?

Psychologist’s Reply

Yes, this is something to worry about! Not the part about death and dying, but the psychological mechanism that’s at work, causing those thoughts of dying. A key to your situation is the term “recently”. The recent arrival of dying-related thoughts is a clinical sign you are experiencing stress and maybe depression. Here’s how it works.

Being under a high level of stress (personal issues, job stressors, multiple projects, multiple responsibilities and obligations, etc.) for a prolonged period of time decreases a neurotransmitter in the brain called Serotonin. As Serotonin decreases, certain symptoms arrive such as physical fatigue, worry, anxiety, sleeplessness, poor appetite, loss of energy, low motivation, low sex drive, etc. Serotonin is also a body regulator, so we have increased thinking speed, temperature flushes, muscle twitches, etc. Low Serotonin is also linked to obsessive thoughts — those recent thoughts of death and dying you are experiencing.

When the obsessive thoughts arrive, they typically target memories in our past — something that is tormenting to us. People reexperience the loss of a parent, a divorce, a physical or emotional trauma, etc. In your situation, you obviously don’t have much in the way of “emotional baggage” or a history of traumatic memories. As a result, the psychological mechanism switches to the common default — the universal fear of dying and death. The brain has a few other default tormenting thoughts such as the universal fears of contamination or uncurable illness. When this happens, what do we do?

  • Survey your current life situation for your stress level. Research stress and take a few of the stress and depression tests on this website. Read about depression. You can also read about the neurotransmitter component on my website at www.drjoecarver.com by selecting Chemical Imbalance.
  • You are thinking about dying due to a normal psychological mechanism, not as an omen or predictor of the future. If you were stressed and in the medical profession, the brain would more likely fixate on contamination. It’s weird, I know, but that’s the way the system works.
  • Recognize that you need to reduce your stress level. The thoughts about dying are a type of “red light” on your emotional dashboard, telling you that you are developing internal emotional pressure. When a warning light glows on our automobile, we slow down, treat the auto more gently, and seek the reason for the warning indicator. You need to do the same with this warning indicator.
  • Make sure you are eating correctly, as our diet supplies the chemicals needed to maintain our Serotonin level. Exercise is also helpful.
  • Our Serotonin level can be dropped by accident, especially when using medications. If you have recently changed or added a medical medication, it may have lowered your Serotonin level by accident. Any medication that has a depression as a possible side effect may produce the symptoms you are experiencing.
  • If you are experiencing the additional physical symptoms of depression and anxiety, you may benefit from medical and/or mental health consultation. It depends upon the severity of your symptoms. If you’ve moved into insomnia, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts — then medical/psychiatric consultation is strongly recommended.
  • Obsessive thoughts are very intrusive, as you describe, and can increase in frequency and intensity. They are often found in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (another low-Serotonin disorder). Do you experience symptoms of OCD such as rituals, counting, handwashing, checking-rechecking, etc.? If additional symptoms are present, then mental health referral is necessary.
  • Recognize that “thoughts about dying” are a sign of stress. Using an Emotional Memory technique, labeling those thoughts is often helpful in managing them. A humorous label works the best. Winston Churchill, for example, was troubled by depression, viewing symptoms as the arrival of the “Black Dog” in his life.

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Everyone has a “warning light” or indicator that will suddenly activate when Serotonin is low. Many people don’t know what their stress indicator will be — they haven’t been that stressed or depressed yet. You have likely found yours, and you need to pay attention to it. The sudden thoughts of dying don’t reflect anything mystical, philosophical or magical. They will fade away as you take action to manage those symptoms.

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