Dealing With Fear of Dying Young: Negative Thoughts are Really Scaring Me

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Reader’s Question

I’m having some negative thoughts that are really scaring me. For a couple of days, I’ve had a lot of dying-related thoughts, and even though I’ve been trying to focus on positive thoughts, the negative ones remain in my mind. I am 19 now, but I’m really scared about dying young. What it could be? I’m really scared.

Psychologist’s Reply

Let’s assume that you are safe and there is no real threat facing you. Let’s also assume that you’re not engaging in any risky behavior that could give you second thoughts. If your thoughts of dying seem unrelated to any real threat, then my first association is to wonder if you’ve experienced some frightening, traumatic event in your past. Have you witnessed something violent, something that may have scared you at that moment and made you fear for your life?

Many times, a fear of the future is a disguise for a fear from the past. The fear comes cloaked in a sense of omen, foreboding, a belief that you will die young, or a vague anxiety that seems to pervade everything you do. These are other signs that can hint of a trauma from the past that is so hard to deal with, we play tricks in our minds to protect us from the raw memory or fear itself. For example, after experiencing something life-threatening like a car accident or domestic violence, one could give up the hope of surviving or of surviving for long. By not believing in survival, you are spared the fear and helplessness of being out of control. Witnessing violence is dreadful, being helpless is unbearable.

Let me give another example. Imagine you are standing on the edge of a cliff. You may feel afraid to fall. But what if you went up there with the intention to jump, such as with a hang glider? Certainly you’d feel the adrenaline rush, but you wouldn’t necessarily feel the overwhelming fear of falling. You’d have some control over the situation, you’d not be helpless. It would be the difference between the fear of falling and becoming a victim of a tragic accident, or the rush that comes when performing a death defying act. Taking control of the situation controls the fear. The way we take control need not be rational or logical. We jump to strategies that shield us from pain, no matter that the shield might later become a threat or a danger in itself. We’ve assumed you are not planning any death-defying acts. Still, the fear that danger is ahead of you could be a shield from the fear of the danger behind you.

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Consider whether your fear of the dying in the future might represent a fear from the past. Consider whether a fear of dying might be a shield you use to protect you from a memory that you were going to die. Although there are other possibilities, try to rule out this one first. To the extent this explanation is true for you, reflecting on a past trauma could mean moving from this fear to an even greater one. However, you’d be working constructively with the real source of your anxiety rather than chasing a red herring. If you need help in thinking through your fears, engaging with a therapist might serve you well.

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