Death Anxiety and COVID-19

“What do we say to the Lord of Death?’
‘Not today.” 
– George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Since the beginning of pandemic until today, there have been multiple studies and articles published on effects of lockdown and COVID-19 on one’s mental health. The effects have been twofold. Not only it has posed existential threat but also increased the general awareness in public about the importance of mental health and wellbeing. Currently we are in the middle of third wave and in March 2022 we would have lived two years with the fear, anxiety, physical distancing and pandemic-related restrictions.

Apart from losing lakhs and lakhs of people to date to COVID-19, we have overburdened healthcare staff and distressed individuals of all age groups. Who knew work from home, zoom calls, online ceremonies could become immensely popular and need of the hour? These unprecedented, uncertain times have been challenging and given rise to various mental health issues and conditions. We, as clinical psychologists have seen an upsurge in cases being referred to us for grief, trauma, distress, marital issues, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and substance abuse in the past two years. 

We are the only species that has the cognitive capacity to reflect, contemplate and anticipate our own death, yet this splendid ability comes with a disadvantage. We are destined to live our lives “forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably, diminish and die” as said by Irvin Yalom in his book “Staring at the Sun”.

Anxiety caused by thoughts related to one’s own death is called death anxiety. This pandemic has made us more than aware of our own mortality- an inevitable result of witnessingor hearingabout death in such magnitude. Fear of death also plays a causal role in various mental health conditions and it has been seen as a transdiagnostic concept. Generally, fear of death may manifest in the frequent reassurance seeking from doctors, checking of one’s body for symptoms, and requests for medical testing seen in the somatic symptom-related disorders.

Two kinds of behaviour in general arise from death anxiety: a) people may develop adaptive ways of coping with their fear of death, such as building meaningful relationships and leaving a positive legacy or b) powerful sense of fear or meaninglessness, and may drive a number of maladaptive coping behaviours such as avoidance, denial or self-medication. The latter describes unhealthy or maladaptive behaviours which can be seen around us, whether people not wearing masks or following rules, not isolating oneself even after symptoms manifest, and complete denial of any virus being existent. 

The truth is no one wants to die, no one wants to witness death and no one wants to lose their loved ones, while everyone knows none of us are immortals. The question is, when will it end? We wish we had the exact answer, but no one knows. We can wish and hope for the best though. A big shoutout to all the people who have practiced patience, regulation, responsibility and used safety behaviours since last two years. And for those who think they need to live their life and be freethere are better ways to meaningfully live your life rather than breaking safety protocols. It is the suffering, the pain which troubles us when we think of our last times. We need to rather focus more on the things we can do with existing resources around us, be grateful, be physically active, take care of ourselves rather than taking the denial or avoidant route. As Haruki Murakami said, “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.


Author: Dr Amanpreet Kaur
Consultant Clinical Psychologist, TherapHeal 
Assistant Professor, School of Psychology & Counselling, O.P. Jindal Global Universiy

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