Anxiety loves bedtime. Our worries always seem bigger and scarier at night. And that’s when my health and death anxiety visit me.
At night, my sunny reasoning from the daytime can’t shrug off the dark cloak of fear, try as I might.
“You are still young!”
“Aches and pains are normal!”
“Your ECG results came back fine!”
Nope, nope, nope. I’m having a heart attack, and if I go to sleep, I won’t wake up.
Challenging your anxiety with some stock phrases, such as these, is meant to be an effective CBT technique. Still, my health anxiety loves to use other convincing arguments against me.
“Did you know that women experience heart attacks differently from men? And this is how they get missed by doctors,” she whispers slyly.
Ok, take some deep breaths. Don’t Google your symptoms. My heart is beating faster now, and my cavewoman’s brain thinks the fears are founded. Modern-day brain tries to reason with her.
“Your anxiety is creating the symptoms!”
I eventually fall asleep and wake up the next day thinking, “what was I so worried about?”
With a new day comes new hope. But fear is always in the back of my mind, waiting for night to come out and wreak havoc again.
When I had CBT a few years ago, my therapist told me my health and death anxiety started because of my early experiences with death.
The first person close to me to die was my grandfather (on my dad’s side) when I was about 8-years-old, but I think it was the two deaths in my teens that affected me.
When I was 16, my gran (on my mum’s side) died from lung cancer. Whenever I go to that hospital and walk past the palliative care unit, where her life came to an end, I get flashbacks of my grandad sobbing uncontrollably. I still get a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about it.
However, I think it was the death of my childhood friend that messed me up more. When I was 18, I found out that Becky had lost her battle with leukemia. I went to primary school with her, and she had always had various health issues. She had severe eczema, asthma, and hay fever.
She had to stay in the yard in summer when the rest of the school were allowed to play on the field at lunchtime. She was allowed one friend to stay with her, and sometimes that would be me. But I didn’t feel I was missing out. We made our own fun.
Becky only lived a 5-minute walk away from me. One day, she and another girl from school invited me over to make up a performance based on The Lion King. It involved singing and lion impressions, and we performed it to her parents.
Another time, I turned up at her house on rollerblades, and we went to the woods—obviously, the best place to rollerblade!
I wonder if I didn’t go to her funeral service because I wanted to remember her that way. When we were having fun, when she was very much alive—happy and laughing. Maybe I was just too afraid to accept she had died.
She got diagnosed with leukemia when she was about 13, and by then, we were at different high schools. But my friend, who I caught the bus with every day to school, was her best friend and would update me.
I think we were about 16 when she told me Becky had had the all-clear. After that, she was catching up on school work and applying for university. She wanted to be a nurse.
I was taking a year out between sixth form college and university when I heard she had died. I didn’t even know the cancer had come back. I agonized with the decision, but in the end, I didn’t go to her service.
I still feel guilty about that. That I let her down. That I let myself down by not facing up to her death. Maybe it would have given me a chance to grieve, provided closure, and made me more accepting of death.
There are times when I feel guilty about my anxiety. Because there are people like Becky, who have to face life-threatening illnesses every day, whose lives end before they even begin.
I’m not entirely convinced that my death anxiety was solely caused by these deaths, though. I think I have always struggled with the concept of death. I remember it freaking me out when I was a kid. My brain couldn’t comprehend the idea of non-existence, of not being conscious—and it still can’t. Equally, the thought of an afterlife and existing forever is just as frightening.
Most days, it’s just a passing thought. Other times, I comfort myself with my belief in reincarnation or that energy cannot be destroyed. It only changes—and our energy does the same.
I guess if there is one comforting thing about all of this, it is that we are all in the same boat. We all have to die one day. It pains me to even write that down, but I see this feature as exposure therapy—another CBT technique meant to dull the fear.
I wouldn’t say it’s lessened, but I think my fear has changed shape. In my 20s, my fear was simply of health problems and death themselves. Now in my 30s, it has evolved into feeling like life is too short, and there is far too much to pack in. But then the pressure I put on what to do next with my life paralyzes me with fear, and I struggle to move forward.
When I was in my late 20s, I read a line in a Murakami novel, which I have totally misplaced but the gist of it was, “the fear of death is the fear of life.” I have been mulling that over for a good five years, and then I recently found this quote by Mark Twain:
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.
Could it be that my fear of death simply stems from a fear of not living my life fully? After all, Becky didn’t even get the chance to really live. Her life had just begun and then was unfairly snatched from her.
I think of Becky and her dreams. Her future was uncertain, but she kept going to school. She kept making long term plans. She intended to go to university, and she didn’t let the threat of death stop her from progressing.
And that’s why the saying “live every day like it’s your last” is flawed! Becky wasn’t quitting school and partying every day. If you did treat every day like it was your last, you’d have a chaotic life, always seeking short-term pleasure. You wouldn’t read that book, start that course or save up for that house.
Sometimes the biggest fear is investing in a long-term dream that never materializes. But if you let fear stop you from trying, surely that’s worse.
Saying that, life isn’t just made up of significant events. When I look back at Becky’s life, I think of those small but happy moments. Making up a silly performance or rollerblading through the woods, just for the fun of it. We were so immersed in the present moment that the Grim Reaper was the furthest thing from our minds.
They say that if depression is in the past and anxiety is in the future, peace can be found in the present. So, I just want to remind myself and others to have patience with themselves. Find things that bring you joy and anchor you in the present. For me, that’s writing.
Work towards your future, but don’t fixate on it to the point where it stops you from living in the present. When an amazing yet scary opportunity presents itself, I feel the fear and do it anyway because anxiety never goes away.
All you can do is keep pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone until the zone gets more spacious and you look around and realize how brave you really are.
Whether you are scared of life, death, or both, let’s dare to push through fear. Don’t let the fear of what might happen stop you. Amazing things are going to happen too.
And if I get into an argument with my death anxiety tonight? I’ll silence it with a book or guided meditation. Whatever it takes to enjoy the present moment.