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How I'm Overcoming Fear of Death

By Marty Nemko

When I was 12, I recall thinking, “The average life expectancy is 70. That means I only have 58 years left.” That terrified me.

It continued to plague me through the decades despite three therapists (including a specialist in fear of death), books on fear of death, and—even though I’m an atheist—various religions’ approaches to coping with death.

In the last two months, however, I have reduced my fear more than in the previous 45 years. What has helped is a one-two punch: reassure and distract:

1. Reassure: The second the fear of death enters my mind, I replace that thought with, “After I’m dead, I won’t be aware of anything.” I say “the second” because every second I continue to worry about dying spirals me further downward into a harder-to-escape-from pit of fear and sadness.

2. Distract: The very next moment, I force myself to focus on whatever task I was doing before the fear of death intruded.

I’ve also long feared the pain that often precedes death. I have found that reassure and distract helps with that as well:

1. Reassure: If the pain gets so bad that it outweighs the pleasure of living, I will get a doctor to do a Kevorkian on me. (I’m optimistic that California—where I live—will adopt right-to-die legislation like that in Oregon.)

2. Distract: As when fear of death intrudes, I force myself to focus on whatever task I was doing before the fear of pre-death pain started to intrude.

My fears are coming less frequently, in part because I feel I’ve accomplished most of what I want to in life and because I’m beginning to feel my age: a little less energy, a little less sharp mind. I’m starting to understand why many older people don’t mind dying—they’re tired, accomplished enough, and suffer aches, pains and limitations. Every old person I know says that aging isn’t for the faint of heart.

These days, when the fear of death strikes me, it’s usually in response to an inexplicable pain that might bode a life-threatening illness for example, a chest pain that lasts longer than a second. When I experience such a bodily sensation, I use a variant of reassure and distract: I say one or more of the following to myself, “Doctors say there are 30 causes of chest pain, almost of all of which are insignificant. And unless a chest pain lasts longer than a few minutes it’s almost certainly nothing. I still can exercise vigorously—I run—well, slow-jog--three miles a day. And my doctor says I do not have a heart condition. Besides, if I die, I won’t be aware of anything anyway.” I then force myself to focus on whatever task I was doing.

I’ve recommended that my clients try reassure and distract in response to a wide range of fears—from claustrophobia to fear of failure. It’s no magic pill but is a sometimes- effective prescription with no side effects. I commend it to you.

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