I recently rolled out of bed, after a good night’s sleep, which have become harder to come by during this pandemic.
With the exception of my aching, artificial hip, I felt pretty good. Then I got on my Facebook and Twitter feed, reminding me of “viral” trauma and suffering on multiple levels. Suddenly, I was refreshing the John Hopkins pandemic map every hour on the hour, fixating on the changing numbers. I felt hope slipping away and depression creeping in with the realization that approaching sixty, not only am I vulnerable to COVID-19, there are fewer years ahead, than behind.
My mental balance shifted to chaos. I worried about my mother in her eighties with underlying health issues, living on her own in another city. If she contracts COVID-19, will she die alone? Will she be treated as not worth saving because of her age? I worried about my wife and her aging parents. I stressed over my two brothers and their families and my extended family as well as my friends and their families. Suddenly the weight of the entire COVID crisis felt like it was a foot pressing into my gut.
Every sneeze, sniffle, and cough was a harbinger of infection and hammered home the reality that I am a baby boomer, on the cusp of the high-risk demographic. I am certain that as a budding, ‘senior” I will somehow contract the virus and not survive. The thoughts became obsessive, consuming my day and morphing into depression.
Where did the years go? Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was invincible at eighteen-years-old adventuring on a Trailways bus pass across the country from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, with fifty dollars to my name?
Approaching 13 years sobriety in a week, I should have felt invigored, but I felt alone and isolated, contemplating my boomer mortality and the actuarial fact that more years have flown by then I probably have ahead of me. What was my purpose in life at fifty-nine years old? Is this what mortality anxiety feels like? To get a more clinical take on how this pandemic can trigger “mortality anxiety”, expectably in our aging population, I reached out to Cindy T. Graham, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Founder of the Brighter Hope Wellness Center. Here are her thoughts:
What is Mortality Anxiety?
Mortality anxiety is more commonly referred to as death anxiety and comes from the word thanatophobia. Thanatophobia is derived from Greek and means “fear of death.” While not an official diagnosis used by psychologists or psychiatrists, it is recognized as a perseverative fear of dying or death. It is best considered as one variant of many different types of phobias. (Think of claustrophobia, the fear of being enclosed for example.) Death anxiety is first seen in early school-aged children, when they are developmentally mature enough to understand the implications of death. This fear tends to then abate and reappear later in life.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Mortality/Death Anxiety?
Death anxiety presents similarly to other anxiety disorders and phobia. It can include symptoms of dread, worry, and distress. More sudden symptoms can presently like a panic attack including physical symptoms such as dizziness, sweating, light-headedness, nausea, stomach upset, shaking, sweating, increase heart rate, and shallow breathing. Emotional symptoms related to death anxiety include sadness, anger, guilt, worry, and agitation. There is a social component and can lead to the avoidance of others as one struggles with the worry. These signs can come on suddenly as a panic attack or they can run below the surface with more of a persistent presentation.
Why is the COVID-19 Pandemic Triggering Death Anxiety in Boomers?
Statistics and stories have been circulating about how the COVID-19 virus has a disproportionately higher mortality rate in individuals above the age of 60. The virus is also associated with higher rates of death in people with underlying medical conditions, especially those with lung and heart disease. Baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1964, may feel particularly aware of their mortality. Since death anxiety often occurs more frequently in people who are older and in those who have physical health problems, this pandemic is triggering the presentation of death anxiety for some boomers.
Another factor at play in the emergence of death anxiety for boomers is the call for social distancing. Attempts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus has isolated many individuals from important sources of social support. Boomers, who came of age before handheld technology came about, are not as adept with connecting with friends via social media, texting, video chatting, etc. and may be slower to use these methods of communication. Separation from key sources of social support is associated with a decrease in mental and emotional wellness. Furthermore, threats to health for oneself and/or a loved one can lead to maladaptive methods of coping, including increase in preservative thought. Anxiety increases because the mind is trying to take control of what in can in uncertain times. Since the COVID-19 virus is leading to an increased likelihood for negative outcomes those who are older, boomers who have pre-existing anxiety disorders may be at risk for struggling with death anxiety.
How Can You Stay Balanced in the Face of COVID-19 Related Death Anxiety?
- Give yourself and your loved ones the best chance of not catching it. So, follow CDC and WHO guidelines for minimizing the spread.
- Acknowledge the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing. Give yourself the space to face the thought negative thought and feelings without shaming yourself since internalized feelings of shame can further strengthen anxious responding.
- Try your best to keep a regular schedule. When sleep habits go awry (like going to bed more than an hour after your regular bedtime) anxiety can thrive. Our mood is deeply affected by our circadian rhythm, and changes to it can lead to increases in our anxiety. This time of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders has thrown many people off of their usual routines. Keeping a regular routine and the predictability tends to keep anxiety at bay.
- Reach out to friends—virtually. You are not alone in this and talking to friends can help you see how normal your worry is. Not to mention friends are an excellent source of support during difficult times. Whether it is a call, text, or email, try to find ways to stay keep in touch with your friends.
- Be aware of slipping into old bad habits and the development of new ones. This pandemic has brought about highly unusual times and under times of stress people tend to revert to inappropriate coping strategies. Get ahead of these to noticing your patterns of behavior and address them early on.
- Talk to a mental health professional. Sometimes the worry can be too big to handle alone. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is found to be particularly helpful in treating death anxiety so look for help from a therapist (e.g. psychologist, counselor, social worker, etc.) who has this has a specialty. Many mental health professionals are providing services through teletherapy to accommodate the need for services in light of social distancing.
- Start healthy habits and coping strategies. Grounding exercises are useful in helping you stay present in the moment. These mindfulness-based exercises range from doing body scans (i.e., taking inventory of what your body is experiencing) to sitting in a chair in a quiet room and focusing on what you hear. Other practices such as meditation, yoga, and prayer are also helpful in reducing anxiety. Lastly, exercise is a great way to give that anxious energy somewhere to go, just be sure to check with your physician before starting a new exercise routine.
- Live life. Anxiety is the thief of opportunity and joy. Don’t forget to make the most of your experiences and time. Give yourself permission to find joy and happiness. Try a new hobby you have always thought about trying. Make plans for life after the pandemic—a trip, a concert, visit friends in other areas—the possibilities are endless. Just planning these activities are a great way to manage current anxieties.