The Fear of Death is Another Core Element of Anxiety and OCD

by | May 28, 2023 | OCD | 20 comments

As I wrote about recently, at the core of anxiety and OCD lives the fear of death: either literal death or social death (humiliation, being shunned, rejected, losing your place of belonging). If we’re going to address anxiety at the root, we have to talk about the fear of death and ways to meet it.

I’ve shared the story in a few places of our older son, Everest, and how his love of flying overpowered his fear of death, and that it was when he faced his fear head-on by sitting in the cockpit of a plane for his first glider lesson, and then later when he soloed, that the fear receded. We could have had him in therapy for years talking about his fears, but it wouldn’t have reduced it as powerfully as taking action does.

When we look back on it now, it wasn’t only that he faced the fear of death, it was that he said YES to his passion, to his love of flying, and in saying yes to life the fear of death receded.

This is why, if you suffer from relationship anxiety, one of the most powerful actions you can take is to keep moving forward in your relationship by taking the next steps: saving “I love you”, living together, getting married (not necessarily in that order). Every time you say “yes” to love, you are saying yes to life, which means saying to death, “I know you exist but I’m not going to allow my fear of you to rule my life,”

It’s the love of life that puts death into its rightful place. And, paradoxically, it’s the fear of death that can sometimes inspire us to say yes to life, for it’s when we can keep death forefront but not allow it to run the show that we find the motivation to say yes to each precious moment of this life.

Is the fear of death, in some way, an invitation to embrace life?

Is death, like fear itself, an ally in disguise – the ghoulish character in fairy tales that lures us with its waggling finger into the dark forest so that we can embrace our myth, our passion, the genius that lives inside everyone? 

But here’s the most difficult piece and the one that prevents people from moving forward: anxiety and OCD attack the things we love most in the world. It attacks our romantic relationships, our sexuality (which is really about self-trust and integration of qualities that we’ve stuffed in the shadow box), career, health, friendship, belonging. It only attacks what matters to us. So as much as we might want to face our fears, it’s when we move toward the thing we love that the anxious voices get louder.

How, then, do we work with this?

One aspect is allowing the fear to be there but moving forward anyway. I loved in our recent Patreon interview with Stuart Ralph of The OCD Stories when I asked him if he still considers himself someone with OCD he said (I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t let OCD stop me from doing anything that I love. It’s there, but it doesn’t control my life.” In other words, he has enough tools to work with the intrusive thoughts so that when they arise he can meet them and continue to do the thing he set out to do.

He talks about it in this clip from our recent Gathering Gold episode on OCD, where he shares his first intrusive thought when he was seven years old on a family vacation in Florida:

This is a powerful way to live, and speaks to another core spoke on the fear of death wheel: making the choice to tolerate the imperfection of an intrusive thought being present and continuing to move toward your values. The OCD brain is also the black-and-white thinking brain which says, “If it’s not perfect, what’s the point of doing it?” The more flexible brain says, “Choosing to do the things I love, even imperfectly, even if OCD is telling me that an intrusive thought will ‘ruin’ the experience, will move me toward LIFE. I choose to embrace life, even with imperfections.” This connects to what I wrote about here.

None of this is easy. In fact, I would say it’s nothing short of a spiritual task: to face the fear of death is the stuff that initiations are made of. Yet, here we are, those of us on the anxiety-sensitive-spiritual spectrum, faced with this choice every single day:

Do I choose to tolerate imperfection so that I can move toward the place of flow and love where true and deep perfection exist or do I choose to stay trapped in my rigid world? 

Do I choose death or do I choose life?

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20 Comments

  1. This is absolutely a lifeline to so many of us! Forever grateful I found your work over 12 years ago!

    How would you apply this to scrupulosity or fear of having done something wrong? I’ve maintained a neutral friendship with an ex and have fallen down the rabbit hole that I’ve “done something wrong”. I logically know I haven’t and never in a million years would cross any line or disrespect my husband, and yet. It’s spike central over here. ::eyeroll::

    Reply
    • Not eyeroll. So painful when you’re in the midst of a spike.

      It’s working both on-the-spot and at the root: not feeding the intrusive thought when it arrives by giving it any more than a moment’s attention AND continually working on the underlying layers, whether they’re shame, a current unmet need or feeling that needs your attention, or something else. Remember the cut-through question for intrusive thoughts is: “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?’

      Reply
    • I had never thought of the tolerating of the imperfection of the intrusive thought being there idea. It feels like a breath of fresh air. I had a harm ocd thought pretty quickly after my first son was born, and it has always bugged me that that’s a part of those moments for me. This helped me reframe that. Thank you.

      Reply
  2. My mom always told me growing up that when I have a “weird” thought or feeling all I need to say is “hmm, that’s interesting” and then choose to move on. I never understood it. “How do you do that, mom? I can’t protect myself if I do that.”. It is only now, at 28, that I finally started implementing that practice. Sometimes I have to say it 50+ times a day, sometimes only twice. But I found that it puts enough distance between me and whatever the thought or feeling is so that I don’t integrate it into my being. It makes it easier to gain clarity, if clarity is needed. It’s brings me back to the present moment. It makes me feel more flexible and just more, me. This post reminds me of that practice. Choosing to move forward, even when uncomfortable. Letting go, even when uncomfortable.

    Reply
  3. This is so helpful and beautiful. Thank you! Stuart Ralph’s words were so helpful, and validating, too. Coincidentally, I was snorkeling in the ocean today (which I’ve only done 4 times before, 3 of which were this week) and was feeling very afraid of sharks but also I knew that swimming and snorkeling were so fun and nourishing for me. In fact when I was feeling fear before snorkeling, I reminded myself some things that you’ve taught me about the healing power of being in water, and connecting with seawater and womb water being very similar. I noticed my fear of sharks was higher today when I was “leading” our little group of three, versus following the past 3 times I’ve gone. Like it’s scarier to be first because I’m maybe more likely to encounter danger, but I’m also the first to come upon new wonders, and it was a challenge that I wanted – and when I was leading I got to choose what to explore, the pace, and when to go back to shore. Leading itself is a scary thing for me, so it was interesting to see how different the experience was today of leading instead of following within the context of snorkeling. I enjoyed it (it was scary and exhilarating) and feel proud of myself for doing that today. 🙂 And in the context of this post, my experiment feels really connected to the idea of being okay with fear being present and choosing to do things anyway – choosing life, with imperfections. 🙂

    As a side note, one of the people I was snorkeling with has a lot of experience snorkeling and has seen sharks while snorkeling and it’s been interesting for him, and he’s been fine. I told him I was feeling very afraid of encountering a shark, and he was understanding and also said kindly, “if you see a shark, I’ll save you!” And while I know he couldn’t save me from death in all circumstances, my sharing my fears, and him being understanding but also reassuring that we were most likely safe, helped a lot. 🙂

    Love to you Sheryl, Stuart, and all. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you for your beautiful response, Jamie. There’s so much richness in what you’ve shared here, especially this:

      “my experiment feels really connected to the idea of being okay with fear being present and choosing to do things anyway – choosing life, with imperfections. 🙂”

      That’s it! And I also love that in the sharing of your fear and his loving response, you felt comforted.

      Reply
      • Hi Sheryl,

        this post has really helped me a great deal. Yes indeed death, particularly social death is a key fear of mine. I recognise it has become particularly entrenched these last couple of years, due to the death of my parents passing from two awful illnesses. However, it has always been there to some extent, I was simply able to sweep it aside before. There are some long-standing traumas that are certainlythe causes of this, e.g. being bullied as a child and teen, which I have recently been addressing. Since the end of last year though, I’ve come to recognise how lonely I feel, and how this has been growing, since my husband and I moved to the countryside. I love it here, but it hasn’t been easy to make connections. I’m slowly getting there though. It’s simply, that not having my parents, or any of my long term friends nearby to have a chat, has made things so much more challenging. I’m seeing a great therapist now, and though my recovery is very slow, I feel like I’m moving in the right direction. For the first time in my life I’m trying to move away from a perfectionist attitude, viewing things in a black and white way. I’m also learning how to be more compassionate to myself. I realise I suffer greatly with the shame stigma too. Worrying about what others would think should they find out about my ROCD. Yet I know it doesn’t matter. How would they know unless I tell them. Which of course I have no intention of doing. My OCD does like to latch onto the shame of having these thoughts come and go throughout the duration of my relationship. So yes this is something that really bothers me, and I need to work on. Learning to sit with these uncomfortable feelings is a new thing for me.

        Reply
  4. I’m always struck by the following irony: the purpose of anxiety (in evolutionary terms) is to keep us alive, but a life full of anxiety is a living death.

    I really relate to your blog post. Lately I’ve been dealing with avery intense fear of literal death, which is relatively new for me. The previous deaths I’ve been afraid of have all been metaphorical. But I suppose the appropriate responses amount to the same thing: choosing life.

    Another interesting aspect of what you write is that, in the ‘literature’, it often comes across as though treatment is supposed to be painful, to hurt; that the medicine is supposed to be exceedingly bitter – the more pain the better. I have learnt through the years, and through what you have just written, that this isn’t true: yes, it’s painful (in a sense) not to indulge in compulsions, but it’s ultimately joyful and liberating to turn towards what you love. After all, if your son didn’t love flying, then getting into that cockpit would have been nothing but masochism.

    I hope this all makes sense. Thanks again for a wonderful article.

    Reply
    • Yes, that makes beautiful, perfect sense, Joshua. This is why Stuart is a big fan of the ACT model because it’s value-based and focuses on doing what you love regardless of what OCD is telling us. Therefore, the focus is truly on LIFE and LOVE.

      As far as your first line: Yes, that’s truly the irony of anxiety. In reasonable amounts, anxiety serves a positive function: to keep us safe and to motivate us to do our best (think test anxiety). But when it tips into overwhelm, as it does with OCD, all positive results fly out the window.

      Reply
      • Yes, I have Russ Harris’ book ‘ACT With Love’. I like the model. It feels compassionate and empowering. And it’s not just about symptom reduction, as some approaches tend to be. I feel it’s especially relevant for Relationship Anxiety too. I also like Harville Hendrix’s work. And I agree with your comment about the ‘spiritual task’ – this can often get overlooked.

        Reply
  5. Thank you for this post, I’m always so excited to read the blogs when I get the email.I also have the same intrusive thoughts about sharks in pools, I have always had these thought but they crack me up now (albiet I’m still slightly scared in pools haha!)
    Something I’m currently going through is feeling very annoyed with people when they don’t consider others feelings, such as people only thinking about themselves and not others (such work colleagues always being late to meet for our daily commute, friends asking to hold social events at my home). Is this an OCD/ HSP thing or am I just a bit too up tight? I keep trying to get to the bottom of why I get so annoyed, as it stops me from wanting to hang out with people but I know that’s not a very healthy thing to do! Any of your insights would be so greatly appreciated. Thank you ☺️

    Reply
  6. You said that intrusive thoughts about sexuality were “really about self-trust and integration of qualities that we’ve stuffed in the shadow box.” Could you speak more about that? or point me to another post/article? Thank you; your work has been a lifeline for me.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your poetry here, Joshua. It’s always a gift.

      Reply
  7. I’ve just noticed this phrase, and I love it: “So as much as we might want to face our fears, it’s when we move toward the thing we love that the anxious voices get louder.”

    This definitely informs my approach to my anxiety – it’s not about masochistically scaring myself witless as some approaches would seem to advocate; it’s about actually moving towards LOVE. With time, practice and persistence, the fear gradually diminishes. It is about ‘facing our fears’, but in a roundabout way. If that makes sense.

    Reply
    • Facing our fears through the lens of love. I LOVE that!

      Reply
      • Without the love, there isn’t the motivation to ‘face our fears’. As I said, that would be mere masochism.

        Reply

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