“The chief problem about death, incidentally, is the fear that there may be no afterlife — a depressing thought, particularly for those who have bothered to shave. Also, there is the fear that there is an afterlife but no one will know where it’s being held.” – Woody Allen
Poor Woody Allen. Always the anxious existentialist. Almost every character Woody Allen ever played portrayed a portrait of generalized anxiety disorder run rampant. The quote above, while humorous, actually describes deeply held fears based on the most common underlying theme of generalized anxiety: fear of death. And what comes, or doesn’t come, afterward.
Remember that anxiety exists on all levels: the mind, the body (brain), and the spirit. One of the ways we work with the anxious mind in a clinical practice is to explore belief systems on the conscious and unconscious level. We bring what is unconscious into the light of day so we can hold it, examine it, turn it over and see its many facets. It can be surprising how often these unconscious beliefs are running like programs in the background on our smart phone; sucking up our energy and directing our thoughts.
So many times the root of anxious thinking can be found in conscious and unconscious, yet deeply held, religious and spiritual beliefs. Having firmly held spiritual beliefs that provide comfort, not fear, makes it easier to let go of anxiety and easier to face the fact that none of us will get out of here alive no matter what we do. No matter how well prepared we are, no matter how healthy our diet and exercise regimen, we all have our appointment with death. We just don’t know when it is. Having comforting spiritual beliefs is a protective factor when it comes to facing this fact and it is a protective factor in generalized anxiety.
Focus on the word ‘comforting’. Some religious belief systems are more threatening than comforting, offering a stern father figure who is ready to send down fire and damnation for not towing the line. I’ve worked with abused children who have this kind of earthly father and they receive little comfort in this life. To think that there is a God like this is cold, indeed. With the threat of a fiery hell in the afterlife, or other forms of punishment for being human, it’s easy to find a lot to be afraid of.
Furthermore, some religious belief systems depend very much on social control of the people in their congregation such that if a believer doesn’t follow strict rules, they are liable to be cast out of the group or punished in some other way. There is scarce comfort to be found there as well. One can easily understand why there would need to be a veneer of perfection created and maintained at all costs. Should anyone peek underneath the surface and see the imperfect human beneath, there would be a steep price to be paid.
When I do my initial assessment session with clients, I always ask about their spiritual beliefs, especially if they have anxiety. What I have found is that many people just don’t think about this stuff. Not really. I cannot count the number of clients I’ve had over the years who are terribly anxious about death, both their own and the potential loss of loved ones, but they have never examined what they believe to be true about death and dying. Considering that death is pretty much everyone’s end game, that doesn’t seem prudent to me.
When we talk about their anxiety and I help them peel back the layers of their conscious thoughts so that the unconscious beliefs can be revealed, I’m usually not surprised to learn that many folks just hit a roadblock once death enters the picture. I’ll ask a ‘what would happen’ type question, they’ll give the ‘I could die’ answer, and then when I ask ‘and then what would happen’, they get this blank expression. They literally do not understand the question. So I’ll regroup. I’ll be direct. “What will happen to you after you die?”. There is almost always a pause, even with very religious people. Then comes the big, ‘I don’t know.’ And there it is.
In case you are curious, here are a few of the more common core beliefs people have that live below and give support to anxiety. All of these were reported to me by adult clients, although you will notice a certain child like quality in many of them:
- God is displeased with me. God disapproves of me. God is disappointed in me.
- After I die, I will be alone.
- After I die I will get lost. After I die I will not know where to go.
- After I die there will be nothingness.
- After I die there will be nothing left of me. (I will be completely gone from the whole universe.)
- I will go to hell, or at least, I’m not sure I will get into heaven.
- God does not want me. I am not perfect enough for God.
- After I die I will kind of float around until I find a place to land. (This has to be my favorite one, although I find it to be very sad to actually think about it.)
- When I die I will be cast out.
You can imagine that if you held one of these beliefs, death would be a fearful thing even beyond the fear of loss and separation that we all have. I mean, it’s a natural thing to not WANT to die, to try to avoid dying too soon. That’s different from being afraid of what happens afterwards. You can, perhaps, see the link between these underlying beliefs and the desire, the need, to try to control everything in order to create a feeling of safety and security.
On the other hand, if you believe that death is a natural part of life and that in some way you will ‘be okay’ after death, you are in a better position to live gracefully in this world of what sometimes feels like chaos. These beliefs are part of what allows us to handle going into any kind of ‘great unknown’ , like crossing oceans, or even driving in Seattle traffic. We know we can prepare but that in the end we cannot control. In the words of Helen Keller, “Security is mostly a superstition..Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” We must accept that on some level in order to live life to the fullest.
Our belief systems, whether they are Zen, Zeus, or Zoroastrianism, help us make sense of the inevitable losses that we will all face in our lives whether through our own death, or through the death of loved ones. It doesn’t matter whether what we believe is ‘true’ or not. It matters how our beliefs make us feel. Do they make us feel safe and comforted in our mortality? Or do they scare the crap out of us? I don’t know about you, but I like to just say ‘no’ to belief systems that just feel wrong and frightening. I’ll take my chances that I’m doing the right thing by following joy, not fear, which everyone knows is the enemy.
I want to make the point that what counts here is that you are comforted by the beliefs you have. After all, this is not an academic exercise. This is not a ‘knowing’ in the head. It’s a ‘knowing’ in the heart. For instance, I know some people actually believe that there is nothing at all after death, we just cease to exist. Perhaps this works for them. They may find some comfort in it. Some people believe in a literal heaven and hell and they find comfort in that. So I’m glad that’s available for them. Others believe that we live many lives either concurrently or through reincarnation. That works, too.
There is no one spiritual belief system that has the corner on the market for reducing anxiety, although there are some that are more likely to actually create anxiety than others. It’s an individual thing and, after all, we’re talking about faith here, not fact, because no one is really going to find out the answer to the big existential questions until they die. And maybe not even then! But if you have anxiety that runs your life, ask yourself what belief systems run your anxiety and see if some of those may be existential in nature. Ask yourself the hard questions and begin to seek answers for yourself that make sense to you. Go with the answers that comfort your anxious mind. If you lead your search with your heart, you cannot go wrong.
Thanks to all the readers who stuck with me through this A to Z Challenge! I’m ready for a little blogging break now. If you need a link to the first post in the challenge, here it is.