Overwhelming Anxiety About Life and Death

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

During the summer this year I began researching the debate between evolution and religion. That was the biggest mistake of my life. My research caused me to develop an anxiety about life and death. I feared that there’s nothing after this life. I wanted to know if there is an afterlife, and I eventually found what I was looking for. Being a scientific person, I can only believe something if it has good evidence to support it. Thankfully reincarnation fit that category. I learned about it and found immense peace with that belief. I was anxiety free until around the time of Thanksgiving.

Before I get into my more recent problems, I feel it’s necessary to tell you that over the summer I also had horrendous sleeping patterns and didn’t go outside much. I’ve changed that now, although it’s still difficult to get outside since it’s winter now.

Now, as for what happened around Thanksgiving. About three days into the holiday break from school, I started to feel anxious again. So, doing what had helped me in the past, I looked into reincarnation again. But this time it brought me more fear and anxiety instead of the peace I was hoping for. It only raised questions instead of answering them. I ended up losing the meaning of life. I didn’t understand why we’re here or what the purpose of anything is. I felt so meaningless and empty. But my loving boyfriend, who is a Christian, helped me find some peace. But it didn’t last. I began to question whether we even have souls. I’ve been dealing with this question ever since Thanksgiving. Only for a few days did I feel peace at all.

Eventually I found a website dedicated to near death experiences (NDEs). I found them to be incredibly comforting and found a few more days of peace. But that too did not last. I stupidly read some articles from the scientist’s point of view on NDEs and began to doubt what I had started to believe. But eventually I found some good logical arguments against the reductionist view and felt that my beliefs were back to where they had started.

But still, I feel no peace. I’m not totally sure why I’m still not happy. I think it may have to do with the fact that I don’t have any personal evidence of a soul, only what other people have said, though I do trust and believe them. I also worry that my beliefs are wrong. My boyfriend and one of my teachers who I’m very close to both think I feel this way because of my severely low self esteem. I can’t say I necessarily disagree either. I’ve never really had self esteem and I’ve always worried about being wrong. I don’t handle it well when I am incorrect either.

I’m just so tired of all this. I just want to be happy and calm again. I love science. It’s my deepest passion, but I can barely stand to think about it because it scares me so deeply now. I want my old life back. I wish I had never gotten myself into this.

Is my anxiety able to be cured? Will this ever get better or will I have to suffer for the rest of my life? Also, is my anxiety caused by my low self esteem? Or is there something else going on? Lastly, I sometimes get extremely anxious and feel like I can’t breathe. When this happens how can I stop it? Also, can I prevent it to begin with?

Please help me. I’m at the end of my rope here. I just don’t know what else to do. I’m going back to my psychologist in the next week or so, but I’m so afraid he won’t be able to help me because of what my problem involves.

A. If I am reading your letter correctly, you are asking about three main issues, all of which may be related. Those three issues are (1) anxiety regarding life and death; (2) generalized anxiety (you mentioned having difficulty breathing and feeling extremely anxious) and (3) low self-esteem.

You wrote that your boyfriend and a teacher think because you are reading and asking questions related to spiritual and religious beliefs it means you have low self-esteem. You may have low self-esteem but even if you did, I do not think it’s related to your search for answers regarding life and death. Low self-esteem involves not feeling good about yourself. It means feeling that one is not “good enough.” If you did not think highly of yourself, what does that have to do with searching for definitive answers regarding an afterlife or spirituality? I do not see the connection to self-esteem that your boyfriend and teacher are making.

Related to this issue is the idea that some people might consider the act of questioning one’s religious or spiritual beliefs as wrong or immoral. There are many people who blindly follow the religion they were born into. Some people compare the religion they were born into with other religions and form their own set of values. The fact that you are exploring these issues and trying to come to some conclusion is a sign of a healthy mind.

With regard to your interest in spirituality, NDE’s, reincarnation, etc., you said that you wished that you had not begun your research into these matters because it left you confused. The reality is that you began your research looking for definitive answers in an area where there may be no clear-cut answers. People have been searching for answers to questions about life and death since the beginning of mankind. There are many thousands of books written on these issues. Scholars from every background have thought about many of the same issues. After thousands of years of study there are still no definitive answers.

I think you may have the wrong attitude when you are reading about these issues. It seems like when you read two conflicting opinions it upsets you. You said sometimes it even makes you feel anxious or depressed.

Let me recommend a new approach and attitude toward these issues. I would suggest that you continue to read all that you can. Remain inquisitive. Keep an open mind. Store the knowledge you learn from your studies that you find interesting or worthwhile in your “memory bank” and try to tolerate not having definitive answers. Realize that brilliant individuals such as Aristotle, Plato, Albert Einstein, Abraham Maslow, Niels Bohr, Isaac Newton, Carl Jung, and many more have contemplated these issues and did not form definitive conclusions. Why? Because they found that it was not possible. I would also suggest learning to be comfortable with the mystery of life and death. Be excited about exploring the unknown. Lastly, it would also be helpful in the future to suspend final judgment on these matters until you become expert enough to form conclusions. There are no simple or quick conclusions possible.

It would also be helpful if you studied the critical thinking process. Learning how to critically analyze materials might help you to be a better judge of what ideas are worthy of your consideration and what you should leave behind. Take care.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Jan 2009

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2009). Overwhelming Anxiety About Life and Death. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 20, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2009/01/05/overwhelming-anxiety-about-life-and-death/