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Death Anxiety in a Plastic World

Doll lying in the grass

Credit: Rubén Bagüés via Unsplash

"Do you guys ever think about dying?", asks Barbie to her plastic friends. It's a question that raises a real fear - Thanatophobia, or 'Death Anxiety' is a fear of death that is most common in people in their 20s, and in women. Greta Gerwig's Barbie has made this question a key plot point, bringing death anxiety into an agelessly plastic world.

Most people will have thought about death before. Whether their own death or that of a loved one, it is an inescapable part of life. Yet being nervous or unwilling to talk about death is very common in our society. By allowing Barbie to openly consider her mortality, will the conversation around death anxiety change?

Do I have Thanatophobia?

Side profile of young white woman with eyes closed abd hands clasped together in front of nose

Feeling some anxiety about death is a normal experience for most people, especially if you or someone you love is ill. Many people can feel anxious or afraid of going to a funeral. Usually these feelings only appear occaisonally and fade away. If you have death anxiety that begins to interfere with your normal life, it can become very disruptive and distressing. For Barbie, a new fear of death causes her to uproot her perfect plastic life and beging exploring the 'real world'

Barbie goes on a phsyical journey to confront her fears, but we can begin a conversation without having to uproot ourselves. We can start a conversation about death by sending a quick message, by reading an article, or by attending one of a growing number of events that exist for the purpose. Death Doulas and Coffin Clubs are just two inititatives that are empowering people to think about their end-of-life plans with community events and workshops.

Death anxiety can take many forms though, and sometimes it isn't enough to just start a conversation. Although it is not a recognised disorder by any of the major psychiactric institutes, it has been recognised as being related to General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). This means that if you are suffering from severe death anxiety, you are likely to have other symptoms as well. A 2019 study led by Rachel Menzies, a University of Sydney Research Psychologist, established a strong link between death anxiety and the severity of symptoms in 12 other disorders ranging from alcohol use disorder to depression and social anxiety.

“Death anxiety was also significantly associated with a person’s number of hospitalisations, how many medications they’re on for their mental health, and how many different disorders they’ve had across their life,” Menzies said. Clearly Barbie has a lot on her mind!

Does Death Anxiety Have to be Negative?

Although anxiety around death is often a negative force in someone's life, some people believe that it can be harnessed in a positive way. Professor David Rosmarin, the founder of the Center for Anxiety in New York, has suggested that having some level of death anxiety can be helpful: "death is inevitable, and being aware of our mortality can have positive effects: It can make us more humble, it can make us think twice before we do certain things, it can make us more cautious, it can make us think about issues of greater meaning and purpose and why we’re here".

Other medical professionals have also spoken about the benefits of being honest about mortality, both in palliative settings and in general medical care. Prof Mark Taubert is a palliative care consultant based in Cardiff. Speaking to The Guardian, he said that "When my patients spend more time getting used to the very real possibility that things will work out not so well, it can reduce anxiety considerably over future weeks and months".

Do you guys ever think about dying?

Maybe we should! As long as Death Anxiety can be managed as a part of life it can be a useful feeling for many people. Getting us talking about death in a constructive and positive way can help us to manage our feelings when the inevitable happens. By bringing these conversations to a larger audience, it is possible the Barbie will be genuinely helpful for lots of people.

Close-up of a man's hand holding a woman's hand

Photo by Jiang Vue on Unsplash

If you or someone you love is suffering from serious thanatophobia, or another type of anxiety, you can get psychotherapy on the NHS. You can refer yourself to these services, or ask your GP to do it for you.

The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies has a directory of accredited CBT therapists in the UK and Republic of Ireland. You can be seen more quickly by private therapists, but it can be very expensive.

The NHS app contains more information and advice on hundreds of conditions and treatments that could help you to manage the anxiety caused by thanatophobia.

Extreme ‘death anxiety’ might seem unusual, but many people are affected by it and you should not be ashamed of being open about your feelings and pursuing treatment if you feel that it might help you.

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