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 Tolstoy, Ivan Ilyich; Heidegger, Death Anxiety, Existential Therapy, meaning of life, mid-life crisis, Psychotherapy in London, CBT in London

Munch's Scream


I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying. (Woody Allen)

A sure sign that we find a topic uncomfortable is that we  joke about it rather than discuss it directly . Hence the large number of Woody Allen jokes about death - like the one above. Here are another two of Woody Allen's.

                             There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?

                             It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.

There are basically two lines to take on death anxiety. One (basically the cognitive approach) is to dispute the basis of death anxiety - an approach taken as long ago as the fourth century BC by Epicurus when he said 

                         Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.

The cognitive approach to death anxiety would also advocate distracting oneself from thought's of dying and,  to use more psychanalytic terminology, sublimating death anxiety into humour - and who better than Woody Allen to represent the psychoanalytic approach?

The second line to take is the existential one, characterised by the works of Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom. Here the idea is that we should NOT avoid thinking about death - or, more accurately, we should from time to time remind ourselves of the finitude of life. Even the cognitive therapist's couldnt say we are merely "jumping to conclusions" when we say we are going to die! Existentialists counsel us to switch off autopilot or  following the herd, sheep-like. Instead we should  realise that we have a limited amount of time on this planet and make active choices about how to live. Tolstoy's classic Death of Ivan Ilyich  is a salutary tale of how not to do it. The  Robin William's film Dead Poets Society is another one, in a different way.

So which should we choose - the cognitive approach or the existential? Myself, I see the value of both, used the right way. There is no point worrying about death. But there is a lot of point in making the most of life. If a little bit of death anxiety can help us live better, then I'd take the deal.

 External Resources
Article by Paul Wong -
From Death Anxiety to Death Acceptance: A meaning management model - good introduction, include's Wong's own meaning-oriented ideas
The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Tolstoy's classic short story available free on-line - suggests a little bit of death anxiety now, if used constructively, may prevent a lot of regrets when it's too late to consider how one should have lived.
Spark Notes on The Death of Ivan Ilyich  - a good (free) guide to understanding it more deeply
Salon interview with existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom - includes his thoughts on how "a denial of death at any level is a denial of one's basic nature."
Yalom's Perspective of Existential Psychotherapy - brief article, refering to Yalom's Love's Executioner
Decreasing death anxiety - short article about palliative care treatment of death anxiety
How do people deal with a fear of death -  A variety of ideas -some good, some not so good - from Yahoo answers

                                                                                     Get more free resources on existentialism and existential therapy at

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