Thoughts of afterlife causes anxiety

Sometimes I can't stop thinking about life after death. I was raised in a religion that teaches that we will live on forever either in hell or in heaven.

When I think of living forever (even if it is in heaven which should be good), I feel overwhelmed. I don't like the thought of living forever and ever and ever. Sometimes I just can't get the thought out of my mind and the thoughts lead to panic and anxiety.

Am I crazy? I don't think these thoughts are normal.

Nat Roman
Nat Roman
Marriage & Family Therapist, MSc RP

You might be surprised how normal you are. Anxiety is incredibly common and while your particular type of existential anxiety might be unique to you - it is very difficult for most people to really comprehend what happens after we die - regardless of the religious or philosophical belief systems we hold. It is the ultimate unknown and some philosophers and psychologists believe that at the root of our day-to-day anxieties is the fear of death or fear of the unknown.  Just as it can be really hard to comprehend the ending of life it can also be hard to comprehend an eternal existence. What these both have in common is that we are imaging a future that is ultimately unknowable and this unknown can provoke a lot of anxiety. 

Mindfulness based practices like meditation - maybe there is something like this in your religious tradition - can be very helpful in making peace with the unknown in the present moment. The more we can learn to live in the moment - the less we get hung up on anticipating outcomes for our lives that may never come true. Mindfulness practices can help you ground, be where you are , relax and regulate your nervous system so that you are able sleep and recuperate, and train your attention to focus on living the life you want to live now - rather than worrying about what happens after you die. 

Having said all that - it can be profoundly helpful to speak with someone about your anxiety - especially when you feel haunted by it, worry that you are crazy and can't get to sleep. There are lots of good therapists out there who can help you with your anxiety. 

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Lynda Martens
Lynda Martens
Marriage & Family Therapist, MSc, RP, RMFT

Hi California, What you're experiencing is indeed anxiety; it's very common. Through research we know a lot of things about how to reduce anxiety. I'll get you started and it's a great idea to connect with a therapist who can build on these ideas and get to know you well.

It's natural to have random thoughts that unsettle us. Our brains are complex, wonderful things. Fearful and anxious thoughts are a part of this picture; their purpose is to prepare us for the future and to help us make sense of the past and learn from it. But what happens sometimes is that our alarm systems get out of whack and get set off too easily. We often spend TOO MUCH time worrying about things that happened or might happen. When these thoughts take away from our enjoyment of life, it becomes a problem. So, while fear and anxiety try to protect us, they also seek power and will take any power they can get.

In general, fear and anxiety try to tell us one or both of two things: that something is wrong with us, or that something bad will happen (or that something bad will happen because there's something wrong with us). They will use anything they can as evidence to convince you. For example... "That person looked at you funny. You're strange looking". Well there are dozens of possible explanations for the look on that person's face, and it's unlikely it had anything to do with you. 

For you personally, your thoughts are about the afterlife...about living forever. What does fear tell you will be uncomfortable about living forever? What would the worst part be? A therapist would help you dig deep to find the core of what you fear. It might be that you have no control over who you are or where you go. It might be that you fear going to hell because you're "bad". Search for that deepest fear.

I invite you then to picture that thought as a glass of water on a shelf. It's a heavy glass, and if you held it in your hands for a while and stared at it, it would get in the way; you'd be uncomfortable and unable to focus on your life. That's what's happening now. I suggest that the problem is not so much the thought you're having; we all have random silly thoughts that usually aren't true. The problem is how long you're holding it in your hand. You could have that thought (pick up that glass) a hundred times a day and, as long as you put it right back on the shelf, it's not a problem. The trick is to get it back on that shelf.

Right now, you're using distraction to do this. You're trying to focus on other things around you, but I think the glass is still in your hand. It's not enough; you're looking for more tools to get that glass back on the shelf.  And the key is in your thoughts. Once you find out what fear is trying to tell you, then you can "talk back to" fear. So, as an example, if fear is saying to you "you have no control over anything", then you can work to accept the pieces you don't have control over, learn to tolerate that feeling, and claim back the pieces you CAN control. You CAN control the extent to which you let fear take you over. 

With a therapist you can learn to "refute" fears' ideas. You can learn to look for concrete evidence of fear's lies and gain back control over your thoughts. I wish you the best!

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Elizabeth Anderson
Elizabeth Anderson
MFT Registered Intern

Religious questioning is a complex and often philosophical topic, and these types of questions, especially around heaven, hell, and an afterlife can bring up a host of difficult & confusing feelings. What I want to focus on is the fear & anxiety you seem to be feeling that are deeply connected to your questions. Scary thoughts, negative thoughts, obsessive thoughts sometimes feel like they're out of control and there is nothing we can do to stop them, but I want to offer two techniques that might assist with your panic & anxiety. The first step in working with scary or negative thoughts is to acknowledge that they are just thoughts and we can choose to follow the scary thought streams or work with cutting them off or ignoring them. I also realize that might seem really hard to do, but here's a good way to think about the brain and how thought patterns work. Thoughts arise in the mind all the time, our brain is a thought machine. Many thoughts drift by like clouds and we don't pay any attention while other thoughts arise and they trigger us in a particulate way, i.e., scary, angry, happy, sad, and when those thoughts arise we can chose to pay more attention to the thought which can lead us down that particular thought stream that will lead to fear and anxiety. So, how do we work or stop those scary thought streams? One new skill to implement comes from the work of Rick Hansen, he wrote the book Buddha's Brain," he teaches that we need to give more energy and attention to the positive thoughts or positive memories we hold in our mind and pay less attention to the negative thoughts. Hansen asks us to imagine the brain this way, the brain is like Velcro with negative thoughts and like teflon when it comes to positive thoughts. There are reasons that our brain works this way, but I don't have time to go into all of that in this response. So, it's just important to remember we have to work at positive thinking, actually pausing throughout the day to focus on positive feelings and memories,  this will help the mind reinforce positive thought streams and help reduce negative thought streams over time. If a scary thought arises try to replace it with a happy experience for at least a couple of moments, and see if that helps reduce the negative charge connected with that scary thought. I would also suggest when you're having the thoughts about death take a moment to notice how you're breathing. Often when we are feeling anxiety we are doing shallowing chest breathing rather than taking in a full, deep breath or what is called belly breathing. If you take a moment to focus on your breathing and allow a couple of full breaths, bringing in the breath so the belly rises and then the belly natural falls as you exhale, just noticing the breath and practicing breathing can slow down the anxiety cycle as it begins.

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Janice  Harriet
Janice Harriet
A student going through the same shit you are.

You need to find an outlet. Someone to talk to. Your dad or someone who loves your mother as well is someone ideal. But anyone could help. Just look to someone for help. If you can't find anyone who you think will listen, talk to your mom. It can help greatly just to get the words out. Tell her how you feel about her passing, but then also about everything else. Talk to her about your day. Tell her about happy things. I don't know if you're a religious person, or where you believe she is now, but no matter what you can talk to her.

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Mark Morris, LCSW
Mark Morris, LCSW
Therapist and Author of Living Yes

Many people generate intense anxiety with obsessive thinking.  While the nature of your obsession about the afterlife and eternity appear very powerful and unique to you, the pattern of obsessing about one thing/area is common.  

I suggest that you consider counseling to help you with your anxiety.  If you are so inclined, there are also medications which may bring relief.  Obviously, I can't diagnose you from one paragraph, so it would be wise to visit an experienced mental health professional (either a counselor or an MD in your area) to help you with disengaging from your self-destructive thoughts.  

CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is a very effective counseling approach for obsessive thinking.  If you'd like a see a top notch CBT therapist, visit www.AcademyofCT.org.  And of course I suggest you pick up my book, LIVING YES, A HANDBOOK FOR BEING HUMAN, which includes CBT concepts and many more tools which will help with obsession and anxiety.

As for believing yourself "insane" (or "crazy") this is not a mental health term but a legal one (or a slang).  So as long as you don't commit a crime, no professional can legitimately call you insane or crazy!

Take it slow!  ~Mark (www.MarkMorrisLCSW.com and www.LivingYes.org)

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide.   If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.

Submit your own question

More Answers