I remember where I was: driving to the gym for a Mommy & Me boot camp.
I pulled up to a red light and locked eyes with my 6-month-old baby in the rearview mirror. I felt unsettled and scared. I had an inexplicable urge to go home, and also to call everyone I knew and check on them. Yet nothing had happened. I was safe, healthy and employed. At that point, in mid-March, I was more likely to die of a car accident than of contracting covid-19. It would be months before the state I live in, Oregon, would have a significant number of cases.
That eerie uncomfortable feeling has been described as grief. As fear. Or anxiety. But Sheldon Solomon, a social psychologist and professor at Skidmore College, has a more robust explanation: It is the existential anxiety caused by reminders of our own mortality.
Simply put, to function as a conscious being, it’s imperative that you be in denial about your impending death. How else would you go about the mundane aspects of your daily life — cleaning the gutters, paying the bills, sitting in traffic — if you were constantly aware of the inevitability of your own death?
“You would be overwhelmed with potentially debilitating existential terror,” Solomon said.
The logical outcome is a kind of cognitive dissonance. You know all humans die, you know that you are human, and yet somehow you don’t believe that you yourself are going to die.
Solomon and two other psychologists, Jeff Greenberg, a professor at the University of Arizona, and Thomas Pyszczynski, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, have spent the past two decades researching the ways in which humans avoid thinking about mortality and how we behave when we are reminded of death.
Death avoidance isn’t simply a psychological theory either; a neurological study was published in 2019 about a mechanism in the brain that avoids awareness of a person’s own mortality and that categorizes death as something unfortunate that happens to other people.
In other words, we are wired to accept that death happens — just not to us.
It’s easier to keep this denial going when death is not a part of your life. The more that death and dying become part of your daily experience — getting rear-ended on the freeway, the death of a loved one, a scary test at the doctor’s office, perhaps a global pandemic — the harder it is to maintain that denial. Greenberg, a co-creator of the Terror Management Theory, said that, in their research, they have found a few predictable but different responses to death reminders: an urge to make yourself feel safe (in the world of the coronavirus, that would look like wearing a mask or washing your hands), complete denial (deciding the virus is part of a conspiracy theory, or reminding yourself that nobody you know is sick or that you are young and healthy) or distraction.
“What we are seeing is literally the predictable result of pervasive reminders of death,” he said.
An Israeli study showed some participants a flier about death anxiety and others one about back pain. When subjects were then offered an alcoholic beverage, one-third of the death flier group bought alcohol vs. one-tenth of the back-pain group.
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t the first time we’ve been reminded of death. In the past decade, hundreds of thousands of people have died of diseases, natural disasters and terrorist attacks, and many have experienced the loss of a loved one.
What makes this instance so unique is that many of us are stuck at home, our comfortable routines disrupted and our go-to denial tools such as the gym or the bar are out of reach. For those of us who have temporarily or permanently lost employment, our ability to block out death reminders is further reduced.
“When you have to go into lockdown to protect yourself from the physical threat, it’s interfering with those things that day-to-day allow us to feel psychologically secure in our sense of value in the world,” Greenberg said.
“When people are being laid off, and hours are being cut, they can’t provide for themselves and their families, they can’t do the things they normally do,” he said. “They can’t go out and have their value socially validated by friends and colleagues, then there’s a threat to that psychological security as well as a threat to physical safety.”
Additionally, the solitude that comes from being stuck at home may cause more than just a nagging, uneasy feeling; it may actually cause the acute realization of our own deaths.
James Baillie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Portland, believes the mechanisms that prevent us from fully grasping that we are going to die can temporarily cease to function, causing us to suddenly confront our own mortality, a fact we know but rarely acknowledge. Baillie calls this phenomenon an existential shock.
“Unlike covid[-19], the fact of our mortal nature persists throughout our lives, and we can do nothing about it,” he said. “We virtually never think about it, and, when we do, we pay lip service to it.”
Existential shock is what happens when we truly realize that one day we will cease to exist and the world will go on without us. Baillie theorizes that this shock can be brought on by moments of contemplation or a change in our routine.
“For some people, being confronted firsthand with the reality of covid[-19] deaths may cause existential shock, just as narrowly avoiding an auto collision might shock one into existential shock,” he said. “For others, the radical disruption of their daily lives can bring it on.”
Whether you are experiencing existential shock or just ongoing death reminders, it doesn’t need to be a wholly negative thing. Greenberg said that death reminders don’t necessarily cause us to change our behavior, they simply intensify our preexisting beliefs and behaviors.
“You get the worst and the best when death thoughts are close to conscious,” Greenberg said. “People want to feel that they’re a lasting contributor to a meaningful world so they’re going to assert that.”
Solomon pointed out that lab studies had shown that some people become more humble and grateful when reminded of their mortality.
Even if we don’t want to think about it every day, the occasional reminder of our own mortality doesn’t have to cause us paralyzing anxiety, or send us running to Amazon with a credit card in one hand and a martini in the other.
Solomon suggested an alternative way of thinking about mortality: “I am an infinitesimal speck of carbon-based dust born in a time and place not of my choosing here for an incredible brief amount of time before my atoms are scattered back into the cosmos. That need not be a terrifying thought.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the writer was more likely to die of a car accident than of contracting the coronavirus. It should have made clear this was the case specifically in her area in mid-March, not now.