What will no longer exist tomorrow

Jan Kalbitzer on fear of death: "I was afraid in the evening that I would not wake up in the morning"

Some people develop a sudden and unfounded fear of dying in their life. What's behind it? How can you deal with this fear? What can this fear be used for? Psychiatrist Jan Kalbitzer, who got the feeling a few years ago, explains it in an interview.

Jan Kalbitzer met unexpectedly in a hotel room in Munich. At a moment when everything should have been perfect - it was going well at work and with the first child and he had just signed a book deal - he was suddenly overcome by a fear of death. He felt like he was outside of himself. "Oh god, I hope it's not a disease," he thought. So Kalbitzer, who works as a psychiatrist himself, set out to find what was behind the fear of dying. In an interview he talks about this path, reveals how a samba course has helped him and what he has learned from the experience.

t-online.de: How did your fear of death manifest itself after the experience in the hotel room?

Jan Kalbitzer: There are many different psychosomatic ways in which fear is expressed. Some people have headaches, others have tension in their necks. It can also affect the gastrointestinal tract, causing heartburn, an upset stomach, diarrhea. For me it was mostly heart palpitations. I got into the symptoms and went to the cardiologist. During the time that I went through this heart diagnosis, my fear increased again - I was terrified that something might be on my heart. In the evening I was afraid that I would not wake up again in the morning.

Were you afraid that your heart would suddenly stop beating, or were you in great pain, or what kind of fear of death was it?

For me it was really a fear of no longer existing, i.e. no longer being there. This is very interesting diagnostically because, strictly speaking, the fear of dying is something else. That is the fear of the dying process itself, of being in pain. Many older people are definitely afraid of an unpleasant dying process. But when they are very old, they are no longer so afraid of death itself and of non-existence. For me, however, the fear of no longer existing was very strong. As the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom explained to me, this has a lot to do with an inanimate life.

Can you be more specific?

One is afraid that one will cease to exist before one has lived things for which one has not yet taken the time, but which are still important to be lived. You have concerns that you have not yet exhausted parts of your own potential. Or you still want to spend time with important people who you push back again and again in everyday life.

Jan Kalbitzer, Born 1978, is a specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy. He works as a psychotherapist in his own practice in Berlin.

Did your fear only relate to you or to the people around you?

I was also scared for my children from time to time, for example when they were sick. But that wasn't afraid that they might die. This fear of nonexistence only affected me. It was really about my life and whether I was doing justice to my life.

But you've also looked at the impact your non-existence would have on your family.

Yes, for example, I calculated my wife's pension entitlements. How much does she have and how does her income work when I'm no longer there? Can all of this be financed? Or do I have to pay something into the pension fund as soon as possible? I've dealt a lot with things like that. Of course, my concern was also about what will become of those who stay behind.

Your wife is also a psychotherapist. What did she say about your fear?

She pointed out to me that in some cases behind such an irrational fear there can also be a death wish. That was the case with me - not that I really wanted to be dead. But I was simply overwhelmed with an existence that is under so much pressure and that has so many expectations. I felt very constricted and wished that all of this would somehow stop and that I would be freed from these constraints. That was an important insight because I was able to make myself aware that I can reduce this fear by reducing the demands on myself and my existence a little.

How did you do that?

I made it clear to myself: First of all, I'm not that important. And secondly: I want to be there as much as possible for the people for whom I am really important - there aren't many.

Before realizing this, you dealt with your fear a lot. You tried a lot: talked to a pastor, went into therapy, attended a samba course. What has helped you the most?

I thought, of course, that psychotherapy would help me the most. That helped me too. But surprisingly, what helped me most was visiting an osteopath - even though I am a scientist and only have a limited belief in osteopathy. It somehow touched a point in my heart and it made me cry like I've never cried in any psychotherapy. I was also helped by a glass of water with a slice of lemon that the nurse in the heart practice where I was examined brought me. This little attention meant a lot to me.

Why? What was behind it?

I think it was the process of being able to accept help and no longer having the feeling of having to solve everything yourself. To know that there are people who are helping me in ways that I never expected. Especially in the middle of life, it is often about accepting the loss of control. So much comes together: the family, the career, the parents who may be in need of care. All of this creates an incredible amount of pressure. At such a time you learn that you never really had control, that you only had an illusion that you could somehow plan or control your life. But actually that's not the case.

Jan Kalbitzer: The psychotherapist wrote the books "The Gift of Mortality" and "Digital Paranoia". (Source: Praxis Kalbitzer)

In your search you also went to a samba course. How do you come to the conclusion that such a course could help you with fear of death?

I have also spoken to friends and colleagues about my fear. Many of them said I had a mid-life crisis. Then I started doing the things you do in a mid-life crisis: I bought an expensive watch and expensive shoes. And I wanted to do something crazy, so I booked the samba class. And that was one of the best decisions I could make! By the way, the watch was a rather stupid decision. Much better than any sports car at such times is a personal fitness coach who drives you to move. Or a yoga teacher. Or a Samba teacher. Exercise, which allows you to detach yourself a little from your mind and sense of intellectual control, is helpful.

At what age or in what phases is fear of death most common?

There are very different phases. A typical point in time is childhood. When upheavals take place, when an important caregiver dies, such as a grandparent, and one is currently sensitive, for example because school is difficult, then fears of dying can arise in childhood. Midlife is another typical time when this fear often occurs, as it did with me. And of course in old age, when you notice that your abilities decrease more and more, when you become forgetful and the people around you die.

Does this fear of death affect everyone at some point?

It only affects a part of the people. I can't say exactly how many that are in percentage terms. In my environment it was around 70 percent - when I asked the therapists around me, the daycare and school parents and who I could get my hands on. But as far as I know, there are no studies on this because it is also a shame-laden topic that is not talked about so much.

Would you advise anyone scared to death to get professional help?

I'm torn here and there. On the one hand, I think we psychiatrists should go much more into preventive medicine. Many people experience stress for a long time and then at some point develop depression and metabolic disorders and high blood pressure. If they had gone to a psychiatrist five years earlier, he could have helped them very well and prevented that. We totally lack preventive psychiatry.

And on the other hand?

On the other hand, psychiatrists and psychotherapists are very crowded in our society. We meanwhile declare a great many circumstances in life to be mentally ill, and we cannot cope with all of that. You can also talk about fear of death with good friends or family, or with a pastor or with someone you trust. It's just important not to chase any gurus who may take advantage of it and make money off of it. But you should go to a psychiatrist if you have been in a very low mood for a long period of time, very little drive. When you can't get around to doing the things in everyday life that you want to do or should do. Or when you can no longer feel joy. Because these are the main symptoms of depression.

It has already sounded a few times: How can you use the fear of death for yourself?

You can start using it as a compass. One can pay attention to when it occurs particularly strongly. What kind of situations are these? What does fear want to tell me in such moments? It is important to me that if you are inexperienced, you don't do it alone. You should get support because you can slide in further and develop depression. For me, for example, it was often a classic situation: on the way to work in the morning, when I still had to dress the children and drop them off somewhere and I was getting impatient, my heart suddenly stumbled. It just had to do with the fact that I couldn't live up to any of my claims. I wanted to be at work on time. I wanted to be successful. I didn't want to disappoint my colleagues. At the same time, I wanted to be a loving father - and I couldn't do it all at once. The symptoms have shown me: This is an important situation that I have to look at and change very carefully.

You have written the book "The Gift of Mortality" about your experiences. It is subtitled: "How the fear of death can lead to the meaning of life". Have you discovered the meaning for yourself?

A fulfilled life develops for me in the contact with important people. I don't even have to say: this or that is my meaning in life. Rather, the meaning arises by itself when I spend time with the people around me. Or when I am consciously aware of the beauty of my environment. One technique for doing this is walking. This slows down the whole of life. You have to be much more conscious about where to go. You meet other people much more consciously. And you are not as stressed as when you are driving a car.

Do you still feel fear today?

Yes, I still have them sometimes. But it's gotten much, much weaker. When she comes I ask myself: What are you going to tell me, fear? Where do I have to look again in my life? Sometimes I just have to endure things and accept that I can't change them right now.

Many different people have given you many different approaches to explaining your fear of death. Looking back, how do you explain the fear to yourself?

I think I was wrong in my life. For one thing, I took myself too seriously. I had the idea that things only work if I take care of them. That I am needed to solve them. I think this is a phenomenon in our society. We charge everything with an insane meaning, because otherwise we wouldn't go through all of the stress. And so I have bypassed myself. At the time I wanted to pursue an academic career and achieve a lot of things and at the same time be there for my children a lot. But that doesn't all work at the same time. I had to make up my mind - and I did.

What's your decision?

My decision is that as long as the children are young, I will not have a career. I don't know what I'll do after that. But you don't have to decide everything immediately. And you don't have to do everything in one lifetime. For example, you can believe in reincarnations and say, I'll do a part in the next life. Or you can see life as a kind of relay race: the generation before me has achieved a lot. I cover part of the route. And the generation after me will cover a different part of the route.

At the very beginning you said that this fear also wanted to draw your attention a bit to what things you still want to live or experience. What is that in your case?

There are people who have checklists of what they want to do in their lives. I don't have that. I just want to spend as many days as possible lovingly with the people who are important to me. Ultimately, that's what makes a fulfilled life for me. What I would still like to experience is also being a grandparent. This is probably the happiest state in life: young children who can be watched play and grow up without having to look after them every night when they wake up or have a fever.

Thank you for the interview, Mr. Kalbitzer.