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What is OCDOCD SubtypesFears about the afterlife

Fears about the afterlife

7 min read
Victoria Gottfried, LCSW

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Afterlife OCD involves concerns or fears about what happens to us after we die–whether we have a soul or spirit that lives on in some form after we experience physical death or whether we simply cease to exist. 

Those who suffer with fear of afterlife are plagued with fearful thoughts and doubts surrounding this question. A key feature of OCD is an unrelenting demand for certainty. In reality, there are few things in life of which we can be certain. Gravity, the daily rising and setting of the sun—people generally accept these things because they have observed them all their lives. Most people also accept the inevitability of their own death. 

Certainty generally gives people comfort and helps them go about their lives without being plagued by fears. Obviously, it is impossible for us to have certainty about what happens after we die. Thus, efforts to find certainty in this area are always futile. Yet, people with this subtype of OCD may spend a great deal of time in the search for answers. The fear and the time devoted to this pursuit can be quite debilitating and exhausting. It can lead to depression and withdrawal from social interaction. For some, it might lead to religious or moral scrupulosity, with efforts aimed at gaining or earning a favorable afterlife. 

Afterlife OCD – Common obsessions

  • Worries and doubts about whether they will continue to exist in some form after they die
  • Fear that physical death is the end of a person’s existence
  • Fear that whatever happens after death will not be pleasant
  • Wondering if there really is a heaven and a hell
  • Wondering if regeneration and rebirth exist
  • Wondering about the meaning of life if there is no afterlife
  • Fears that one may never know any of these answers with certainty
  • Fears related to losing one’s religious beliefs due to these doubts

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Common triggers

People with Afterlife OCD may be triggered by situations in which ideas about the afterlife are presented, such as church services where heaven and hell are discussed or funerals. They may also be triggered by news articles about the deaths of famous people, or by situations that bring about fear of a fatal accident, like plane travel. Stories in the news of fatal assaults, learning about terminal illnesses, being diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness, watching a tv show or movie where a character dies, or driving by a cemetery could trigger fearful thoughts and a compulsive search for answers. 

Triggers for people with afterlife OCD include:

  • Learning of the death of a loved one
  • Attending a funeral
  • Reading about the deaths of famous people
  • Driving by a cemetery
  • Hearing people express views about the afterlife
  • Attending religious services where the concepts of heaven and hell are mentioned
  • Hearing a sermon with an emphasis on afterlife or punishment
  • Situations that could lead to accidents, like airplane trips

How can I tell if it’s OCD fears of afterlife, and not a normal level of fear?

A certain amount of fear of the unknown is normal. We all live with the awareness that we will eventually die and it is normal to wonder what will happen to us after death. Some people may even enjoy pondering questions related to the meaning of existence, the origin of the universe, and what happens to us after death–questions to which we can have no definitive answers. People who pursue careers in philosophy enjoy exploring these questions. 

Likewise, many people pursue careers in spiritual or religious ministries in a desire to provide comfort to others who may struggle with questions about the afterlife. Many people subscribe to faith traditions that provide answers to these questions. Others are content with the idea that their physical death will be the end of their existence. In all these cases, people are able to tolerate the uncertainty with which they live with minimal anxiety. 

OCD occurs when people are consumed by the anxiety that comes from not knowing something with certainty. OCD with afterlife themes develops when a person decides that they must find the answers to their questions in order for them to feel okay and they have frequent, intrusive thoughts, images, doubts, urges and fear about what happens after death. In OCD, the anxiety about these questions drives the sufferer in relentless cycles of compulsive behavior aimed at finding the answer they are seeking. 

Since it is impossible to know what will happen after death, a definitive answer can never be found and a person with Afterlife OCD gets perpetually stuck in efforts to know what is unknowable. In extreme cases, people with OCD fear of afterlife become virtually paralyzed with cycles of obsessions and compulsions and unable to enjoy life. 

Common compulsions

When people with Afterlife OCD experience intrusive thoughts, images, urges, doubts, or fears about the afterlife they engage in compulsive acts to find answers to their questions, to reduce their anxiety, or to prevent a feared outcome, in order to put their fears to rest. 

These compulsions may include fearful rumination, searching the internet, reading about philosophy and religious doctrines, speaking with religious or spiritual leaders, and rigidly adhering to religious practices in an effort to earn a favorable afterlife. They may seek reassurance from loved ones. Since the answer is fundamentally unknowable, they never find an answer that is satisfying. They may spend hours a day engaging in compulsions to relieve their anxiety, but the thoughts, doubts, and anxiety always return.  

Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with afterlife fears in OCD include:

  • Fearful rumination
  • Researching and exploring beliefs about the afterlife in response to anxiety and seeking certainty
  • Searching the internet for the stories of people who have had near-death experiences 
  • Talking with religious or spiritual leaders 
  • Reading philosophy
  • Studying the teachings of various religions 
  • Adhering to religious practices rigidly in an effort to gain a favorable afterlife. 
  • Seeking reassurance 
  • Excessive prayer

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How to treat fear of afterlife

OCD fear of afterlife can be debilitating for people who struggle with it, but it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a therapist who is trained in treating OCD, people can learn to live comfortably with uncertainty about the afterlife. 

As with any form of OCD, treatment of Afterlife OCD involves helping a person learn to accept uncertainty. Treatment focuses on triggering the disturbing thoughts, images, or urges, and training the person to resist engaging in compulsions, and rather to accept the anxiety they feel. A good starting point is to identify a person’s unique triggers and then craft personalized exposures to allow one to gradually approach those triggers.

Appropriate exposures might include reading obituaries, visiting a cemetery, watching TV shows or movies in which deaths occur, reading accounts of near-death experiences, and attending religious services. In time, a person struggling with Afterlife OCD will become better able to accept uncertainty surrounding their fears, and their intrusive thoughts and doubts will cause less anxiety.

If you’re struggling with OCD, “As an OCD specialist, I’ve used ERP to help many people regain their lives from OCD. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.

We look forward to working with you.

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Ray Li

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I’m a licensed therapist with specialized training in treating OCD using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, the gold standard of treatments. ERP treats all types of intrusive thoughts, including violent and taboo, so that you can overcome OCD.

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