Between late 2019 and early 2020, people across the world were thrust into isolation, panic, and fear as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. People spent hours at a time watching the news and doom-scrolling Facebook in search of updates, but were ultimately flooded with morbid headlines such as “How High Will It Go? As Covid-19 Death Toll in U.S. Blows Past 60,000, There are no Easy Answers” (Noveck, 2020) and “One-Day US COVID-19 Deaths Top 3,000, more than D-Day or 9/11” (Begley & Empinado, 2020). As of December 1, 2022, there have been over 6 million COVID-19 related deaths worldwide, with no demographic safe from its lethality (Worldometer, 2022).
The alienating effect of social isolation, the continual inundation of death toll statistics, and complete disruption of daily living forced many to directly confront their own mortality. This confrontation with one’s own mortality often leaves people in a state of existential dread, fearing the inevitability of their own death, a phenomenon known as death anxiety (Abdel-Khalek, 2005; Greenberg et al., 1994). Death anxiety not only disrupts individuals’ daily living, it also disrupts their sense of inner peace. Terror Management Theory (Greenberg et al., 1994) suggests that the effects of death anxiety can be mitigated through building and maintaining a meaningful life (Pyszczynski et al., 2021). Spitzenstätter and Schnell (2022) found that individuals who described themselves as “moderately religious” or “atheistic” experienced higher levels of death anxiety and death-avoidant behaviors related to the COVID-19 pandemic than their more religious counterparts. Although holding higher levels of religious beliefs mitigated the effects of death anxiety in this particular study, religion and spirituality are not the only ways one can build and live a meaningful life and make peace with one’s own mortality.
Meaning-centered therapeutic interventions such as logotherapy (Frankl 1959/1985) emphasize the importance of meaningful living when faced with existential frustrations such as death anxiety. Logotherapy is unique and widely applicable because it is spiritual without being explicitly religious (Chen, 2010). For individuals who do not feel connected with religion or a higher power, this approach to living a meaningful life is perfect as it encourages them to find purpose and peace through creative expression, meaningfully using their talents, and experiencing the world and others in an intimate and real way. People began trying new hobbies during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media feeds featured individuals showing off their homemade sourdough bread, do-it-yourself (DIY) projects, and newly mastered yoga poses. Some took up gardening and others completed online education courses, all in a search for meaning and inner peace.
It has been three years since the onset of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic and the effects of the initial 2019-2020 death anxiety are very much still present. Some have not yet made peace with having to confront their own mortality. Many still engage in death-avoidant behaviors. Others have fully accepted the inevitability of their death and have taken solace in their religious and spiritual beliefs or have found meaning, fulfillment, and peace through other means. As society begins to move into a new normal with the ever-present COVID-19 virus, it is important to remain mindful that death is an ultimate life certainty, but it does not have to lead to paralyzing existential anxiety.
Abdel-Khalek, A. M. (2005). Death anxiety in clinical and non-clinical groups. Death Studies, 29(3), 251–259. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481180590916371
Begley, S. & Empinado, H. (2020, April 30). How high will it go? As Covid-19 death toll in U.S. blows past 60,000, there are no easy answers. STAT. https://www.statnews.com/2020/04/30/coronavirus-death-projections-compare-causes-of-death/
Chen, G. (2010). The meaning of suffering in drug addiction and recovery from the perspective of existentialism, Buddhism, and the 12-step program. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 42(3), 363-375. https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2010.10400699
COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. (n.d.). Worldometer. Retrieved December 1, 2022 from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
Frankl, V. E. (1959/1985). Man’s search for meaning (Rev. ed.). Washington Square Press.
Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Simon, L., & Breus, M. (1994). Role of consciousness and accessibility of death-related thoughts in mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(4), 627–637. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997
Novek, J. (2020, December 10). One-day US COVID-19 deaths top 3,000, more than D-Day or 9/11. KSAT.com. https://www.ksat.com/health/2020/12/10/one-day-us-deaths-top-3000-more-than-d-day-or-911/
Pyszczynski, T., Lockett, M., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2021). Terror management theory and the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 61(2), 173-189. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167820959488
Spitzenstätter, D. & Schnell, T. (2022). The existential dimension of the pandemic: Death attitudes, personal worldview, and coronavirus anxiety. Death Studies, 46(5), 1031-1041. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2020.1848944