Fear of death is a fundamental element of the human condition. Simply thinking about what happens to us after we die oftentimes leads to depression and anxiety, but research recently published in Psychological Science suggests that the actual emotional experiences of dying are both more positive and less negative than people expect.
Examining the writings of terminally ill patients, researchers used a computer algorithm to examine the blog posts from cancer and ALS patients, tagging words that were perceived to be positive, such as “love” or “happiness”, and words that were negative, such as “fear” or “anxiety”. Researchers found that the use of positive words increased as death approached, when negative words did not.
In a follow up study, the researchers compared the poetry of death-row inmates with words from a group of online participants who were asked to think about death and they found that the words of those on death’s door were less negative and more positive in emotional tone than the words of those who were not.
The researchers concluded that in these limited studies, thinking about death, or more generally, the unknown, created far more negative emotions within the individual than the actual experience of death itself. Most likely considered the ultimate unknown event, if the thoughts of death do not align to the experience itself, this suggests that gaining control of our thoughts will drastically improve our lives until the unknown event actually occurs.
Thinking about the future creates negative emotions.
Professors of preventative medicine at the University of Massachusetts medical school discuss how self-rumination, or thinking about events over and over without completion, leads to anxiety and depression, due to increased brain activity in the negative memory network. Brain chemistry makes it hard to switch to another perspective to find the way out of problems, so rumination intensifies. Both anxiety and depression are then reinforced, since the brain is unable to generate flexible solutions or productive emotions, creating a vicious feedback loop that keeps negative thoughts and emotions flourishing within the brain.
Ruminating about the past creates negative emotions.
Cognitive psychologists state that our words, thoughts and emotions frame our human experience and are responsible for our happiness, performance, and relationships. If self-rumination or continued thinking about a particular subject tend to favor the negative memory network, developing your emotional intelligence can combat this brain chemistry predisposition.
Within the EQ-i 2.0 model of emotional intelligence, there are two specific composites that can directly combat the negativity that self-rumination or thinking about the unknown can produce.
The Self-Perception composite of EI seeks to measure the inner self, and includes Self-Regard, Self-Actualization, and Emotional Self-Awareness. This composite measures inner strength, feelings of confidence, our own understanding of the impact of emotions, and our pursuit of goals. Do we accept ourselves, with the bad and the good? Do we respect ourselves? What is my legacy? Can we identify the emotions that I am feeling right now? This composite of EI is directly associated with self-awareness, feeling fulfilled, and being satisfied with life.
Self-Regard involves respecting oneself while knowing and accepting both personal strengths and limitations.
Self-Actualization is the inclination to consistently try to improve oneself and pursue the meaning of life.
Emotional Self-Awareness is the skill of recognizing one’s own emotions and being able to understand their meanings, their causes, and the impacts they have on one’s actions.
The Stress Management composite addresses how well we cope with emotions that come with change, unpredictability, and thinking about the future. It includes Flexibility, Stress Tolerance, and Optimism, and these skills measure resilience, perseverance, and how much hope we have. Are we hopeful about the future? Do we manage change, or does change manage us? How do I handle difficult situations? This composite of EI is directly linked to behaviors of skilled negotiators, military generals, change leaders, and overall individual health.
Flexibility is how well one adapts emotions to times of change or unpredictable events.
Stress Tolerance is how well one deals with the emotions associated with difficult scenarios and tough situations.
Optimism is a gauge of hope and one’s outlook on life, despite obstacles.
These two composites are important because they address how we perceive ourselves and how we deal with situations that come with change, both which are very complex topics that contain infinite variables – a combination that is ripe for self-rumination or obsessive thought. We develop negative memories and falsehoods about previous experiences when we do not accept our own strengths and weakness or know where certain emotions developed from, and we self-ruminate in an attempt to untangle these past events. Developing our emotional ability to respect oneself, pursue the meaning of life and to recognize emotional nuances as they occur, will drastically reduce self-ruminating practices because it will detach emotional experience from negative memory networks.
High emotional intelligence will positively affect your mood, which researchers have discovered is directly linked to neural networks.
When thinking of future events, the unknown leads to negative thoughts and fear. We fear that we lack preparation for what lies ahead. This fear is oftentimes unfounded, and we discover that our actual experience of events that we once perceived as frightening or terrifying is much more positive than the previous thoughts of the event were. Developing our emotional ability to manage change will help with future events, allowing us to remain optimistic in the face of the unknown, be flexible when various emotions arise during change, and remain calm under pressure when stress develops.
High emotional intelligence equips us with the ability to deal with the petrifying unknown.
Emotional intelligence combats negativity in the past and in the future. It allows humans to combat the anxiety and depression created from obsessive thinking of the past and approach unknown future events with more positivity. High emotional intelligence builds our emotional resistance to the predispositions of the brain to focus on the negative, giving us more control over how our mind responds to complicated historical events and the mysterious future. Developing your emotional intelligence will increase your acceptance of the past and will actually lessen your fear of death.
Goranson, A., Ritter, R., Waytz, A., Norton, M., & Gray, K. (2017). Dying Is Unexpectedly Positive. Psychological Science.
Wehrenberg, M. (2016). Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today.