Lindsey Harvell-Bowman (above) studies Terror Management Theory in a Terror Management Lab. 

Lindsey Harvell-Bowman said she believes  terror management theory states that there’s a “juxtaposition” between the desire to live and the inevitably of death. Many people gravitate toward scary festivities in the fall, but for Harvell-Bowman, topics like death are commonplace. 

Harvell-Bowman, an associate professor in the School of Communication Studies and the psychology department, works in the terror management lab. The lab has completed research on paranormal beliefs, suicide and death anxiety.

She said that constantly focusing on death is “not easy to deal with,” but she relies on getting the most out of her own life to help her cope with the idea of it.

“I think helping young people and developing new therapy techniques is one way that I could live on after death and, hopefully, try to keep other people alive,” Harvell-Bowman said. “I just, kind of, immerse myself in work and family and my religion and just living every day to its fullest and appreciating my wonderful life that I have and this wonderful place that is James Madison University.”

During her doctoral program, Lindsey Harvell-Bowman’s adviser died from cancer. It was this event, coupled with a viewing of the documentary “Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality,” that inspired her to dive into terror management theory.  

Kenneth Critchfield, an associate professor of graduate psychology, worked with Harvell-Bowman on a study of undergraduate experience with suicidal ideation. Critchfield is a licensed clinician and studies populations that have high suicide rates.

“What we’re trying to do is, on the one hand, see to what degree being aware of one’s death or talking about it impacts how people think about their lives,” Critchfield said. “From a terror management theory perspective, at least at a distance, I think it’s interesting — if we’re so terrified by the idea of death, why should some people be attracted to suicide?”

Critchfield said that in the populations that he works with, people often have “good reasons” for their suicidal thoughts to override the natural fear of death. The therapy approach he uses is built around helping people think and feel through how they’ve gotten to the point where they could consider suicide as an option.

“By allowing people a safe forum in which to talk about their thoughts and feelings, it doesn’t actually freak people out so that they become more clinically disturbed,” Critchfield said. “In a safe space, it often helps people feel more calm, less suicidal, to have someone who cares and is listening.”

Mira Gruber is a senior psychology and philosophy major who is involved with the terror management lab. Gruber is the principal investigator for her honors thesis study that involves caregiving robots. Gruber is figuring out whether robots that care for the elderly could potentially elicit death anxiety in patients. Gruber is currently in the data collection process. 

“This is really the first study being done with this,” Gruber said. “We are kind of pioneering this sort of investigation.”

Gruber said that the most important thing that she’s learned is how to design a study with valid methodology. Gruber also had to build off what terror management theory information has already been published and apply it to this new question she wanted to answer.

In the terror management lab, there’s currently research being done on death anxiety, organ donation and suicidal ideation and attempts, along with Gruber’s study.  

“I think death isn’t something that we talk about as a society that much,” Gruber said. “Being part of a lab that studies death has been a very unique experience in letting me investigate this thing that happens to everyone. Terror management theory has provided me with more insight into what happens when we talk about death [and] what happens when people are dying.”

 Contact Mitchell Sasser at sassermp@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.