Life, Death and Anxiety

  1. The fear of death haunts us and rumbles continually under the surface. A dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness
  2. A child is perversely occupied with death, and the main task is to deal with the terrifying fears of obliteration.
  3. We enact defences to cope with death awareness where pathology results or other ineffective methods of death transcendence.

Heidegger (1926) believed the idea of death might save man; the awareness of death might spur man to shift to a higher form of existence. Whereby there are two fundamental modes of existing

  • A state of forgetfulness of being – one lives in a world of things, immersed in everyday diversions. Levelled down and absorbed in ideal chatter, lost in “they” and concerned with the way things are.
  • A state of mindfulness of being – continually aware of being and mindful of his responsibility of being. In touch with one`s self-creation, and can group the power of change in oneself.

The inauthentic life flees, fails and is tranquilised, avoiding all chances of being carried away by nobody. Authenticity embraces one’s possibilities and limits. One faces absolute freedom and nothingness and is anxious in the face of them. When death is excluded, one loses sight of the stakes involved and becomes impoverished.

We contrast anxiety by displacing it from nothing to something. Anxiety seeks to become fear, where we transform fear of nothing into fear of something. We can then mount a self-protection campaign, develop magical thinking and rituals or seek allies against the anxiety. All individuals confronted with death anxiety must develop adaptations to cope with it. Denial-based strategies, suppression, repression, displacement and religions are all deployed to overcome death and achieve symbolic immortality. Pathology is an ineffective defence, which prevents growth and results in a castrated life, where one limits and diminishes their true self to avoid terror, perdition and annihilation. (Death instinct).

Otto Rank described the neurotic as someone who refused to loan life to avoid paying a debt (death), a form of psychic numbing. This core conflict is deeply buried and can be inferred but never known only after laborious analysis. One may attempt to maintain the symbolic tie to their mother to avoid death, ultimately leading to arrested development in social skills and relationships, leading to social anxiety and self-contempt, adding new defences and more anxiety. A grandiose persona may develop to cope and maintain a feeling of uniqueness, one who can avoid death like normal beings. They are exempt from criticism, feel entitled and demand idealisation and continuous attention. A drive for power, inflating one sense of self and sphere of control. The killing or sacrifice of the other lessens the death fear of the infantile ego.

Through the death of the other, one becomes free from the penalty of dying

The person who stands out from nature must pay the price for their success and individuality, separating from the crowd or the whole, living life as an isolated being, surpassing one`s peers and parents. Surpassing the father, defeating the oedipal rival, and exposing oneself to the threat of castration. When we stand alone in utter isolation, without that myth of a rescuer and the comfort of the human huddle, the unshielded exposure to the isolation of individuation is too terrible for most people to bear. Normally when success fails, our inflated specialness cant contain and avoid the pain; one seeks a rescuer to restore grandiosity or find relief from the existential angst.

They hope to remain embedded in another, within the maternal womb of safety, not to venture out and experience the harsh world. We lose ourselves and subject ourselves to a life of peril and loss. The failure to explore and develop the potential within oneself in a brave attempt to avoid death by refusing to live.

To conquer time by remaining a child forever

To bolster their irrational beliefs on the presence and power of protection, they may enlist the robe of the doctor or the scientist and play out a fantasised sense of specialness. The client will never have to take responsibility, challenge or confront the authority all-knowing figure and suffer the loss of the rescuer. However, when the client may eventually recognise the failures of their ideology, they are often overwhelmed; they may fear they have sacrificed their lives for a currency proven to be counterfeit. The client is helpless, trapped in illusions, and unable to visualise alternatives that may seem insurmountable. Unable to shift energy and focus, they can not scupper the courage or capacity to invest in the unknown and uncertainty.

The client is left bereft of inner resources, where constructing a new belief system is beyond comprehension, and they may conclude they are worthless. Their suffering and self-immolation may be the last desperate attempt and plea for unconditional love. Where immolation dominates, one becomes masochistic, where to be punished is to be protected, bound, confined or restricted, which is deemed wonderful. A small death is better than the real thing. Most individuals defend against death anxiety through a delusional belief in their own invincibility or a belief in the ultimate saviour/rescuer.

Death anxiety is riddled with the toll of fusion, where one gives up autonomy, loses oneself and suffers a form of soul murder.

Behaviour becomes neurotic when extreme and rigid, where hypertrophy or major ego defences are established, limiting the ability to live spontaneously and creatively. They buy themself an illusion of freedom from the fear of death through a daily dose of partial self-destruction. Only urgent dilemmas or crises provoke one to confront one underlying existential reality. The new consciousness of death shifts one away from daily preoccupations and their private life into more emotional depth and poignancy with different perspectives.

The neurotic avoids responsibility by displacing it onto others. If they believe someone or some external force produces their dilemma, crisis or dysphoria, then why commit to personal change? When facing responsibility, one will have a frightening confrontation with freedom and discover they are locked in their own internal prison of their own creation. Taking responsibility results in relinquishing one`s belief systems in the existence of an ultimate rescuer, constituting the core of their sense of being.

Yalom, I.(1980) Existential Psychotherapy , Basic Books; 1st Edition