2020 04 14 03

Death anxiety

In the times of a pandemic

The human life has an interesting mix of existential anxiety, celebration of life and the conscious awareness of our own death. From this we gain the possibility of creating meaning, but also the complementary fear, apathy and emptiness. As human beings, we respond to our inevitable death and...

death-inducing experiences or threats by using it as the fundamental and pervasive source to adaptation and defensiveness. Death gives us meaning and drives us to adapt. Some would argue that death sits as the unconscious driver behind all our adaptive and defensive responses. As Freud described our most fundamental drive as the Life Drive (Eros), it is inherent to being a biological organism to want to survive. But essential to adapting to death threats and expressing a will to live is the awareness of the danger of death. What makes us unique as humans is the ability to use language as an expression of anxiety and our awareness. This provides us with ways to create meaning, and develop a range of coping mechanisms. Language gives the voice, the structure and the conscious conceptualisation to death. We are able to articulate the end of life. However, the cost of this ability is that it provides us with the ability to project ourselves into the future and anticipate future threats. The conscious use of language results in the anticipatory anxiety of death.

The awareness of death could definitely assist in necessary and functional adaptive responses to life, thereby increasing the possibility of surviving a threat. But the awareness of death may also result in death anxiety that overwhelm and emotionally paralyse, leading to maladaptive behaviour or failure to adapt at all. Currently we are facing a global threat that touches all of us. Everyday we are reminded of the devastation and our own threat of death. Most of us are aware of this anxiety in ourselves and in others. We are also aware, through media, our own awareness, and pertinent discussions of how to manage this anxiety. The impinging anxiety and suggestions on how to manage it, that comes like a barrage of sage advice, only touches the surface. It seems the anxiety does not just disappear. It screams from the depths of our psyches beyond our everyday abilities in attempting to subdue and control our deepest fears and psyches.

Death anxiety operates at both a conscious level and an unconscious level. Where we are able to ‘see’ conscious threats in the form of external danger or internally from an illness or injury, we are unable to ‘see’ unconscious death-anxiety experiences. We experience a diffuse-like anxiety that may threaten our ability to adapt and create meaning, but without the ability to connect to the reason or source. We may find ourselves paralysed in some way, or entirely subsumed by behaviours and anxiety, rendering us unable to think clearly or maintaining normal relationships, emotional control, and cognitive focus. These experiences are common in the current crisis of the global COVID pandemic.

Sometimes death anxiety is connected to early traumatic experiences, some of which we are able to remember, however the emotional charge and experience of the emotion connected to the memory is rendered unconscious (as an adaptive response), for example a motor vehicle accident, an illness of a parent, hospitalisation as a child, or periods of separation from siblings or parents.

The COVID pandemic is a strong triggering event that brings into experience death anxieties that link to earlier trauma and death related experiences. Many people with a range of traumatic experiences repressed emotionally into the unconscious will now, amid the COVID pandemic, experience reactivated trauma. This could be terribly confusing and overwhelming. The emotional experience does not match the conscious thoughts. There is no emotional memory of past traumatic experiences, but the result is anxiety, confusion, behavioural difficulties, failure in coping mechanisms, and triggering of depressive symptoms. Thus, the potential for latent emotional and psychosomatic difficulties to find expression in this crisis and during the ensuing fallout period seems a precarious inevitability.

The seemingly innocuous events in our daily lives that trigger these unconscious death anxieties into emotionally conscious experiences are mostly related to two common experiences(although there are many triggers personal to each individual depending on their own history): Any change in routine or structure connects to deep unconscious experiences of security and protection, reminiscent of attachment and nurturing experiences as an infant. Changes in work structure and routine, schooling, habits, patterns of movement, or the routines of life around us. We are exposed through communication and media to all the changes around us, overexposing us to this awareness in our own lives and lives around us. Secondly, we are exposed to illness and death through media, and potentially through direct experience during this pandemic. This triggers a deep sense of death anxiety as an actual fear, separating us from life and our drive to be alive and find meaning (Eros: Freud’s Life Drive).

The resultant thoughts, feelings and fantasies are expressed in phobic fears of germs, death or protection; feelings of claustrophobia or fantasies/dreams of being buried alive; excessive worry or obsessive thinking; pre-occupation with thoughts of death (accidents, recent death events, illness); breaking rules or thoughts about breaking rules around lockdown periods; manic behaviours; or narratives involving themes that contain death anxieties, but are not directly or obviously linked to the triggering event/anxiety.

The underlying deep unconscious experience of death-related issues needs to be revealed, resulting in repressed material and energy to be released, allowing the individual to process grief, adapt to difficult situations, create meaning and balance the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche. The process to reveal these unconscious material and themes of death, linking it to the triggering events and conscious experience, requires a conscious and intentional process of awareness. We need to pay close attention to our free narratives, our dreams, and stories told, thereby becoming aware of the encoded material within. (I will explore and discuss this process further in upcoming writings.) It is through this awareness of ourselves, our deep unconscious and archetypal material, and the thinly veiled expression in our conscious experiences, reveries and stories that we discover our true anxieties and conflicts. Here we can begin to explore the normality, natural and communal experience of Death and how life and death operate hand in hand to provide us with meaning and balance.