On The Origins of Death Anxiety

by Réal Beaulieu, MA, MFT, Primal Therapist

[I was trained by Dr. Janov from 1989 to 1995, and worked at his
Primal Training Center with certification as a primal therapist
under supervision from 1993 to 1995."]

"Why is death anxiety so common? Because a lot of us. . .
have probably experienced
at least one of those near-death events
. . . most likely at or around birth."

-- Réal Beaulieu

Dr. Robert Firestone (The Fantasy Bond) has written extensively about death anxiety. Although I find his ideas very interesting and challenging it seems to me that he leaves out one important factor that greatly contributes to explaining why so many people are unconsciously afraid of death, and why they keep defending against that feeling by adopting microsuicidal behaviors (his terms).

The hypothesis is the following: they have already experienced near-death situations, most likely at or around birth. In Primal Therapy jargon, these are called "first line traumas." Countless individuals, in therapies that allow access to very early traumas, have relived near-death situations like suffocating at birth (anoxia), being strangled by the umbilical cord, having their head crushed before they could even take their first breath, etc.

And even if they did not have access to such painful “body memories”, we could only hypothesize that such early traumas left a profound impression on the organism, a vague feeling that one’s life is in danger, an imprint that we could call “death anxiety.”

Another example of a near-death experience would be to be put away right after birth, without being touched, without anybody to make you feel that everything is okay, that you are not alone, that you have not been suddenly transposed from the planet earth (womb) to a weird desolate planet (any cold environment), all alone, with no chance of survival (absent mother).

That’s exactly how we would feel as adults if we were suddenly transported to planet Mars and left on our own. The baby doesn’t know that his/her mother is in the next room. He/she doesn’t have the intellectual tools (third line) to know it. [See explanation of lines of consciousness in the footnote] Being left unattended in the crib for too long, crying oneself to sleep, when one is two weeks old, is another situation that could have near-death meaning for an infant. Some babies actually die from emotional neglect. This fact has been well documented in orphanages.

For that matter, any event that deeply disturbs the “continuum concept” (J. Lieloff, 1977) of the child is likely to leave him/her with a profound sense of existential danger, something that, long after the traumatic event occurred, we call death anxiety!

Why is death anxiety so common? Because a lot of us, members of modern society, have probably experienced at least one of those near-death events. Most of us have “first-line primal pain” and that’s what motivates our microsuicidal behaviors.

Notwithstanding the fact that certain fears seem innate (ex. fear of heights) and thus appear to contribute to the survival of the organism, it seems to me that most counterproductive (microsuicidal) fears are learned. We are afraid of certain things because our experience tells us that there is real danger, and the “charge value” (A. Janov, 1983) of a counterproductive fear is directly commensurate with the position in time when the trauma occurred or the state of vulnerability of the organism.

The concept of charge value implies the following: the earlier the trauma, the more devastating its effects will be and the more the individual will be motivated by its force. For example, there must be an incredible motivational force or “charge value” behind the microsuicidal behavior of someone who is permanently afraid of leaving the house, for fear that something awful might happen out there.

Of course, this is assuming that there has been no relatively recent trauma, in which case the psychiatric community would label it a post-traumatic stress disorder (not aware that any major early trauma has post-traumatic stress consequences).

We could hypothesize that death anxiety motivates such a behavior, but where does that anxiety come from? Could it be from the pure intellectual knowledge that we are all going to die some day?

The answer is likely to be no.

Explanation of "lines of consciousness"

Those terms were coined by Arthur Janov, based on Paul McLean's biological concept of a triune brain. According to McLean, the development of a human being recapitulates the evolution of the species over millions of years, from reptiles to mammals and, eventually, to Homo Sapiens. McLean thus gave credibility to the existence of three distinct levels of consciousness.

First line pain is pain associated to a very early event (before, during or soon after birth) with severely traumatic consequences, because of its life and death meaning. Anoxia (lack of oxygen) at birth is a good example of it. The trauma , with all its physical components, is imprinted in the primitive brain of the baby and the body remembers it for life, even if it cannot be remembered intellectually with words.

The imprinted suffering is associated with abnormal vital signs such as high or low body temperature and blood pressure, fast, slow or irregular heartbeat, shallow breathing, fragile digestive system, etc. Later, it will show up emotionally (panic attacks, for example) and also in the way we think (e.g., paranoia, suicidal thougts..) and behave (especially behaviors taken to the extreme). First line pain always involves sensations and will often show up in nightmares.

Second line pain is emotional pain due to traumatic events that occurred later in chilhood. Those pains are not forgotten either, although they can be repressed just like first line pain. They leave a trace in the more evolved emotional brain (limbic system) of the child and can be remembered as specific emotions associated with the painful events. Loosing a parent, being sent to boarding school, being molested, are all examples of such pain. Besides anger as a possible first reaction, the language of tears is mostly associated with that level of consciousness. The language of words is also accessible by that time.

Third line pain is pain that is processed later, when the adult brain (neo-cortex) is fully developped and can make sense of it or alleviate it by taking actions that involve abstract reasoning and planning. The third line level of consciousness provides us with the ability to differenciate our internal states from the reality out there.

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FIRESTONE, Robert W. (1985). The Fantasy Bond, New York: Human Sciences Press, Inc.

FIRESTONE, Robert W. (1987). The “Voice”: The dual nature of guilt reactions. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol 47, no. 3, 1987.

JANOV, Arthur (1983). Imprints: The lifelong effects of the birth experience. Coward McCann, Inc. New York.

LIEDLOFF, Jean. The Continuum Concept. Revised edition New York, 1977.

You may e-mail the author at primal@consultant.com

Réal Beaulieu has also written:
Primal Therapy: What It Is and What It Is Not
Primal Theory vs Past Lives Theory
Before The Plunge: Preparing For Primal Therapy
On Buddying and Self-Primalling

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