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The Bristol Psychotherapy

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Death

 

 

Today we’re going to take a hilarious journey into the world of death. Did that strike you as contradictory, even flippant? Well, it may be, like most people, you are experiencing something known as death anxiety, and I just poked it from my bloggy high-horse. Sorry about that.

 

 

Death is something that touches everyone. In fact none is spared the cold hand of death as it touches us all throughout the course of our lives before finally tapping us on the shoulder and beckoning us away from this “mortal coil”. But does death need to be ‘cold’, and why can’t death be ‘funny’? In this post I explore this macabre subject in detail in order to see what it can teach us about the process of living.

 

 

Is it just me or is death like buses? No one you know dies for years, and then suddenly a handful of people you are connected to all die around the same time! The answer to that puzzle I’ll leave to the ‘superfreakonomicists’ among you to calculate. I’m going to concentrate on the psychology of death and what it can teach us about ourselves. Before I’m criticised for being too casual about the topic of death I must assert that I feel well equipped to discuss the topic, being that my mother died in my teenage years. Naturally this was a significant, perhaps pivotal experience in my life.

 

 

Much has been said in the field of psychology about death, and more importantly the fear of death, or thanatophobia, to apply the techy lingo. So let’s start by looking at two of the main recognised forms of death anxiety. According to psychologists there are two main types of death anxiety, these are known as predatory death anxiety, and existential death anxiety. Predatory death anxiety is the fear of being killed by external forces, such as being murdered, or being the victim of manslaughter. It is the fear of being predated upon and having your life cut short unnecessarily. The second kind, existential death anxiety, involves the intellectual awareness of the inevitability of your own death. Death anxiety invariably produces a number of symptomatic effects however, given that the vast number of people in society experience death anxiety to a greater or lesser extent, it is difficult to clearly demarcate what the specific side-effects actually are. Typically death anxiety affects different people in different ways.

 

 

There are numerous theories and hypotheses relating to the psychological effect of the cognition of death on living conscious entities but it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, given that no control group of people to whom death does not actually concern exists. It may be that death anxiety plays a role in some neurotic conditions such as OCD and hypochondria, due to the intellectual preoccupation with harm causing agents. Both of these symptoms may be associated with death anxiety as it relates to the self, but some conditions, most notably obsessive-compulsive hoarding, may be connected to the death of a significant other.

 

 

A common theme among obsessive-compulsive hoarders is the death of a significant figure in the sufferer’s life during the critical developmental stage (0 – 7 years of age approx.). According to Dr Stephen Kellett, a psychologist from Sheffield University, “There is some evidence about the role of childhood trauma – loss, neglect, [and] separation”. Like many neurotic symptoms obsessive-compulsive hoarding has a symbolic quality to it in that the sufferer holds on to, or doesn’t let go of anything, and, like most neurotic behaviour, this symbolic aspect can only be appreciated when the wider context is revealed. Similarly, like most neurotic conditions, it acts as a safeguard, protecting the individual from their deeper emotional conflicts by way of given them another, more temporally pressing problem to be concerned with.

 

 

At the healthier end of the scale we each employ a similar strategy of denial to help manage death anxiety. Some denial strategies cited for coping with the fear of death include such things as the need to create a legacy, the hunger for wealth and power, and excessive partying (which most of my friends are guilty of). The fear of death may also be one of the driving forces or unconscious catalysts of artistic creation in all its forms.

 

 

The work of artist Damien Hirst, famous for his series of spot paintings, spin paintings, butterfly paintings, not to mention infamous formaldehyde sculptures, is all about death. From crystal-encrusted skulls, to preserved creatures and pharmaceutical paraphernalia, the notion of death runs throughout his work. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, which can be found on Hirst’s website, he is asked why he often works in series. In his reply he states that he has “always liked series…you get some kind of security from the repetition of a series… I think it’s also an implication of endlessness, which kind of theoretically helps you avoid death.” It is also interesting to note that Hirst matches each of the denial strategies mentioned above, having created a legacy for himself, attained great wealth and power, and has been famed for his excessive partying.

 

 

Death affects everyone to a greater or lesser extent. The interesting thing is that while you may recognise a mild, or even strong discomfort with the subject of death within yourself, most people wouldn’t personally identify themselves as thanatophobes. Many people do however openly admit to having a fear of failure. You may be wondering how is this nutty therapist going to connect a simple fear of failure to a pervasive fear of death? Simples. Fear of failure is promoted by a fear of rejection, and a fear of rejection is promoted by a fear of death. Say whaaaaat? Ok, we fear failure, or should I say ‘being deemed a failure in the eyes of others’ because that failure might lead to a rejection by people we deem to be important to our survival, and if our support network ‘turns its back on us’ we run the risk of not being able to provide for ourselves. As social beings, dependant on a network of other people, the concept of being rejected is anxiety arousing. We need other people in order to survive; at least that is the way our brain has evolved to perceive it. Certainly from a child’s perspective rejection by the primary care group would likely result in death, and we carry this fear within us throughout our lives. In most western cultures death is a sombre and sobering thing, it is often viewed as morbid, depressing, cold, and colourless. However in places like Mexico, where they celebrate the day of the dead, death is a cause for celebration. I often wonder if educating children in the belief that death is full of fear, tragedy, and negativity inadvertently promotes - or plays a role in the promotion of - the ubiquitous cultural condition we know as the fear of failure.

 

 

It is strange that in a world of perpetual uncertainty – uncertainty being largely intolerable to our natures - we fear the one thing that is most certain, death. Freud questioned whether or not we are actually afraid of death at all. In his theories of human behaviour Freud pointed out that being part of a civilised society requires us to suppress various natural impulses and inclinations. We do so because the relative safety and increase of accessibility to resources afforded by collaborative living increases our individual chances of survival and vastly multiplies mating opportunities. There is however a trade off. The aggregative effect of supressing or civilising our instincts causes anxiety. He suggested that death, rather than being a source of anxiety is merely a suitable vehicle on which to project the unconscious anxiety provoked by the civilised suppression of our baser instincts.

 

 

According to some spiritual practices, most notably Buddhism and Hinduism, we are only liberated from our mortal suffering once we have relinquished our attachments: attachments to the body, to fear, and ultimately to life itself. Interestingly, this parallels some of the anecdotal reports of people who were involved in accidents or circumstances in which they wholly believed that their number was up and that they were destined to die…but didn’t. Rather than feeling extreme fear, once the inevitability of death was accepted and they relinquished their attachment to life, the initial fear gave way to a profound sense of peace as they accepted the inevitability of their fate. Of course, we have to question whether it was the relinquishing of attachment to life, or the release of a flood of endorphins and opiates in the brain due to intense stress, that caused the reported sense of inner tranquillity.

 

 

Historically it was believed that religion was the only antidote to the fear of death. Monotheistic religions such as those just mentioned subscribe to the belief that existence is an undifferentiated whole in which nothing can be added or subtracted and thus death itself is just an illusion, a consequence of our mistaken belief that we are somehow separate from the totality of existence. Ditheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam on the other hand believe that death involves the transmogrification of physical form to spirit, and the transition or continuation of identity to another dimension. Whether you believe in either of these concepts or not it is interesting to speculate about the possibility that our cultural ideas about a post-death reality may have arisen as a consequence of the evolution of our neocortex.

 

 

The neocortex, which literally translates as ‘new bark’ or ‘new rind’, is the part of our brain that has evolved over time in response to our interactions with the environment. It is responsible for conscious awareness, thinking, planning, imagination, and abstract thought amongst others. In this regard it is distinguished in its action from the limbic system and brain stem, which are responsible for instinctual behaviours, such as our core instincts of self-preservation and procreation. It is fascinating when you consider that the limbic instinct of self-preservation, when combined with the neocortical capacity of abstract thought and imagination, may be responsible for our fanciful ideas about a life beyond physical death. If you lacked the capacity to contemplate and imagine your own extinction, would you require a belief about what happens post-extinction? In other words, does the instinct of self-preservation when combined with imagination necessitate the creation of an ideology in which we continue to exist even after death? Clearly I’ve just opened a can of worms and I’d imagine that your brain is hurting right now, I know mine is. It’s time to wrap it up.

 

 

Most of the time various cultural groups claim to possess unique knowledge; knowledge of the truth that only they understand. This strikes me as remarkably infantile - a way of thinking about life that is narcissistic, primitive, and full of reasoning errors. Truth (which might be more suitably termed interesting ideas) can be found peppered throughout the various philosophies of all the nations and communities of this earth. Some choose to condemn others with their ideas; some choose to free themselves from unnecessary suffering. However you choose to think about death one thing is certain, the way you think about death will shape the way in which you live in present.

 

 

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Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

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© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Home          Symptoms         Treatments         Reviews          About Seb          Fees          Location          Contact 

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

Death

 

 

Today we’re going to take a hilarious journey into the world of death. Did that strike you as contradictory, even flippant? Well, it may be, like most people, you are experiencing something known as death anxiety, and I just poked it from my bloggy high-horse. Sorry about that.

 

 

Death is something that touches everyone. In fact none is spared the cold hand of death as it touches us all throughout the course of our lives before finally tapping us on the shoulder and beckoning us away from this “mortal coil”. But does death need to be ‘cold’, and why can’t death be ‘funny’? In this post I explore this macabre subject in detail in order to see what it can teach us about the process of living.

 

 

Is it just me or is death like buses? No one you know dies for years, and then suddenly a handful of people you are connected to all die around the same time! The answer to that puzzle I’ll leave to the ‘superfreakonomicists’ among you to calculate. I’m going to concentrate on the psychology of death and what it can teach us about ourselves. Before I’m criticised for being too casual about the topic of death I must assert that I feel well equipped to discuss the topic, being that my mother died in my teenage years. Naturally this was a significant, perhaps pivotal experience in my life.

 

 

Much has been said in the field of psychology about death, and more importantly the fear of death, or thanatophobia, to apply the techy lingo. So let’s start by looking at two of the main recognised forms of death anxiety. According to psychologists there are two main types of death anxiety, these are known as predatory death anxiety, and existential death anxiety. Predatory death anxiety is the fear of being killed by external forces, such as being murdered, or being the victim of manslaughter. It is the fear of being predated upon and having your life cut short unnecessarily. The second kind, existential death anxiety, involves the intellectual awareness of the inevitability of your own death. Death anxiety invariably produces a number of symptomatic effects however, given that the vast number of people in society experience death anxiety to a greater or lesser extent, it is difficult to clearly demarcate what the specific side-effects actually are. Typically death anxiety affects different people in different ways.

 

 

There are numerous theories and hypotheses relating to the psychological effect of the cognition of death on living conscious entities but it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, given that no control group of people to whom death does not actually concern exists. It may be that death anxiety plays a role in some neurotic conditions such as OCD and hypochondria, due to the intellectual preoccupation with harm causing agents. Both of these symptoms may be associated with death anxiety as it relates to the self, but some conditions, most notably obsessive-compulsive hoarding, may be connected to the death of a significant other.

 

 

A common theme among obsessive-compulsive hoarders is the death of a significant figure in the sufferer’s life during the critical developmental stage (0 – 7 years of age approx.). According to Dr Stephen Kellett, a psychologist from Sheffield University, “There is some evidence about the role of childhood trauma – loss, neglect, [and] separation”. Like many neurotic symptoms obsessive-compulsive hoarding has a symbolic quality to it in that the sufferer holds on to, or doesn’t let go of anything, and, like most neurotic behaviour, this symbolic aspect can only be appreciated when the wider context is revealed. Similarly, like most neurotic conditions, it acts as a safeguard, protecting the individual from their deeper emotional conflicts by way of given them another, more temporally pressing problem to be concerned with.

 

 

At the healthier end of the scale we each employ a similar strategy of denial to help manage death anxiety. Some denial strategies cited for coping with the fear of death include such things as the need to create a legacy, the hunger for wealth and power, and excessive partying (which most of my friends are guilty of). The fear of death may also be one of the driving forces or unconscious catalysts of artistic creation in all its forms.

 

 

The work of artist Damien Hirst, famous for his series of spot paintings, spin paintings, butterfly paintings, not to mention infamous formaldehyde sculptures, is all about death. From crystal-encrusted skulls, to preserved creatures and pharmaceutical paraphernalia, the notion of death runs throughout his work. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, which can be found on Hirst’s website, he is asked why he often works in series. In his reply he states that he has “always liked series…you get some kind of security from the repetition of a series… I think it’s also an implication of endlessness, which kind of theoretically helps you avoid death.” It is also interesting to note that Hirst matches each of the denial strategies mentioned above, having created a legacy for himself, attained great wealth and power, and has been famed for his excessive partying.

 

 

Death affects everyone to a greater or lesser extent. The interesting thing is that while you may recognise a mild, or even strong discomfort with the subject of death within yourself, most people wouldn’t personally identify themselves as thanatophobes. Many people do however openly admit to having a fear of failure. You may be wondering how is this nutty therapist going to connect a simple fear of failure to a pervasive fear of death? Simples. Fear of failure is promoted by a fear of rejection, and a fear of rejection is promoted by a fear of death. Say whaaaaat? Ok, we fear failure, or should I say ‘being deemed a failure in the eyes of others’ because that failure might lead to a rejection by people we deem to be important to our survival, and if our support network ‘turns its back on us’ we run the risk of not being able to provide for ourselves. As social beings, dependant on a network of other people, the concept of being rejected is anxiety arousing. We need other people in order to survive; at least that is the way our brain has evolved to perceive it. Certainly from a child’s perspective rejection by the primary care group would likely result in death, and we carry this fear within us throughout our lives. In most western cultures death is a sombre and sobering thing, it is often viewed as morbid, depressing, cold, and colourless. However in places like Mexico, where they celebrate the day of the dead, death is a cause for celebration. I often wonder if educating children in the belief that death is full of fear, tragedy, and negativity inadvertently promotes - or plays a role in the promotion of - the ubiquitous cultural condition we know as the fear of failure.

 

 

It is strange that in a world of perpetual uncertainty – uncertainty being largely intolerable to our natures - we fear the one thing that is most certain, death. Freud questioned whether or not we are actually afraid of death at all. In his theories of human behaviour Freud pointed out that being part of a civilised society requires us to suppress various natural impulses and inclinations. We do so because the relative safety and increase of accessibility to resources afforded by collaborative living increases our individual chances of survival and vastly multiplies mating opportunities. There is however a trade off. The aggregative effect of supressing or civilising our instincts causes anxiety. He suggested that death, rather than being a source of anxiety is merely a suitable vehicle on which to project the unconscious anxiety provoked by the civilised suppression of our baser instincts.

 

 

According to some spiritual practices, most notably Buddhism and Hinduism, we are only liberated from our mortal suffering once we have relinquished our attachments: attachments to the body, to fear, and ultimately to life itself. Interestingly, this parallels some of the anecdotal reports of people who were involved in accidents or circumstances in which they wholly believed that their number was up and that they were destined to die…but didn’t. Rather than feeling extreme fear, once the inevitability of death was accepted and they relinquished their attachment to life, the initial fear gave way to a profound sense of peace as they accepted the inevitability of their fate. Of course, we have to question whether it was the relinquishing of attachment to life, or the release of a flood of endorphins and opiates in the brain due to intense stress, that caused the reported sense of inner tranquillity.

 

 

Historically it was believed that religion was the only antidote to the fear of death. Monotheistic religions such as those just mentioned subscribe to the belief that existence is an undifferentiated whole in which nothing can be added or subtracted and thus death itself is just an illusion, a consequence of our mistaken belief that we are somehow separate from the totality of existence. Ditheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam on the other hand believe that death involves the transmogrification of physical form to spirit, and the transition or continuation of identity to another dimension. Whether you believe in either of these concepts or not it is interesting to speculate about the possibility that our cultural ideas about a post-death reality may have arisen as a consequence of the evolution of our neocortex.

 

 

The neocortex, which literally translates as ‘new bark’ or ‘new rind’, is the part of our brain that has evolved over time in response to our interactions with the environment. It is responsible for conscious awareness, thinking, planning, imagination, and abstract thought amongst others. In this regard it is distinguished in its action from the limbic system and brain stem, which are responsible for instinctual behaviours, such as our core instincts of self-preservation and procreation. It is fascinating when you consider that the limbic instinct of self-preservation, when combined with the neocortical capacity of abstract thought and imagination, may be responsible for our fanciful ideas about a life beyond physical death. If you lacked the capacity to contemplate and imagine your own extinction, would you require a belief about what happens post-extinction? In other words, does the instinct of self-preservation when combined with imagination necessitate the creation of an ideology in which we continue to exist even after death? Clearly I’ve just opened a can of worms and I’d imagine that your brain is hurting right now, I know mine is. It’s time to wrap it up.

 

 

Most of the time various cultural groups claim to possess unique knowledge; knowledge of the truth that only they understand. This strikes me as remarkably infantile - a way of thinking about life that is narcissistic, primitive, and full of reasoning errors. Truth (which might be more suitably termed interesting ideas) can be found peppered throughout the various philosophies of all the nations and communities of this earth. Some choose to condemn others with their ideas; some choose to free themselves from unnecessary suffering. However you choose to think about death one thing is certain, the way you think about death will shape the way in which you live in present.

 

 

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