Death Anxiety, Unconscious Morality, and Extremes of Violence by Robert Langs, M.D.

Many factors played a role in the recent terrorist attacks on American institutions and there are, as well, many facets to how people reacted to this horrendous event. In this article I will, then, select three subjects connected with this incident that have not received any noticeable attention. They come into focus based on the communicative approach to the human mind and human communication, and they offer otherwise unavailable perspectives on the situation. I will explore first, the role of the three forms of death anxiety and of unconscious morality in perpetrating attacks such as these, and second, the role of these anxieties and moral pressures in responding to these events.

And on a personal note, I will be doing so as a New Yorker who was witness to these events, as was my patients.

The Communicative Approach

As described in the September/October issue of this magazine, the communicative approach is based on a new way of listening to and deriving meaning from communications between patients and therapists in psychotherapy. It is, then, strongly adaptive in its perspectives. Essentially, the narrative material from patients is deciphered or decoded in light of the prevailing interventions by their therapists-a process called trigger decoding. By this means, it has been discovered that there are two systems to the emotion-processing mind-one is directly attached to awareness (the conscious system) and the other is not (the deep unconscious system) and as a result, it's operations are reflected and encoded in the dreams and stories told by patients in therapy.

Among the many new findings derived from this listening process, two are of note in the present context. First, that the status and management of the ground rules of therapy evoke the strongest responses of the deep unconscious adaptive system of the mind, and second, that there are three forms of death anxiety that form the bedrock of human emotionally-charged, adaptive efforts and both neuroses and mental health.

The Three Forms of Death Anxiety

Death is an event, the cessation of life. Death anxiety is a potentially disruptive concern about death and dying. The psychotherapy literature has focused on death far more than death anxieties, and in dealing with the latter subject, it has taken a relatively superficial and naïve approach.

Each form of death anxiety has a distinctive effect on the human psyche and human behavior. They are:

Predatory Death Anxiety

This is the most basic form of death anxiety and it has its origin in the adaptive resources of the first unicellular organisms directed against predators who present dangers to survival. With the development of rains and minds, this type of anxiety mobilizes adaptive resources that lead to fight or flight, and in humans, who have had language capabilities for some 200,000 years, these anxieties are activated by and mobilize adaptive resources in response to both physical and psychological threat. When there is bodily threat, which may be from without or within the individual, these anxieties tend to be conscious, but when the danger is psychological, these anxieties often operate outside of awareness-unconsciously.

Existential Death Anxiety

The conscious awareness of the inevitability of death, personally and for all humans and other living creatures is a uniquely human capability and a consequence of language acquisition. This achievement brought with it countless advances in human adaptive resources, among which the ability to represent events internally in the mind, the possession of a distinct personal identity, and the ability to foresee much of the future are of note here.

Existential death anxiety, which may be experienced consciously or more typically, deep unconsciously, mobilizes denial in a variety of guises and forms, many of which are as yet not generally recognized. Thus, denial and obliteration is served through perceptual defenses, the lack of awareness of traumatic events or aspects of their threatening implications, ground rules violations, manic states and celebrations, and committing violence against others which is a means of denying personal vulnerability and of creating the illusion/delusion of the power to defeat death.

Predator Death Anxiety

This form of death anxiety, which also appears to be uniquely human, arises when an individual harms another human being or living organism. These actions mobilize a measure of denial, but mainly arouses guilt and needs for punishment which often operates unconsciously. As a result the offending person unconsciously and unwittingly arranges to harm himself or herself, entirely unaware of the unconscious sources of these self-destructive actions.

In psychotherapy, there is an ideal, unconsciously validated, set of ground rules (e.g., a set fee, frequency and time of sessions, and locale; total privacy and confidentiality; the relative anonymity of the therapist). These rules are prototypes of moral and ethical standards, and their violation by a therapist is experienced by the patient as predatory and by the therapist himself or herself as an act of predation-an unappreciated facet of psychotherapy that unconsciously motivate most therapists to act in ways that are self-defeating and harmful.

Two Subsystems of the Deep Unconscious Mind

There are two critical subsystems within the resourceful deep unconscious mind. The first is called the deep unconscious wisdom system, and it's an adaptive system that receives subliminal or unconscious perceptions and information and processes it toward an adaptive response that is then encoded in disguised narratives. In the emotional realm, this system or intelligence is far wiser and far more effective than conscious intelligence, which is hampered by extensive use of denial and obliteration.

The second subsystem is called the deep unconscious system of morals and ethics. This evolved system embodies a definitive set of values which in psychotherapy are linked to the status of the ground rule of treatment. While the conscious mind is highly variable in its attitudes toward moral and ethical standards and actions, this deep unconscious system is consistent across individuals and cultures-it constitutes a universal set of values and dictates. Adherence to these values evokes encoded validation and unconscious support for self-enhancing actions, while their violation evokes non-validating responses and self-hurtful actions.

Adherence to the ideal frame or set of ground rules of psychotherapy is ego-enhancing, while departures from these rules is ego-disruptive. But the situation is complicated by the finding that secured frames, while salutary, evoke intense entrapment/existential death anxieties. This type of anxiety is especially severe in humans and it accounts for the conscious acceptance of modified frames in both therapy and life-despite the harm they cause-and for the failure to deeply appreciate the healing powers of secured frames.

Committing Acts of Terrorism

There are many social, cultural and religious factors that account for acts of terrorism. The above formulations and insights add to these in the following way. Behaviors of this appear to stem from unbearable existential death anxieties and from experiences of predation by others. These acts of violence also are frame violations of the severest degree and are, then, an unconsciously motivated response to frame violations experienced by the perpetrators, most often in their nuclear family situations, but also in their wider life, socially and politically.

As for unconscious guilt, this unconscious need for punishment for prior violent acts helps to account for suicidal terrorists. But it is of note that this system of definitive morals and ethics, which appears to have evolved under selection pressures related to curbing human inclinations to act violently, has failed to create sufficient unconscious needs to notably curtail these inclinations. Further, the unconscious guilt and need to suffer that is experienced by people who act violently or support violence, while certainly not sufficient deterrent, speaks for the likelihood that these people do act in way that are self-harmful. The extent to which they do so remains to be studied.

Reacting to Acts of Terrorism

The conscious and deep unconscious reactions to a terrorist attack are both powerful and distinctive for each system of the emotion-processing mind. Consciously, there is an initial tendency to obliterate and deny as many meanings as possible in response to the horrors of the situation. In therapy, then, this influences patients' responses to the event in that they tend to curtail direct allusions to what happened, to limit the expression of narratives that encode their deep unconscious responses to the event, and to strongly resist interpretations derived from trigger decoding these stories and their meanings. Put plainly, humans, including patients in psychotherapy, resist as much as they can gaining conscious access to their deep unconscious reactions to catastrophic events including their links to events within the treatment situation and in their early life traumas and other incidents.

While these resistances tend to diminish as time passes, they remain ever-present. The deep unconscious sources of this need to obliterate insights are strongly connected with the three forms of death anxiety. Thus, predatory death anxiety plays a role in activating defenses against recognizing one's personal vulnerabilities and helplessness. Existential death anxiety also is activated by these events because people are intensely ware of the death of others and link it to their own demise. Finally, predator death anxiety plays a role because the acts of violence by others activate in each person their own memories of, or current impulses to, harm others-and with it their own deep unconscious guilt. All in all, the conscious and especially deep unconscious experience of a terrorist act is unbearable in countless ways.

Concluding Comments

The human mind experienced a critical turning point with language acquisition. This event led to an enormous number of social and technological changes and advances, creating opportunities for improved living conditions and more satisfying lives. At the same time, these changes have created great difficulties in finding ways to negotiate life traumas and pressures and have increased the risk of decompensation. Indeed, having had a mere 200,000 years (on the evolutionary time scale) to deal with existential death anxiety in particular, the human mind has turned to extremely costly forms of denial in order to cope and avoid disruptive anxieties that awareness of the inevitability of dying can cause. But denial often leads to violence and always diminishes the possibilities for understanding, insight, growth, and effective coping. It is a very costly defense, as shown by acts of terrorism that are in part unconsciously driven by these issues.

Both religion and psychoanalysis/psychotherapy have avoided deep explorations of death anxiety and its ramifications. Understanding in depth the nature of these anxieties and how they are most constructively ameliorated can in a small way contribute to humankind's hopes and dreams for peace on earth at last.

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