Existential psychology, much like philosophy, preoccupies itself with questions pertaining to meaning and the in-depth explorations of topics that go past the superficialness of everyday issues.
One school of thought that I find to be particularly thought provoking is existentialism explained by Irvin. D Yalom. Yalom is widely recognised to have significantly influenced modern-day psychotherapy. In addition to this, Yalom has dedicated a majority of his life exploring existential psychotherapy and its many feats; and in doing this has contrived four key factors that contribute to the existential anxiety that, we as humans, inevitably struggle with at one point or another throughout our lives.
These four factors include – but are not limited to: death; meaninglessness, freedom, and isolation. Each factor will be a topic of focus throughout this four-part series; with this first theme being the dominant force over the other three.
Although death is intellectually very apparent within society, it remains one of the more uneasy topics to discuss. Many philosophers and psychologists have studied this abstraction and in doing so have conceptualised a massive amount of literature. Questions of death can be seen as topics of discussion all the way back to Ancient Greece, by intellectual powerhouses such as; Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Epicurus.
Even after the fall of Athens, the Epicureans – one of the four major philosophical movements back in 300 BC, explored the complexities of death. Specifically, their philosophy was to liberate people that feared death. One famous maxim illustrated by Epicurus was: “if I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. The Epicureans’ movement was widely influential and helped to establish modern science and humanism.
Furthermore, embedded within Greek mythology you can find evidence of a philosophical approach to death in the form of Thanatos and Hypnos, both were twins; with one representing sleep and the other death. These mythological entities are representative of the idea that every night when we sleep we experience a taste of death. That is, when sleeping, we are surrounded by nothingness, a complete lack of awareness and control. Although this seems rather melancholy, Yalom was able to leverage the work of his predecessors to help with his theoretical model around death. Through his model, Yalom has managed to facilitate a psychological shift regarding death anxiety in many of his patients.
'we should use the inevitably of death as a way to get the most out of life, only then can we be satisfied with our journey, and ease the grip of anxiety that death has over us'
Yalom believes that death anxiety is, not so much a linear process, but a dynamic one. Within his theoretical framework, it is said that before the adolescent period death remains obscured, however, throughout the adolescent period death becomes a pinpoint for fixation in the form of; risk-taking behaviour, humour, obsession, self-harm, and suicide (Smith,2012; Yalom, 2008). Following on from this we then become pre-occupied with career development and family creation, unfortunately, however, these distractions are said only to be temporary, subsequently leading to the dreaded midlife crisis decades later. With that can come a wealth of regret around one’s life - and helped Yalom contrive the idea that people only die so badly because they lived so badly.
What is considered to be one of humans’ greatest distinctions is our ability to self-reflect. Self-reflection can be our greatest tool, but one of our biggest impediments – that is, we are the only species that has an omnipresent survival instinct, but is also aware of our inevitable demise. Thus creating an existential friction between our ability to reflect and our need to remain in this world; this is where Yalom puts forward his thoughts. Yalom believes that death should be faced like any other fear: through familiarisation, dissection, and analytical comprehension. Only then are we able to free this fear and focus on living a life devoid of regret (Yalom, 2008). This idea was echoed through time by one of Yalom’s inspirations, Martin Heidegger, who stated that: “Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us”. Meaning that we should use the inevitably of death as a way to get the most out of life, only then can we be satisfied with our journey, and ease the grip of anxiety that death has over us.
The idea of facing our fear can at first seem counterintuitive, and because of this, society has constructed different ways of coping. We find distraction through trivial tasks, we drink, we take drugs, we become workaholics, we commit ourselves to religious doctrines, and we spin fictitious and idealistic fairy tales to our children. Although this is not a comprehensive list of anxiety defenders, it is nonetheless an example of what we do as a society to avoid the rawness of a topic that if approached right, can be incredibly liberating. Notably, the subject of anxiety defenders can be better defined as anxiety buffers, which maintains a substantial body of research within psychological literature.
Unfortunately, sometimes our defences are not enough and become penetrable. Yalom believes that not only can the avoidance of death anxiety cause an increased risk of dysphoric behaviour and unhealthy coping mechanisms, but it can manifest in the form of psychopathological disorders, too (Smith, 2012; Yalom 1980).
'grappling with the notion of death helps one to realise the preciousness of life'
The idea that death anxiety is the cause of psychological issues has no doubt received some criticism from opposing scholars – much like any body of work with an impact like Yalom’s. However, the belief that the cause of psychological issues is death anxiety should be taken with a pinch of salt. The human mind is infinitely complex, and neuroscience has come on in leaps-and-bounds in identifying neurological complications that can cause psychological issues. If everyone was to adopt Yalom’s style of thinking and embrace the idea of death, I still don’t see a world not plagued by mental health. That is not to say that this theory has no place, no doubt there is a cohort of cases that can attribute a source of anxiety or a mental health issue as death anxiety in disguise - especially those caused by near-death experiences and bereavements. Although, I feel that using it as a way to explain the majority is idealistic and not sustainable.
Although our defence mechanisms – no matter how unhealthy they are – have been painted in a less than positive light throughout this article, I feel it’s important to emphasise that they do provide society with an element of safety. That is, not everyone is born with the capacity to face the inevitability of death head-on, such a concept takes time to resonate with people, and it’s not something that can be forced. With that said, I believe that once you endeavour to open your mind to such an idea, it truly is liberating. Just as Yalom states - along with those before him - grappling with the notion of death helps one to realise the preciousness of life, it helps you see the beauty that is so often taken for granted, and enhance our sense of gratitude: no matter the adversity we encounter through life. Combining this outlook with mindfulness, I feel, is a recipe for a deeper awareness of not only the endless wonders of this world but also the importance of the present moment.
Lastly, I would like to finish up with one of my favoured quotes by Otto Rank – that is: “we deny the loan of life to avoid the debt of death”. In other words, instead of fearing the debt of death and coping through distraction, live the one and only life you have been loaned.
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Craig has a degree in psychology and is studying a Doctorate in Counselling Psychology and Psychotherapy. He also works as a Therapeutic Mental Health Worker and is an accredited Group Facilitator. Craig enjoys engaging in psychological topics and shares them on here in his website. You can get in touch with Craig via Twitter
Berry-Smith, S. F. (2012). Death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness and the existential psychotherapy of Irvin D. Yalom (Doctoral dissertation, Auckland University of Technology).
Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Yalom, I. D. (2008). Staring at the Sun. San Francisco, Ca: Jossey-Bass.