Death Anxiety and PTSD
Posted on 28 November 2011, 19:26
When my friend Steve Sparks gave me a copy of his new book, Reconciliation: A Son’s Story, which is about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by both his father and himself, I wondered if there might be a spiritual connection. From having interviewed Dr. Allan Botkin, who specialized in PTSD with military veterans, several years ago, I should have immediately realized that there is, or at least there is in many cases. Botkin discovered Induced After Death Communication (IADC) by accident in 1995 while working with psychologically traumatized combat veterans at a VA hospital.
Vernon Sparks, Steve’s father, was both physically and emotionally abusive when Steve and his siblings were growing up. He had served aboard the USS West Virginia when Pearl Harbor came under surprise attack on December 7, 1941 and witnessed all the horror of that event. He saw one of his fellow sailors have his head literally blown off his shoulders and he ended up swimming through oil-filled waters to safety. He then served throughout the war, often in the thick of it, including escorting Marines to their landings on Iwo Jima. Although he was treated briefly for “combat fatigue” (also called “battle fatigue”) at the end of the war, his abusive behavior was never linked to his war experiences. As Steve Sparks points out in the book, PTSD was never completely recognized until the Vietnam War or after it. Even less recognized, as Sparks discovered, is that the trauma of living with an abusive parent suffering from PTSD can result in PTSD for the child, as seems to have been the case with him and his siblings. “We never knew when our Dad would go off and start kicking us around for things we didn’t really understand at the time,” Sparks writes. “It happened more often when our mother was nagging him and he had an anxiety attack. Too bad medical research had not progressed enough to provide him with a calming medication.”
In IADC therapy, people grieving the death of someone or otherwise disturbed by someone’s death, are asked to focus directly on their sadness during eye movements. The typical IADC involves the patient reporting having seen a deceased person and that deceased person having told him or her that everything is OK and not to grieve. In a number of cases, the deceased person relates information previously unknown to the patient. I wondered if Vernon Sparks’ PTSD might have been the result of that single case of seeing a fellow sailor’s head blown off a few feet from him or from the cumulative effect of the war.
When Steve Sparks related his own problems and tied them to his father’s abuse and his mother’s indifference, I also wondered whether his problems both on the job and in relationships could be called PTSD. But when he wrote that there seemed to be a “sense of urgency about life ending at any moment and the need to experience everything life has to offer right now and without hesitation” as being at the root of his problem, I saw the spiritual connection.
As anthropologist Ernest Becker (below) saw it in his 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, man’s fear of death is at the very root of all our problems. Becker said that man’s deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation, and explained that to free oneself of death anxiety, nearly everyone chooses the path of repression. That is, we bury the anxiety deep in the subconscious while we busy ourselves with our lives and seek a mundane security that we expect to continue indefinitely. The repressed anxiety then gives rise to other problems, but the link with death anxiety is seldom recognized.
Becker called repression of death the enemy of mankind. The theme of his book is that the unrepressed life can bring into birth a new man. Robert Jay Lifton, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology, said much the same thing in his 1979 book, The Broken Connection. He stated that we must “know death” in order to live with free imagination.
After taking issue with Freud’s libido concept as being at the root of mental disorders, Lifton says that “an approach to traumatic syndrome (the name then given to PTSD) should focus on death and related questions of meaning, rather than requiring us to invoke the idea of neurosis.’ This death-centered approach suggests a moral dimension in all conflict and neurosis.”
As Lifton sees it, many of the symptoms in the traumatic syndrome have to do with impaired mourning, or “the inability to mourn.” It is the inability to reconstruct shattered personal forms in ways that reassert vitality and integrity. “The survivor retains an indelible image, a tendency to cling to the death imprint – not because of release of narcissistic libido as Freud claimed, but because of continuing struggles to master and assimilate the threat (as Freud also observed), and around larger questions of personal meaning.”
In effect, if I am properly interpreting Lifton, death anxiety is at the core of PTSD. As I am not academically qualified in the area of psychiatry, I am not in a position to agree or disagree, but with 75 years of life experience behind me I believe that Becker and Lifton are much closer to the truth than Freud and most of today’s mental health practitioners.
The key to living the unrepressed life, according to Becker and Lifton, is having a sense of immortality, a firm belief that our earthly life is part of a much larger and eternal life. Lifton points out that there are some who can derive satisfaction out of a biological sense of immortality, that there will be a “living on” through one’s progeny. There is also the creative mode, whereby one “lives on” through his or her works of art, literature, or science. However, when the “thinking person” begins to ask himself or herself to which generation full fruition or to what end the legacy, he/she can’t help question the degree of immortality in such myopic views.
Since it might have involved committing professional suicide, neither Becker nor Lifton could directly suggest that we must accept the survival of consciousness at death in order to free ourselves from the fetters that bind us to our culture’s negative view of death and give rise to death anxiety. But is there any other answer to the problem? Unfortunately, mainstream medicine and science simply won’t recognize it. There is too much self-serving ego involved.
Michael Tymn’s latest book The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After we Die is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and all good online book stores.
Next blog December 12th
You article is excellent, as usual, and a food for thought.
I am sure that many people have indeed conscious and unconscious fear of death, and that PTSD can ensue from it.
But for me, to put it very simply, anxiety arises not out of fear of death but of life, of its pain and its weight. Death is something I have longed for for a very long time and often the knowledge that death will come is a consolation and support for living. I know a number of persons, beside myself, that dread life and wait for death. As my friend, the one in the spirit, has told me,” death is a reward for living.”
So maybe some of us have PTSD because we fear life, and only the knowledge of death assuages this anxiety?
Please, let’s not bring Freud’s thanatos into this.
and hi to Elene.
Hania, Thu 1 Dec, 19:12
Michael Tymn, Thu 1 Dec, 05:54
Thank you for your comment, but you seem to be misinterpreting what I wrote. I did not call Lifton’s views myopic. All Lifton did was present the five alternatives, although I recall only four. I simply said that anyone subscribing to two of those views had myopic vision. That is hardly the same thing as calling Lifton’s views myopic,or Plato’s or Becker’s views. Of course, that is my opinion and couldn’t be anything but my opinion. Such blogs as mine are all about opinions and I don’t think it is necessary to continually say, “In my opinion….”
Nor is suggesting that Becker or Lifton could have better addressed the survival issue the same as saying that they had to believe in it. As I recall, Becker was very agnostic on the issue, while I don’t recall Lifton really offering his opinion one way or the other. A number of non-believers have admitted that accepting survival is the only way to free ourselves of death anxiety. One does not have to believe in survival to have that opinion. Reading between the lines, I think both Becker and Lifton were of that mindset. The problem is that they beat around the bush and never really address it in a direct manner.
I do appreciate your comment so that I could better clarify that.
Early childhood abandonment (emotional, etc) or
paul biscop, Thu 1 Dec, 02:11
abuse in fact bring a fear of death that, because it occurs inearly socialization, becomes integrated into personal identity and becomes a factor in life-long social interaction. Vernon Sparks may or may not have become abusive as a result of PTDS - not enough info to know- but for his children he sparked a fear that related to the possibility of death (physical abuse) or emotional loss (distanced mother). They got a double whammy of abandonment/abuse, which takes a
lot of work, usually with a professional, to overcome.
Michael: I don’t think it’s fair to call what I remember were Lifton’s 5 ways of seeking “immortality” myopic. Plato’s writings have only lasted 2500 years, obviusly not close to forever, but I’d settle for it.
Also you suggest that Becker and Lifton did not come out for survival for professional reasons. Maybe they simply didn’t believe in it.
coyd, Wed 30 Nov, 01:07
I thanked you more than once for the excellent review of my book, Reconciliation, A Son’s Story. Once again, thank you for taking the extra time to research the subject of PTSD in the spiritual context. I recall our email exchanges mentioning to you how my feelings seemed spiritual while writing and researching the project. My goal with the story has always been to help my family and others, including stimulating conversation and more research on the subject. Your article is most thought provoking and left me speechless when reading it the first time. I definitely agree that the “fear of death” is largely at the root of all the anxiety resulting from traumatic experiences. My own level of higher awareness is helping me to address mortality in more positive way as well. Thank you again for your friendship, support, and interest in PTSD awareness.
Steve Sparks, Tue 29 Nov, 23:16
Very interesting, Michael. Thank you for a novel perspective on PTSD. I think I agree with what you have written when I relate it to people I know.
Keith P in UK, Tue 29 Nov, 04:26
This hypothesis is well worth considering.
In battle and in other dangerous situations, though, there is not only the fear of death but the fear of being maimed and living on for years in terrible suffering or disability. I have heard quite a few people say that this idea scares them more than the possibility of being killed outright. However, most people I hang out with think that life goes on after death, so they may not be a representative sample.
Elene, Tue 29 Nov, 03:46
Another possibility that should be considered with PTSD is “Spirit Possession”. Edith Fiore, as well as Bill Baldwin and others, suggest that perhaps everyone is “Spirit Possessed” at some time in their life - and that those who are around “Death”, such as hospitals, funeral homes, “WAR”, etc. are the most likely. The poor fellow whose head was blown off could well be the “Spirit” who is causing the PTSD in Vernon - transference to the son as well would be no problem.
“Mental illness” of various types, expecially Schizophrenia, as well as “criminal activity” should also consider “Spirit Possession” ...
In my opinion,we are surrounded by “Spirits” 24/7 - some went into the “Light”, others stayed “Earthbound” - looking for a new home, for various reasons ...
Just a “thot” ...
Richard Brannon, Tue 29 Nov, 03:12
One of the most satisfying blogs I’ve read. Deep and true. Thanks, Mike.
Stafford Betty, Tue 29 Nov, 00:12
What an excellent article Mike and a source of explantion and reassurance to some of those who are the victims of a PTSD patient. How many facets of our lives are now becoming amenable to and so much more intelligible with a spiritual interpretation!
howard a. jones, Mon 28 Nov, 22:18
since there is someone in my family with many problems centering on anxiety. You have motivated me to do a little careful probing.
This was an eye opener for me, Mon 28 Nov, 22:11
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