A Freudian analysis of death anxiety

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David L. Miller


Freudian, Death anxiety, Illusion

Subject Categories

Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy | Psychology


This dissertation argues that conventional interpretations of Freudian psychology may not account for the existence and complexity of death anxiety and its intrinsic relation to the creation of illusions. This dissertation contends that there is sufficient evidence to support the view that death anxiety is not only a symptom of certain modes of psychopathology, but is a very normal and central emotional threat human beings deal with only by impeding awareness of the threat from entering consciousness. The immanence of the fear of death requires vigilant coping techniques, especially the distortion of reality through these defenses and phantasies, so that the organism is not psychologically crippled by overwhelming terror.

This dissertation is an attempt to demonstrate that a careful reading of Freud reveals a copious amount of material supporting these propositions. The dissertation will also entail reframing the psychoanalytic perspective to demonstrate that all anxiety is essentially the reactive fear of annihilation. This thesis maintains that the annihilation anxiety incubated and molded in infancy is an immanent threat throughout adult life, to which the psyche responds with defensive evasion and the construction of belief systems which render death non-threatening.

Separation from the protecting caregiver, helplessness, abandonment, punishment, confusion, the child's own rage and unsatisfied wants, even minor injuries or lack of control of bodily functions can be experienced as utterly terrifying during infancy. The naïve concept of death will become more sophisticated with maturation, and the awareness of one's death, finiteness, and ineluctable decay is a fundamental source of anxiety throughout life.

The complex and traumatic experiences of terror, and reactions to it, comprise a significant aspect of character and culture. Annihilation anxiety may be managed , but is never resolved and dispensed with once and for all. It is the argument of this dissertation that cultural symbols and phantasies are the means by which the human beings protect themselves from this immanent threat. Thus human history is replete with images of afterlives and attempts to deny death.