The “shelter in place” mandate that has been enforced across the globe for much of the past few months has inevitably made many people anxious about the future—and fearful about an invisible disease that can lead to an especially painful and lonely death. As a developmental psychologist researching loss and trauma and their impact on parents and children, I think it worthwhile to explore the nature of the fear we feel and ask what lies at the heart of these anxieties?

Throughout the modern period, philosophers and psychologists have debated whether anxiety and fear are fundamental human feelings. For those treating patients using psychoanalytic methods, I have long pondered two divergent psychoanalytic approaches to two specific kinds of fear: (1) the fear of annihilation and (2) the fear of loss of loved ones, separation from loved ones, and loss of love.

Fear of annihilation

Some core psychoanalytic ideas build on a maxim of existentialism, namely that existence precedes essence. Accordingly, fear of death, and specifically fear of one’s own personal death, is a fundamental human feeling.

In the many works Sigmund Freud published throughout his clinical career, the psychoanalyst detailed many sources of anxiety and fear, including annihilation anxiety—the fear of being obliterated. To the extent that it is universal and invariant, this anxiety is doubtless provoked by the threats of the current moment, such as COVID-19 and police brutality, and by the possibility that either the virus or a chokehold could lead to a lonely death.

The fear of one’s own death was thoroughly explored in the seminal work of the cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, in his 1973 book, The Denial of Death. There is no better account than Becker’s book on Freud’s idea of annihilation anxiety, which was also embraced by Otto Rank and Albert Adler. According to these psychoanalysts, the fear of annihilation is what drives us to seek and maintain power, and to struggle to leave a lasting mark on the future by way of economic, political, or technological achievements.

For Becker, these “heroic” narcissistic pursuits of power almost inevitably lead to evil mistreatment of human beings, other animals, and the earth itself—all in the name of fending off our fear of annihilation, which is one of the core anxieties in human life, according to Freud. The solution, Becker argues, is understanding and breaking the tight connection between the fear of death and the dominion of evil via heroic transpersonal collective action that offers greater protection of the earth and her inhabitants. At the same time, such necessary heroic action may lead us to fear our own inevitable personal death just a little bit less.

Becker’s ideas percolated through the social sciences and consolidated in the 1980s in social psychology as “terror management theory”: the idea that conscious and unconscious fears of our own personal death require that we control or manage that anxiety. Accordingly, events and experiences may be measured in terms of their “mortality salience,” or capacity to activate our fear of death, such as the experience of witnessing the video of the nine-minute lynching of George Floyd or a crowded hospital hallway with desperate virus-stricken patients struggling to breathe.

Action under the influence of such “mortality salient” images is likely to be impulsive, skewed, irrational, and perhaps aggressive. But more nuanced studies of specific cases which apply Becker’s idea indicate a wide range of “individual differences” in how someone manages the fear of death. For example, Mikulincer and Forian found that adults with “secure” romantic relationships, who value personal bonds and can depend on others while also remaining available as a source of support, were much less likely to be adversely affected by “mortality salience” prompts. If the presence of caring human relationships can mitigate the fear of death, then perhaps this fear is not such a fundamental feeling for all human beings after all.

Fear of loss of loved ones, separation from loved ones, and loss of love

The great theorist of the fundamental human need for attachment was John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist and author who built a theory of human motivation based on Freud’s idea that the fundamental anxiety in human life is a fear not of death but rather of loss of love—fear that flows from the actual loss of loved ones. Bowlby’s term for this fear was “separation anxiety.” In the decades since Bowlby published his pioneering works on the topic, psychologists have developed a repertoire of empirical research methods to assess the clinical value of his ideas in practice.

Bowlby’s core idea is a simple one: there is a biologically based impetus to form and maintain enduring emotional relationships with others deemed stronger, wiser, and more benevolent in their actions. When babies experience sensitive and responsive care from adults, then as children they thrive and develop resilient coping skills, acting on their own memories of being loved and cared for in sensitive and responsive ways. “Resilience” here is taken to mean the ability to turn to others for help and guidance when in doubt, together with a confidence and desire to provide support to others in need.

There is more than half a century of research showing that infants with a secure attachment to their primary caregiver (typically their mother) are less prone to experience anxiety and fears of all sorts and achieve their career, relationship, and family dreams with greater success. As language develops, these securely attached children are significantly more likely to have words that permit them to label and discuss their feelings, including fear. And a negative feeling labelled and discussed safely with others is a less threatening feeling.

Fear comes in all shapes and sizes, often linked to fear of our own annihilation—as the international protest marches in support of Black Lives Matter make clear—but fear is also fundamentally linked to anxiety over separation from loved ones. When emotional ties to loved ones are secure, such that we are confident in receiving emotional support from others and we are ready to provide such support, we are better protected against all range of fears. Clinical psychologists and counselors know well the value of listening, believing the speaker, and taking seriously the fears expressed. In this way, people are helped to fashion a path forward that will lessen their fears and achieve personal and social results that represent a strengthening of character, family ties, and community relations.

Howard Steele is a professor and chair of Clinical Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he co-directs the Center for Attachment Research with Dr. Miriam Steele. He is also a senior and founding editor of the international journal, Attachment & Human Development, and founding president of the Society for Emotion And Attachment Studies.

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