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How Recognizing Your Death Drive May Save You

Your "death drive" is out to destroy you. Tame it.

There are many theories about the roots of depression. Freud's "death drive" is a viable one. The most popular theory explaining depression originates in neuroscience.

This theory involves the monoamine neurotransmitters in the brain (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) and how their activity impacts mood. Neuroscientists are aware that this is a reciprocal relationship: Lower levels of these transmitters result in the individual being less happy or depressed.

The lack of monoamine activity negatively impacts thinking. Conversely, thinking can lower the level of the monoamines, which would also result in depression. Thinking originating from the death drive may be one contributor to depression.

Freud proposed that humans have a life instinct and a death instinct. His theory was based on these drives (sex and aggression) dominating our lives. The drive for aggression is an external representation of the death drive. The death drive seeks destruction, life's return to an inorganic state. In some cases, this aggressive drive is directed inward, resulting in suicide.

In many countries during times of war, suicide rates drop. In some countries when homicide rates are low, suicide rates rise, and vice versa. Interpretation of this data lends itself to the belief in an innate drive that compels balance in destructive forces (Comer, 2011).

Freud believed that most people channel their death instinct outward. Some people, however, direct it at themselves. Depression has often been described as "anger turned inward." Many with suicidal ideation make disparaging and aggressive self-statements. This also relates to Freud's theory; some people are driven to destroy themselves.

In her excellent post, "The Inner Voice That Drives Suicide," Lisa Firestone, Ph.D discusses how a critical inner voice convinces people "it is better to end their lives than to find an alternative solution to their suffering." This inner voice may originate in the death drive.

This theory can be further applied to self-sabotaging behavior that many with depression engage in. Some people with depression "shoot themselves in the foot," then engage in self-deprecation. For some, this may function as a positive; once they've set the odds against themselves, they rally to the challenge. Others, unfortunately, fall into utter hopelessness. Self-sabotage then leads to depression.

In Eastern philosophy, there is indication that self-centered acts may be a form of self-destructiveness. How many people, through their acts of selfishness, isolate themselves from others? How many find him or herself alone and without support when they need it? Selfishness, when it leads to isolation, may be part of the death drive.

Buddhism purports that it is selfishness that leads to disconnection and unhappiness. Spiritual and religious programs suggest that selfless acts will lead to happiness. The Dalai Lama asks, "Should I use everyone else to attain happiness, or should I help others to gain happiness?" He follows with, "If you can, help others. If you can't, at least don't harm them." Many who follow these spiritual precepts are happier.

Understanding and challenging the death drive can help one manage their depression. For many, understanding there is an innate voice that wishes for death and destruction can help to separate, and thereby distance, one from these thoughts.

Distance from the thoughts helps one disown them and take away their power. You are not your thoughts. Once these thoughts are recognized, they can be challenged, minimized, and disregarded. Healthier thoughts can be put in their place.

Additionally, if one realizes ultimately selfish acts contribute to unhappiness, they can challenge the desire to act selfishly and be more caring toward others. Reciprocation may follow, and more caring, supportive relationships can emerge. We already challenge, or positively channel, our other drives. Once we recognize the unconscious power of our death drive, we can do the same with it.

Copyright William Berry, 2011


Comer, Ronald J., Fundamentals of Abnormal Psychology, Sixth Edition.

More from William Berry, LMHC., CAP.
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