Annihilation Anxieties

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In annihilation anxieties, the basic danger involves a threat to psychic survival, experienced as a present menace or as an anticipation of an imminent catastrophe. The experience entails fantasies and/or feelings of helplessness in the face of inner and/or outer dangers against which the person feels he can take no protective or constructive action.

The construct derives from Freud's 1926 view of a traumatic situation where the person is faced with a quantity of stimulation that he/she cannot discharge or master, a failure of self-regulation. The experience of overwhelmed helplessness has much in common with Jones' aphanisis, Klein's psychotic anxiety, Schur's primary anxiety, Winnicott's unthinkable anxiety, Bion's nameless dread, Stern's biotrauma, Frosch's basic anxiety, Little's annihilation anxiety, and Kohut's disintegration anxiety. Derivatives of underlying annihilation anxieties are fears of being overwhelmed, destroyed, abandoned, mortified, mutilated, suffocated or drowned, of intolerable feeling states, losing mental, physical or bodily control, of going insane, dissolving, being absorbed, invaded, or shattered, of exploding, melting, leaking out, evaporating or fading away.

Annihilation experiences and anxieties are universal in early childhood, where psychic dangers are regularly experienced as traumatic. Eight related ideational contents are seen to comprise the major dimensions of annihilation anxieties: fears of being overwhelmed, of merger, of disintegration, of impingement, of loss of needed support, of inability to cope, of concern over survival, and of responding with a catastrophic mentality. Pathological annihilation anxieties are a consequence and correlate of psychic trauma, ego weakness, object loss, and pathology of the self. They can be consequential for the process of psychoanalytic therapy and may influence resistance, transference, and countertransference in a given treatment. Symptoms, thought patterns, affect states, and behaviors are especially resistant to change when they are defending against such anxieties.

The concept is especially relevant to psychoses, borderline and narcissistic character pathology, psychic trauma, nightmares, anxiety states and phobias. Annihilation anxieties under various names are mentioned widely in the psychoanalytic literature, but there has been insufficient systematic exploration of interrelationships with psychic trauma, ego weakness and deficit, regression, hostility, depression, transference, and countertransference.

Marvin Hurvich

See also: Anxiety.


Freud, Sigmund. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE : 20: 77-175.

Hurvich, Marvin. (1989). Traumatic moment, basic dangers, and annihilation anxiety. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 6, 309-323.

Little, Margaret. (1960). On basic unity. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, 377-384.

Stern, Max. (1951). Anxiety, trauma, and shock. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 20, 179-203.

Winnicott, Donald. (1974). The fear of breakdown. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 1, 103-107.