Sigmund Freud made widespread contributions to the field of psychology – with his theories still discussed and analysed to this day. Among his theories was what he referred to as the ‘life’ and ‘death’ instincts – both of which are relevant to mental health.

Freud based his instincts theory on a number of areas. Central to his theme was that these two instincts are responsible for most of our behaviour.

This theory developed after his earlier treatment on World War I veterans, who continuously struggled to forget traumatic experiences.

Moreover, Freud used his theory of repression to further support his theory, along with other personal experiences.

Freud has had a colossal impact on psychology

Life Instincts (Eros)

Freud referred to the life instincts as Eros. These are also sometimes known as sexual instincts. These instincts refer to the almost basic-like needs of a human – including survival, thirst and hunger.

Any area that helps humanity advance – such as reproduction, love and cooperation – are also considered to be part of this.

Because a person inherently wants the human species to be sustainable, a person will instinctively partake in actions that help this goal – such as creation, health and affection.

Overall, life instincts are crucial towards helping humanity thrive, and for a peaceful society. These instincts however are opposed by the death instincts.

Death Instincts (Thanatos)

Freud referred to the death instincts as Thanatos. Freud followed a concept that suggested that “the goal of all life is death”.

This has proven to be a rather controversial assertion, though Freud believed in it. He posited that people will channel their death instincts externally – so that it doesn’t personally affect them.

A typical example of this would be risky behaviour – such as engaging in substance use. Such behaviour would be considered to be instinctively bad – and would do damage.

This is an example of how a person may actually find they are no longer channelling their death instincts externally – instead internally, which can lead to harm like substance abuse or drug toxicity.

As mentioned earlier, Freud noted that people who had a traumatic event would often go through periods of re-enactment. This suggested that humans do have an unconscious desire to actually die, but that life instincts mainly cause a person to avoid death.

Freud’s Life and Death Instincts in Mental Health

In terms of mental health, it is true that sometimes people engage in behaviour that may be self-destructive.

Whether or not this is a direct result of an unconscious will to die is debatable. In any case, it is always important for any individual to monitor their own mental health, as well as those around them.

It is crucial to avoid engaging in harmful behaviour, as this only worsens mental health. Everyone has their own vices and problems, but in general – avoiding abusing substances is an excellent way to start.

As mentioned, Freud’s work on instincts has been criticised by many as illogical and irrelevant, though it is still followed by some in psychology.


Freud’s theory of the Life and Death instincts is one of his lesser-known theories. But it is certainly interesting, and is a topic which prompts much discussion.

Freud has proposed a range of other theories that relate to the field of mental health. You can see more of these by seeing our list of articles about Freud here.

See Also


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