Psychogenic death: Can you die by simply giving up the will to live?


– psychogenic death of a person who has lost all the will to live, despite no apparent physiological cause.

Can you die by simply giving up on life?

New research suggests so.

According to a study led by Dr. John Leach of the University of Portsmouth, psychogenic death is a very real thing. And it’s happening right now, all over the world.

While the term give-up-itis has been thrown around for decades, this is the first scientific study delving into and medically confirming the phenomenon.

So how can you die by just giving up the will to live?

The study suggests that psychogenic death can be caused by seemingly inescapable trauma.

When this happens, death becomes a rational and inevitable solution. Without proper help, a person can die in as little as three days after the first signs of withdrawal.

It’s important to note, however, that psychogenic death is not the same as suicide. 

Dr. Leach, the study’s lead researcher, insists:

“Psychogenic death is real. It isn’t suicide, it isn’t linked to depression, but the act of giving up on life and dying usually within days, is a very real condition often linked to severe trauma.

But if it isn’t linked to depression, and is not a voluntary condition, how does it drive the body to give up? 

Dr. Leach explains in an interview with Inverse:

“Basically it’s a horrible term. But it’s a descriptive term. There were always those people who just gave up — curled up, laid down and died.

“In many cases these were otherwise healthy men and women, and the thing that stood out was that their death was basically inexplicable. But it appears that there’s an underlying organic cause for it.”

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Scientific explanation

According to the study, psychogenic death causes a direct change in the anterior cingulate circuit. This is the brain’s frontal-subcortical circuit responsible for our motivation and goal-oriented behavior.

Dr. Leach adds:

“Severe trauma might trigger some people’s anterior cingulate circuit to malfunction. Motivation is essential for coping with life and if that fails, apathy is almost inevitable.”

However, give-up-itis can be treated and reversed by different treatments during different states.

According to Dr. Leach:

“Reversing the give-up-itis slide towards death tends to come when a survivor finds or recovers a sense of choice, of having some control, and tends to be accompanied by that person licking their wounds and taking a renewed interest in life.”

Five stages of give-up-itis

1. Social withdrawal

Social withdrawal usually occurs directly after psychological trauma. This can be primarily seen with prisoners of war – seemingly withdrawing from life becoming passive, even vegetative.

Dr. Leach suggests that this is a coping mechanism. That the withdrawal from social and emotional engagements is actually a way of allowing to realign one’s emotional stability.

Signs and symptoms of social withdrawal:

  • lack of emotions
  • listlessness
  • self-absorption
  • indifference

If left unchecked, social withdrawal may lead to more serious states of psychogenic death.

2. Apathy

Apathy or emotional death is a demoralizing sadness or melancholy. Unlike anger or frustration, this is not an active emotional state. Instead, it’s a lack of self-preservation.

Signs and symptoms of apathy:

  • uncleanliness
  • disheveled appearance
  • severe melancholy
  • the feeling that the simplest tasks take the mightiest effort.

3. Aboulia

The next state of psychogenic death is Aboulia, or the lack of willpower and the inability to make even the smallest decisions.

When someone reaches this state, they lose the desire to do anything to help themselves. Even the most basic human instincts to eat and care for oneself is lost.

Signs and symptoms of Aboulia:

  • deeper emotional withdrawal
  • disinterest in eating or washing
  • lost of effort and initiative
  • lack of emotional response

Dr. Leach adds:

“An interesting thing about aboulia is there appears to be an empty mind or a consciousness devoid of content. People at this stage who have recovered describe it as having a mind like mush, or of having no thought whatsoever.

In aboulia, the mind is on stand-by and a person has lost the drive for goal directed behaviour.”

4. Psychic akinesia

One step further from aboulia, Psychic Akinesia is displayed when someone is conscious, but in a state of profound apathy – so much so that they are even insensitive to pain.

At this stage, a person doesn’t even react when being hit or subjected to torture. The lack of motivation to do anything worsens, that people even continue to lie in their own waste.

Signs and symptoms of Aboulia:

  • motor deficit
  • mental void or complete lack of thoughts
  • athymhormy or reduced affect or emotional concern
  • tics or physical compulsions

5. Psychogenic death

The final stage, which Dr. Leach describes as:

“It’s when someone then gives up. They might be lying in their own excreta and nothing – no warning, no beating, no pleading can make them want to live.”

Once you reach this stage, it can be almost impossible to revive someone.

Dr. Leach referenced a phenomenon in the Nazi concentration camps when prisoners in this state smoke their last hidden cigarette. Cigarettes were highly valuable in concentration camps, and prisoners would often trade it for food.

“When a prisoner took out a cigarette and lit it, their campmates knew the person had truly given up, had lost faith in their ability to carry on and would soon be dead.”

It takes three to four days for a person to die once they come from akinesia to psychogenic death. Often, a person exhibits a flicker of life before they die, as displayed in the lighting of the last cigarette in concentration camps.

Dr. Leach says:

“It appears briefly as if the ’empty mind’ stage has passed and has been replaced by what could be described as goal-directed behaviour. But the paradox is that while a flicker of goal-directed behaviour often takes place, the goal itself appears to have become relinquishing life.”

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Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon is a writer, poet, and blogger. She graduated with a degree in Mass Communications at the University of San Jose Recoletos. Her poetry blog, Letters To The Sea, currently has 18,000 followers. Her work has been published in different websites and poetry book anthologies. She divides her time between traveling, writing, and working on her debut poetry book.



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