• Maria R. de Almeida


(Please have a look at the explanation of the some terms at the bottom of this article) .

Shocking as it might sound, we should not think anxiety as a negative concept. Anxiety is in fact something necessary even essential, we should think anxiety as something which protect us.

We need to distinguish:

  • Fear: it requires an objet —> we are scared of something

  • Fright: when something took us by surprise

  • Anxiety:

Real anxiety: It is protective, a reaction upon a dangerous external situation.

Neurotic anxiety: anxiety as symptom.

Feeling anxiety under certain circumstances is normal. It protects me from dangerous situations. Anxiety appears along with physiologic reactions: increase in the heart and respiratory ratio. (There is a fire, I need to run. Anxiety will put me - and my body- on guard and help me react quickly).

Anxiety is an affect, according to Freud the affect par excellence, the only one. All the other affects are just colourings of the anxiety. Believe it or not, it is one of the main steps in the constitution of a human being. Why do we say that anxiety is a step in the constitution of a human being? Before answering that question, let’s bear in mind that Psychoanalysis consideres the human being as “subject of the Unconscious” (1), as a split subject. In what sense split? In the sense that our Psychic apparatus is split into Conscience, (Pre-conscience), and Unconscious, separated by the censorship.

When a baby is born, he is totally defenceless, powerless, in fact he would die if someone doesn’t save his life. The person who saves his life is his “mother” (2) (or whoever undertakes that function). From his impotence, the baby confers to that person (who to his eyes) is capable of everything, the omnipotence. When he grows up, the boy realises (or should realise) that his mother needs (as everybody else) from others. He realises that the father is also there. When he finds this out, he removed the omnipotence he had previously conferred to her . The boy removes the “phallus”(3) from the mother (¨castrated mother¨) and she is no longer omnipotent to the eyes of the boy . That is what Freud called: CASTRATION complex.

We all join the world thanks to the desire of our mother. Our first objects of desire (loved objects) are our mother (omnipotent) and our father (who brings the law “your mother can not alone”). I need to choose between becoming a subject who desires or remain “in the arms of my mother” (continue the relationship with the phallic mother - omnipotent mother).

However, we never renounce to something who has given us pleasure. That is why, anxiety, is always prior to the constitution of the subject linked to the castration complex. When facing castration, we can take two positions:

  • I accept, the subject is split, the relationship with the incestuous objects (the mother and the father) remain unconscious and the superego is built —> Split subject, subject who desires.

  • I deny it, I don´t want to know anything about it. Here is where the neurotic anxiety appears generating symptoms to protect against her. We can find neurotic anxiety in three main forms:

- General anxiety: Floating anxiety that can get hold of any representation. Individuals who are permanently in a status of “Anxious expectation”: This individuals always expect the worst scenario will happen, they are extremely pessimistic. When facing uncertainty, they always tend to think something bad will happen to them or someone close to them. This is because they cant deal with uncertainty, it is easier for them to deal with a certain bad scenario than having to wait to see what happens and deal with uncertainty.

- Anxiety in relation with certain objects/situations: this anxiety is typical of the phobias. The phobic object is specific to each individual and it is an object that under normal circumstances doesn`t cause any fear. Thanks to the phobia, the anxiety is limited to that only object: if the individual avoids that phobic object, he does not feel anxiety.

- Anxiety linked to hysteria and obsessive neurosis. In order to avoid the anxiety, the individual generates symptoms. This is very easy to observe in obsessive neurotic individuals: they have tedious rituals (remember J. Nicholson in “As good as it gets”). If the individual can´t do his ritual, he becomes very anxious. There is a very close connection between the symptoms and the anxiety: if there are symptoms, there is no anxiety and the other way round. The symptoms appear to avoid the anxiety.

So, if anxiety is the reaction when facing danger… what is the individual scared of? Once I have been constituted as a split subject, anxiety will always be linked to the castration complex. It is fear to lose the others. This is a covered up fear. As if we thought we could have the others, as if the others belonged to us. Castration anxiety is related to mortality: “ because I was born from a man and a woman, one day I will die”. Every time I feel anxiety, I want to be immortal (every time I leave things for the day after, for example) I am not accepting that I am mortal. Anxiety is related to the lost of immortality. All this takes place at unconscious level.

A symptom always appear when facing an unbearable desire, an incestuous desire. What is ‘incestuous’, varies depending on the individual (4).

Whenever the individual faces an unbearable - incestuous-situation, there will be anxiety. Anxiety prompts repression (and not the other way round) and repression generates the symptom -“the return of the repressed”-. The symptoms are created to avoid the anxiety. This is easily visible in the phobias: prior to the phobia, the individual always has an anxiety attack - floating anxiety-. After that, he develops a phobia, let´s say to spiders: the anxiety has been displaced and now linked with an specific object. Now the individual will only feel anxious when seeing spiders. The phobia is a mechanism to “limit” the anxiety.

Anxiety is a sign, an indication of something. The individual is warned of something but not of whatever: anxiety warns the individual of a desire which questions him. The human being is in constant evolution, we never ¨finish¨ of being constituted as subjects. Every time we face a situation which deeply touches us, which gets us involved, every time we need to make n important decision, we will feel anxiety.

There will always be anxiety. We then need to learn to deal with anxiety, otherwise we won’t be able to move forward and live to the full.

  1. Subject who desires: According to Freud, the human being is led by the Unconscious (desire). Once we stop desiring, we die.

  2. Mother: refers to the person who undertakes that function: it could be a sister, an uncle, a teacher…

  3. Phallus: Freud explained that ¨the phallus is the penis which the mother doesnt have¨ —> to explain that it is not a thing but an attribution that the baby confers to his mother for having saved his life, from his position of impotence but… in reality, the mother does not have such an omnipotence —> she needs the father in order to conceive the baby. In Psychoanalysis we say that the father ¨brings the law¨ because thanks to the father, the baby realises that the mother and himself are two people and not only one (as he thought they were). The father shows the boy he needs to look for another loved object (as the mother is the father`s loved object). This is how the boy swift from his mother to other women. This would represent for the boy the end of the Oedipus Complex. - In a girl it is a bit more complex-.

  4. Incestuous, unbearable: It depends on the individual. Example.: One of Freud´s hysterical patients, Lucy R. : She was a governess in charge of two children whose mother had died. She felt in love with their widower father. To her, that was unbearable, she repressed it (the idea of loving that man) and it returned as a sympton. Maybe for another woman, falling in love with that particulat man, wouldn’t have been unbearable but for her it was an equivalent of the incestuous objects.

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