Sunday, September 9, 2012

Human Anxieties Theories by Sigmund Freud



Anxiety in Personality Model

In Sigmund Freud's topographical model of personality, the ego is the aspect of personality that deals with reality. While doing this, the ego also has to cope with the conflicting demands of the id and the superego. The id seeks to fulfill all wants, needs, and impulses while the superego tries to get the ego to act in an idealistic and moral manner.

What happens when the ego cannot deal with the demands of our desires, the constraints of reality, and our own moral standards?  According to Freud, anxiety is an unpleasant inner state that people seek to avoid.  Anxiety acts as a signal to the ego that things are not going right.


Anxiety Types

Freud mentions three different kind of anxieties:
  1. The first is realistic anxiety, which is normally referred as fear. If get into dangerous and life threatening situation, you might experience realistic anxiety.
  2. The second is moral anxiety. This is what we feel when the threat comes not from the outer, physical world, but from the internalized social world of the superego. It is, in fact, just another word for feelings like shame and guilt and the fear of punishment.
  3. The last is neurotic anxiety. This is the fear of being overwhelmed by impulses from the id. If you have ever felt like you were about to "lose it," lose control, your temper, your rationality, or even your mind, you have felt neurotic anxiety. Neurotic is actually the Latin word for nervous, so this is nervous anxiety. It is this kind of anxiety that intrigued Freud most, and we usually just call it anxiety, plain and simple.

Based on the Freudian theory, anxiety is at the core of the psychoanalytic theory of affects (feelings), and from the beginning of psychoanalytic thought has been recognized as central to an understanding of mental conflict (for it is through bad feelings that conflicts are felt and known). In his early work, Freud, in keeping with his early discharge model of mental function, considered anxiety to be a "toxic transformation" of undischarged libido. This failure of discharge could either be physiological ("realistic"), as in coitus interruptus or other incomplete or unsatisfactory sexual practices, resulting in "actual neuroses" or "anxiety neuroses"; or it could arise from repression (or its failure), as a symptom of the continued pressure of unacceptable desires, which led to the "psychoneuroses"—hysterias and obsessions.

In 1926 Freud radically revised his ideas about anxiety, abandoning the distinction between neurotic and realistic anxiety, and the claim that repression caused anxiety. In this new theory, Freud distinguished two types of anxiety, a traumatic, reality-oriented "automatic" anxiety in which the system was overwhelmed, and a secondary, "neurotic" anxiety in which reprisals of these situations were anticipated, thus setting in motion defensive processes. "Automatic anxiety" was an affective reaction to the helplessness experienced during a traumatic experience. The prototype for this experience lay in the helplessness of the infant during and after birth, in which the danger proceeded from outside, and flooded a psychic system essentially unmediated by the (as yet unformed) ego.

The second form of anxiety originated within the psychical system and was mediated by the ego. This "signal anxiety" presaged the emergence of a new "danger situation" that would be a repetition of one of several earlier, "traumatic states." These states, whose prototype lay in birth, corresponded to the central preoccupations of different developmental levels, as the infant's needs become progressively abstracted from the original situation of immediate sensory overload to more sophisticated forms of need regulation capable of synthesizing the many elements facing it (from the reality and pleasure principles and the object world). These moments—loss of the object, loss of the object's love, the threat of castration, and the fear of punishment by the internalized objects of the superego—which were experienced serially during the developmental process, could reemerge at any time in a person's subsequent adult life, typically brought on by some conflation of reality and intrapsychic conflict, as a new edition of anxiety.

The anxiety thus has a crucial function in preserving the organism from physical or psychic danger. The "never again" quality is familiar to all of us where we have been hurt or harmed or just overwhelmed. The fear of dissolution of the ego, or disintegrating or ceasing to be, is a primitive anxiety situation for us all. It was thought to have connections to the trauma of birth but later psychoanalytic thinkers like Melanie Klein and Freud himself in his later works, link it to a fear of the death instinct or aggression operating within.

It is easy to see children's fears of disintegration, fragmentation or dissolution in many children's nursery rhymes or stories. Perhaps the most well known is Humpty Dumpty. He had a great fall and was in so many pieces that he could not be put back together again by all the Kings Horses and all the Kings men. The anxiety about an irreparable Humpty has many sources, but for this discussion, we are focusing on the fear of disintegration or automatic anxiety.

One 3 year old child was so distressed when he heard the first bars of Humpty Dumpty being played on a nursery rhymes cassette, (signal anxiety), that he clasped his hands together by his face and pleaded urgently, "fast forward Humpty, fast forward Humpty". If there was no one in the room available to do so, he would run away and wait outside the room until the song was over and he would then return. Here we see the operation of signal anxiety in instituting defensive maneuvers in order to prevent primary anxiety of total disintegration.


It is important to note that Freud's notion of anxiety derives from the fact of life that human infants are helpless creatures and utterly dependent for longer periods of time for survival, than any other species, on parenting functions to reduce states of internal tension arising from hunger, thirst, danger, cold etc. This experience of helplessness is seen as the prototype of any situation of trauma.

Despite his later formulations, Freud never explicitly abandoned his first idea of anxiety, and the two theories continued to coexist uneasily in Freudian metapsychology long after Freud's death.

Theory Development

Anxiety always occupied a central place in the work of Melanie Klein, first of all with respect to technique, and secondly in terms of theory. She stated repeatedly that her chief technical principle was that interpretation must focus on the point of maximum anxiety. Equilibrium between the life instincts and the death instincts was fundamental to Klein's understanding of the different forms of anxiety and the fantasies that expressed them. In her earliest writings, she associated anxiety and its related inhibitions with sexual conflicts of childhood bound up with the Oedipus complex. At the same time, however, she was struck by the scope of aggressive fantasies in young children, especially during what she called the phase of maximal sadism. She gradually came to view the child's aggressiveness towards the mother's body and its fantasy contents (penis, baby, feces, etc.) as responsible for an anxiety based on the fear of the reciprocal aggression it could provoke. The danger intrinsic to anxiety was thus seen as the result of the subject's excessive aggressiveness.

Although to begin with Klein's theory leaned heavily on Freud's Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, from 1935 on, and especially after 1940, with the gradual working out of the concept of the "depressive position," she assigned object-loss a central role. This implied a change in the conceptualization of anxiety, which acquired a depressive character: anxiety was now seen as expressing "pain," which for Klein included both suffering and sadness in Freud's sense. Anxiety states were engendered by lived experiences of object-loss that were more or less definitive and irreversible.


Since experiences of loss were closely associated with the damage wreaked in fantasy by aggressive impulses, painful feelings were accompanied by feelings of conscious or unconscious guilt. This guilt generally tended to remain unconscious because of the great importance it assumed for the subject, who attributed an all-powerful destructiveness to his own aggression. The ego would then turn to radical (psychotic, manic, or depressive) defenses, which also made it difficult for painful feelings to gain access to consciousness. On the other hand, the more real the guilt, the more vigorously it would be supported by the ego, clearing a path to consciousness by way of feelings of sadness. A basic exception to this rule was the strong guilt feelings manifested by melancholics, whose self-reproach masked an attempt by the ego to overwhelm the introjected and attacked object with guilt.

After introducing the "paranoid-schizoid position" (1946), which she contrasted with the depressive position as a type of psychic functioning, Melanie Klein was able to develop a systematic theory of anxiety and guilt (1948). The theory relied primarily on Freud's concept of the death instinct, which Klein had adopted. In this view, anxiety was provoked by the danger with which the death instinct threatened the organism. Klein spoke of anxiety about "annihilation" and "fragmentation" with reference to very primitive terrors triggered by the inner working of the death instinct and with reference to the paranoid anxiety generated by persecutory objects or by the primitive superego. In this sense fragmentation anxiety may be considered a very archaic precursor of castration anxiety, presented by Freud.

The 1950s saw the development of an experimental tradition in studying anxiety. Laboratory studies assessed the links between personal drive, anxiety and the complexity of an experimental task, and feelings of fear and frustration. In 1953, Taylor presented her Manifest Anxiety Scale which built on Freud’s theme of neurotic anxiety. The scale was widely used in experimental research; common findings were that people with higher drive, or “manifest anxiety,” showed superior performance in simple response tasks, but less adequate performance in complex tasks that included many possible types of error. Anxiety came to be viewed more comprehensively as a process that involves stressful threats, personality characteristics and defenses, and behavioral reactions.

During the 1960s, this reference to personality led to Spielberger’s empirical demonstration of a distinction between anxiety as a reaction, versus an underlying tendency to respond to threats. Cattell and others had applied newly developed multivariate analysis techniques to measures of anxiety, also showing two distinct facets of anxiety, state and trait, which were not included in Taylor’s measure. Traits refer to enduring and general dispositions to react to situations in a consistent manner; trait anxiety involves a tendency to experience anxious symptoms in non-threatening situations; it implies vulnerability to stress. State anxiety is a discrete response to a specific threatening situation: Freud’s objective anxiety. State anxiety involves transitory unpleasant feelings of apprehension, tension, nervousness or worry, often accompanied by activation of the autonomic nervous system. It presumably forms a natural defense and adaptation mechanism in the face of threat. People with high trait anxiety are assumed to be more prone to experiencing state anxiety, perhaps to excess. Freud had anticipated this in his recognition of the variations in response to objective threats among normal and neurotic persons.

Etiological theories of anxiety are diverse, but may be grouped into biological theories which emphasize the relevance of hormone levels, neurochemical patterns and genetics, versus cognitive-behavioral theories which argue that such biological changes may result from psychological reactions. A synthesis between these perspectives has also been proposed. Behavioral theorists tend to emphasize the relevance of parenting styles and early learning experiences that may foster a fear response and a sense of powerlessness. Cognitive theorists point out the relevance of beliefs and perceptions for the maintenance of anxiety reactions. Clark, for example, showed that panic attacks may be triggered by a misinterpretation of normal physical sensations as presaging a threat; a vicious circle involves a reaction of heightened anxiety which produces more physical sensations leading to more catastrophic interpretations, spiraling into a panic attack. Biological theorists have tended to focus on the role of particular neurotransmitter systems in particular anxiety disorders; the noradrenergic system may be linked to panic disorder, while the serotonergic system appears relevant in obsessive-compulsive disorders and dopamine may be relevant in social phobia, for example.








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