Psychoanalytic Perspectives On Anxiety

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Freud placed the experience of anxiety at the core of our psychic functioning - the defining psychic burden of a human being. Because of the existence of the life and death instincts and their unavoidable conflict, Freud emphasised the inevitability of anxiety.

Freud put forward two theories of anxiety. In his first theory he understood anxiety as a reaction to the build up of instinctual tensions. Anxiety was not connected to specific ideas or thoughts that were felt to be dangerous, but was said to result from an accumulation of sexual energy as a consequence of sexual abstinence. This situation, in turn, was said to give rise to unpleasure. This view was consonant with the drive model (see Chapter 1) that hypothesised an inherent motivation towards the discharge of instinctual tensions.

In 1926, Freud put forward his second theory of anxiety. Here he described anxiety acting as a danger signal to the ego, alerting it to the occurrence of

■'These two terms are often used interchangeably in psychoanalysis and I shall also use them interchangeably throughout this chapter.

a trauma or an otherwise "danger" situation (e.g. separation from, or loss of, a loved object). The role of traumabecomes important in Freud's second theory such that anxiety is the outcome of a traumatic state in which the ego feels helpless. In this model, anxiety has a signalling function for real or imagined danger, protecting the ego from being overwhelmed. Signal anxiety - as it is referred to because its function is to signal a danger situation within the ego - defends against automatic anxiety, that is, a primitive anxiety resulting from fear of total disintegration. It is in the context of this second theory that we encounter Freud's object-relational perspective as he discusses infantile danger situations, including fear of loss of the object or loss of love, castration and superego condemnation, as well as loss or fragmentation of the self.

Freudians formulate anxiety within the structural model of the mind identifying particular types of anxiety originating from either the id or superego. Superego anxiety involves fear of punishment for unacceptable sexual, aggressive or dependent strivings. Id anxiety involves the fear of loss of control of aggressive or sexual impulses. Nowadays conflicts, and hence anxiety, are also understood to result from frustrated needs or deficits. Anxiety is said to be triggered not only by the instinctual drives per se when they threaten psychic equilibrium, but also by the anticipated outcome of the expression of a given feeling or impulse (e.g. fear of punishment).

Klein took Freud's thinking further by arguing not only as he had done that anxiety is inevitable but also that it is present from the very beginning of life. By postulating the death instinct (i.e. the hypothesised presence of innate destructiveness) as active from birth, Klein provides for the original presence of an intrapsychic conflict that already activates defensive mechanisms during the first half of the first year so as to protect the infant from intolerable states of anxiety.

Although both Freud and Klein devoted attention to defences as mechanisms set in place to manage the experience of anxiety, it was Klein who elaborated most richly on the content of anxiety. She viewed anxiety, in moderation, as the driving force of development. Unlike Freud, Klein posited the existence of a rudimentary organising mental agency, that is, an ego, in the newborn. This hypothesis allowed her to develop her ideas on the nature of anxiety; it was the existence of an ego from birth that made it possible for her to suggest that the ego could identify danger situations giving rise to anxiety and therefore could institute primitive defences to protect itself.

Consistent with her notion of psychic positions (see Chapter 1), Klein differentiated between persecutory and depressive anxieties. She believed that the baby is born with a tear of annihilation, a terror of non-existence.2 Annihilation anxiety refers to a terror that the self will be overwhelmed or engulfed by another or cease to exist altogether. This kind of primitive anxiety was said to be typical of the paranoid-schizoid position. This position, or mental state, is characterised by a predominance of anxiety based on anticipated fear of retaliation, that is, persecutory anxieties. In the grip of such anxieties, we are dominated by feelings of extreme fear and insecurity associated with a belief in a "bad" agency outside the self whose intention is to cause us harm, hence the paranoid quality of this type of anxiety. These primitive and terrifying anxieties result from the effects of the death instinct - a concept that has been largely retained within Kleinian theory.

The depressive position heralds the transformation of persecutory anxieties into a qualitatively different kind, namely, depressive anxieties. As the baby realises that the "good" and the "bad" object are one and the same, she is faced with the new experience of ambivalent feelings that give rise to a disturbing internal world now dominated by feelings of guilt. Depressive anxieties reflect concern for the good object and fear of its loss resulting from one's real and/or phantasised attacks when in the grip of persecutory anxieties. Depressive anxieties are not about a self-centred concern as a result of the loss of the object. Rather, they reflect a concern for the state of the object thus giving way to reparative impulses.

The capacity to bear depressive anxieties, according to Kleinians, represents a major developmental achievement and is linked with the capacity to be creative as it spurs us towards reparation. Depressive anxieties that cannot be borne leave us overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and despair as the phantasised and/or real damage done to the object is felt to be beyond repair. We are then left in a state of being "unforgiven", as it were, and experience persecutory guilt, which can then plunge us back into persecutory anxieties.

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