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  Anxiety (Greek, ‘racking’), that is distress of mind, disquietude and uneasiness, is not generally regarded in psychology as an irrational fear—a suggestion that may come from such common phrases as ‘Anxiety was driving him out of his mind’. Anxiety does not have a clear source, unlike a phobia, but can be traced to unconscious processes (in psychoanalysis) and to faulty responses and thinking (cognitive therapy).

Psychoanalysis has focused on the unconscious sources of anxiety. Originally it saw anxiety as the outcome of repressed libido. Freud also thought at one time that anxiety was the result of an unconscious memory of the birth trauma.

The most recent view in psychoanalysis is that anxiety has two distinct characters. One signals towards changes in the environment, when the person makes an appraisal of internal or external danger. The other is the result of the ego not being able to defend itself from internal threats created by the tension between the ego and other subconscious and unconscious elements; an assessment is made of the ability to deal with the danger on conscious, subconscious and unconscious levels. Each is a system of defence. In mental disorders there is a distortion of the reality of the internal picture, which in turn distorts the external picture. People suffering from neurosis usually suffer much greater levels of anxiety.

Freud saw anxiety as a self-preservation instinct, and this is echoed in other psychological views which see it as an essential response to danger, part of the fight or flight reaction, a useful function, and part of the human condition. Others see anxiety as a disruptive element in dealing with danger. In cognitive models the external threat is seen as being followed by the appraisal of threat and then by coping behaviour. Anxiety comes in at the appraisal stage, and is usually based on a false picture. This causes unnecessary suffering in a misjudged situation, and more danger in a truly threatening encounter. The cognitive therapist, therefore, aims to address the unrealistic appraisal as a way of dealing with anxiety. MJ

Further reading S. Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxieties.



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