Anxiety: the affect
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Stephane Preteux - English/French MBACP Accr. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
5th June, 2012
Symptoms of anxiety can emerge any time as well as in more specific situations. Affects may range from excessive expectations, worries, restlessness, sweating, vertigo, difficulties in concentration, tiredness, trouble falling asleep, nausea, etc... right up to panic attacks or phobias. Anxiety is defined as an affect, not an emotion like fear, and furthermore it is the only affect which is beyond all doubt, which is not deceptive. Also, anxiety is not always internal to the subject, but can often come from another, just as it can be transmitted from one animal to another in a herd (Dylan, 1996 :11).
I offer here to look briefly at the phenomenon of anxiety from a psychoanalytical and existentialist perspective.
Anxiety was first claimed to be associated mainly with the accumulation of sexual tension, along with the inability to work out this excitation appropriately in the mind (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1988 : 39). Indeed in psychoanalysis the idea according to which we draw our 'life energy' (libido) from our sexual desires is a crucial one. For this source in sexual desire is not only at the basis of our desires in general, but also of our imaginative constructions, fantasies and motivations as they 'drive' our everyday ways of doing things and thinking about in our life. Thus, for psychoanalysis, if left unmediated, this sexual tension would eventually 'accumulate' to the point of having to be forced 'out' either psychosomatically in the form of bodily phenomena (breathlessness, palpitations, muscles tension, fatigue, dizziness, sweating and tremor), or in the form of obsessional ideas (apprehension, worry).
From 1925 onwards theories about anxiety changed and its cause was increasingly seen to be more a reaction to some 'traumatic situation', such as loss, while still holding on to the idea of pathological accumulation of stress due to the relevant situation(s) not having been explored appropriately at the time.
With the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) the phenomena of anxiety took yet another turn. First as a baby and then as a young child Lacan argued that we necessarily build up some kind of mental image that enable us to see ourself as a more or less coherent unity of different character traits (ego). In this context anxiety would be the result of this mental construction, the idea we have of ourselves, being somewhat threatened, risking fragmentation. Indeed we can recognize here such common expressions in language as 'get your acts together', or 'I am not myself' when feeling acutely anxious.
As opposed to Freud who originally argued that anxiety was a reaction to some 'traumatic situations' or 'situations of danger' such as, for example, the loss or separation from the mother, Lacan believed that, on the contrary, anxiety was linked with the lack of such separation and showed as fears of being engulfed by a devouring mother. Confronted with the clinical fact that every time something traumatic in the life of his patients somehow invariably resisted being articulated in language, Lacan invented the concept of the Real from which he defined anxiety as that
“essential object which isn't an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence”(Dylan, 1996: 10).
In a close relationship between anxiety and desire, anxiety is that about which one cannot talk about when unconscious desire is itself missing. If desire ultimately results from the feeling of lack (when I feel thirsty, I desire to have a drink), anxiety arises when this lack is itself lacking. In view of the above it is therefore only the possibility of an absence, the potential presence of a trace of desire, that can save us from feelings of anxiety.
From an existentialist point of view the philosopher Heidegger (1889 – 1976) claims that the experience of anxiety is an irreducible part of a basic, 'normal', state-of-mind, and ultimately the evidence that we are 'caring' beings. In other words anxiety is part of our very depth of Being. In a state of anxiety, Heidegger argues, we are brought before ourselves; there is no 'escape' since that in the face of which one is anxious about is completely indefinite - it is already 'there', and yet nowhere. It is so close that it is oppressive and stifles one's breath, and yet it is nothing and nowhere. Do we not usually tend to remark after all that really “it was nothing”? Yet this 'nothing' is still grounded in 'something', the world.
If we characterize Being-in-the-world as including the many possibilities we have in ourselves to realize our potential in life, Heidegger argues that anxiety is this moment when we are brought face to face with an overwhelming sense of authenticity and freedom (Heidegger, 1962).
In effectively discarding our usual ways of understanding the world, anxiety 'individualizes', makes us truly unique human beings. In anxiety one feels 'uncanny', 'not-at-home', familiarities collapse. In our attempts to tranquillize ourselves in the 'Other', copying what our friends, colleagues an family do and think so as to divert our attention away from ourselves, anxiety brings us back to what, in its final analysis, is our most primordial state-of-mind.
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