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Anxiety, a psychoanalytic perspective by Janet Low


"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." Kierkegaard | The Concept of Anxiety

Anxiety is not an emotion, but it certainly is an affect. It is something that is felt, or experienced as physical and of the body, like a rising tension that might make you think you are being driven crazy.

Anxiety is not an emotion - you cannot find a name for it like anger, sadness, hatred, envy, or even fear. All of these are emotions, and have already entered into the world of meaning. They can be named, and an object can often be found for them: you are angry with your spouse, sad about the death of your pet, you hate your boss, you envy your best friend, or you fear your enemy. Emotions can also be very unpleasant to experience, but if you can name your emotion, and know its object, it is at least possible to think you can do something with it. Anxiety, on the other hand, remains inexplicable. You can feel helpless in the face of it, and unable to think of anything that you can do to reduce this terrible disturbance that is affecting you and preventing you from living your life.

Sometimes anxiety can occur when a symptom begins to fail. But what do we mean by a symptom? For Freud, a symptom was something that attempted to bind the anxiety into something more controllable. For example, drinking too much, taking drugs, a phobia, an obsessive ritual, a mysterious pain in a part of the body, a compulsion to act in a certain way or utter a particular set of phrases. These are symptoms in the psyche, or the mind, and are not the same thing at all as symptoms in the medical frame of reference. Psychic symptoms arise because the ego seeks to defend itself against anxiety (1). They are a kind of first line of defence if you like. But why does anxiety arise in the first place?

From the psychoanalytical point of view, anxiety is not a product of physio-chemical malfunction, but a disturbance at the level of what we call the human subject. Philosophers have talked about it as a relation to the void, the lack, the nothingness that is peculiar to human life (2). Questions about anxiety open up the philosophical domain in which the peculiarities of the human condition are at issue (3). It might seem like the worst thing in the world when you suffer it, but from a psychoanalytical point of view, it can become the gateway, or ''threshold, that the subject must cross on the way toward desire'' (4). Anxiety is one of the most important signals in analytic work and it has been compared with a knife-edge that might separate desire from suffering (5)

When we speak of desire in psychoanalysis, it is not (you might be surprised to hear) the desire for sex, although of course this can be an important part of it. It is more like a pathway you choose in life: to follow your desire, take on your destiny, to make something of your own with the life that you find yourself living. Desire includes work and love. It implies direction and action.

If anxiety describes the way you are feeling, it will be a very good time to consult an analyst. For in psychoanalysis anxiety does not deceive: it flags the pathway that must be followed: it cannot be interpreted: but can only be put to work.


1. Charles Shepherson, foreword to Roberto Harari's book on Lacan's Seminar on Anxiety. (New York, The Other Press. 2001, p xxiii)

2. see for example Heidegger's Being and Time (New York Harper and Row, 1962)

3. see Kierkegaard's Problem of Anxiety

4. Shepherson, op cit, pxxxii

5. Lacan, Television (New York: Norton, 1990, p 94)