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Crosby, J.F. (1976). Theories of Anxiety: A Theoretical Perspective. Am. J. Psychoanal., 36(3):237-248.

(1976). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 36(3):237-248

Theories of Anxiety: A Theoretical Perspective

John F. Crosby, Ph.D.

In a literary sense anxiety is usually taken to mean “eagerness.” Sometimes it is used as a synonym for worry or fear. The German word angst is the word used for anxiety by Freud and Goldstein. Karen Horney uses the term urangst der kreatur to refer to normal anxiety which reflects the human situation in the face of nature, death, and the contingencies of life. It is important that fear, normal anxiety, and neurotic anxiety be clearly defined and differentiated.

Fear is always directed to a specific object, situation, or danger. Fear can be rational or irrational. Rational fear would exist if one who was inexperienced had to enter a lion's cage in order to retrieve something or if one had to enter a burning house to rescue its occupants. Irrational fear borders on a type of anxiety in which an object or situation is feared, but without good reason. This includes phobias, such as fear of darkness, heights, basements, and so on. Freud, Goldstein, and Horney all agree that rational fear is a “reaction to a specific danger.”

Normal anxiety does not in itself constitute a pathological problem. Normal anxiety was called real or objective anxiety by Freud. It is a reaction to an external danger and as such it is a natural, normal, and useful function. Normal anxiety (1) is not disproportionate to the objective threat, (2) does not involve a repression or other mechanism of intrapsychic conflict, and (3) does not require neurotic defense mechanisms for its management. It can be confronted constructively on the level of conscious awareness or can be relieved if the objective situation is altered.1 An example of normal anxiety is a student's feelings of uneasiness and apprehension as he or she approaches an examination.

Neurotic anxiety is often termed subjective in contradistinction to objective anxiety. When a person is thrown into anxiety by situations which are, in themselves, not considered to be objectively threatening, it is referred to as neurotic anxiety. Neurotic anxiety is a reaction to a threat which (1) is disproportionate to the objective danger, (2) involves repression (dissociation) and other forms of intrapsychic conflict, and (3) is managed through various forms of retrenchment of activity and awareness, such as inhibitions, the development of symptoms, and the varied neurotic defense mechanisms.2

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