Exploring Freud’s Interpretation of Anxiety

May 17, 2022 5 min read

Exploring Freud’s Interpretation of Anxiety

Our first trauma was during our own birth.

Anxiety and Freud Great trauma on newborn Baby

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

As a student of psychology, I am always fascinated by various topics, including anxiety, trauma, and fear.

Some of us have a fear of the unknown, a fear of failing exams, a fear of losing our job, a fear of public speaking, and so on. Fear is how we all walk through certain feelings. We always label it as fear.

However, some people may develop an extreme level of fear such as anxiety. It pops up and can be very pervasive.

Defining Anxiety

We already have some clue about the word anxiety, especially when we feel anxious. Anxiety is not unlike fear — sometimes, we become anxious without knowing what we are afraid about.

Anxiety As Objectless Fear

Freud identified anxiety as an objectless fear. He had argued that anxiety is fundamental to the development of all neurotic and psychotic behavior. His work argued that anxiety is the prototype for the very birth of trauma.

Birth Trauma

In the mother’s womb, an unborn child is in their most stable and secure world. All of their needs are satisfied without much delay.

When born, children are brought into potentially hostile environments. They are required to adapt to reality — instinctual demands are not always met immediately.

Nervous System Development

The nervous system of the newborn is immature and ill-prepared. It is developing and growing and it is bombarded with diverse sensory stimuli, like various sights and sounds.

With sudden growth, breathing, and increased heart rate, this birth trauma is our first experience with anxiety. There is tension and fear that our instincts will not be immediately satisfied.

Learned Helplessness

When we can not cope with the anxiety, we activate it — it is said to be traumatic. As Freud suggested, we are reduced to a state of helplessness at any age, just as we experienced first in infancy.

Freud’s Three Types of Anxiety

Freud outlined three different types of anxiety, where each impacts overall human development.

1. Reality Anxiety

Reality anxiety guides our behavior to escape or to protect ourselves from natural disasters and third-party circumstances like earthquakes, fires, car accidents, and many more.

2. Neurotic Anxiety

Neurotic anxiety has its basis in childhood conflict. It’s when there is a conflict between instinctual gratification (what you want now) versus delayed gratification (holding off at a later time). Here, the Id and the Ego are in a constant battle with each other.

3. Moral Anxiety

Moral anxiety is when you are motivated to express instinctual impulses. These impulses might go against your moral code and values. This is the part where there is a conflict between the Id and Superego.

What This All Means

According to Freud, these conflicts exist because our instincts always seek satisfaction. It seems that these satisfying impulses are often limited by societal taboos and norms. Here, the ego defends itself against the conflicts of everyday life.

However, some of these defence mechanisms involve denials that reality is being distorted. Defence mechanisms share two characteristics:

  1. They are denial of the distortion of reality
  2. They operate unconsciously

With the second point, we are unaware of things on a conscious level — we end up holding distorted or unreal images of our world and ourselves.

Exploring Freud’s Interpretation of Anxiety

Defining Freud’s 8 Psychodynamic Distortions

Following Freud’s psychodynamic perspective, distortions are a defence against anxiety — which can lend itself towards a more skewed version of reality.

1. Repression

Repression is the involuntary removal of something from our conscious awareness. It is an unconscious type of forgetting that brings us discomfort or pain.

It is the most fundamental frequently used defence mechanism.

2. Denial

Denial is related to repression and involves denying the existence of some external threat of a traumatic event. For example, the parents of a child who has died may continue to deny the loss. Thus, they may keep the child’s room unchanged.

3. Reaction formation

Reaction formations are the opposite impulse. Think of a person who is strongly driven by threatening sexual impulses. They may repress those impulses and replace them with more socially acceptable behaviors. For instance, this person might become a passionate crusader against ****.

4. Projection

Projection is another way of defending oneself against disturbing impulses. It requires attributing them to someone else. For example, this person may say that they do not hate others but will secretly harbor a grudge against them.

5. Regression

In regression, a person may retreat or return to an earlier period of life that was more pleasant, such as childhood and infancy. As scientists may say, it requires going back into one of the earlier states of Freud’s psychosexual stages of development.

6. Rationalization

Rationalization involves interpreting our behaviors to make them seem more acceptable and rational. For example, someone says that they are a bad person. Here, we might come up with a more logical reason to justify that same person as a good person.

7. Displacement

Displacement occurs when a person shifts impulses to another object or person because the original recipient of the impulse (Id) is not available.

For example, a child may hate their parents. In another example, a person fired from a job may worry about expressing their hostility out of fear of punishment. In both cases, the aggression is displaced to another person, like a sister, another adult, or even the pet dog.

8. Sublimation

Finally, sublimation is similar to displacement. However, instead of finding a substitute object to satisfy our impulses, this instinctual energy is channelled into creative expressions, such as through creative works. For example, think of artists and how they channel their emotions into their craft.

Final Takeaways

This piece explored the topic of anxiety through the lens of Freud. As mentioned earlier, our first instance of anxiety is through our own birth.

We then explored Freud’s three types of anxiety, such as reality anxiety, neurotic anxiety, and moral anxiety, which underly a constant battle between the Id, the Ego, and Superego.

Finally, we also learned that anxiety is a defence mechanism that can sometimes distort reality through repression, denial, reaction formation, projection, regression, rationalization, displacement, and sublimation.

Overall, here’s to hoping that we will use this information to make sure that we don’t get caught in these various mind traps. In due time, anxiety can be managed well.