Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford

Neurotic Anxiety

  • Francisco Pizarro ObaidEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1401-1


This is a term invented by Sigmund Freud in order to conceptualize the anxiety located within neurosis, whose manifestations take the form of expectant anxiety or anxious expectation (a feeling of danger and catastrophic thinking), anxiety attack (suffocation, heart palpitations, tachycardia, sweating, vertigo) or phobias (agoraphobia; zoophobia). Unlike realistic anxiety, which can be considered a rational and understandable reaction to the perception of external danger, neurotic anxiety is the result of instinctual drives and unconscious desire, in the sense that as its etiology, for Freud, refers to frustrated sexual practices (actual neuroses) or to an unconscious psychic conflict that affects the ego (psychoneuroses).

From his earliest investigations on nervous disorders, anxiety was considered by Freud (1907) to be the “central and most delicate problem of the theory of neurosis” (p. 200), later classifying it as a nodal point or an enigma, in which all of the most relevant questions about psychoanalysis converged (Freud 1916–17). Parallel to his studies on hysteria, Freud (1895a, b) also profoundly examined the problem of anxiety, exploring, first, phobias and, then, analyzing neurasthenia (Beard 1880). As the result of these investigations, he proposed the category of anxiety neurosis (Freud 1895a, b), his first independent contribution to the psychopathology of his time.

When coming up with the category of anxiety neurosis (a syndrome whose central symptoms are expectant anxiety, panic attacks, vertigo, heart palpitations and breathing difficulties, intense bouts of sweating and shaking), Freud (1895a) focused on neurotic anxiety and looked to refute the etiological hypothesis of US physician George Beard (1880), who supposed that the causes of the lack of nerve force and exhaustion breakdown – pathognomonic signs of neurasthenia – resided in the negative effects of modern civilization and environmental pressures on the nervous system. Freud (1892), however, proposed a provocative general thesis in order to comprehend nervous ailments: “No neurasthenia or analogous neurosis exists without a disturbance of the sexual function” (p. 38).

While the anxiety that is part of anxiety neurosis has an etiology of sexual origin, it lacked, according to Freud (1895b), “its own psychic mechanism” (p. 82); its genesis had to do with incomplete or frustrated sexual practices, such as coitus interruptus, onanism, or abstinence, which produced an elevation in the amount of energy that the psychic apparatus had to process. From there, anxiety could be understood as a type of somatic residue from that which was massively discharged, as the psychic apparatus was not able to bind and psychically elaborate the excess of tension (Freud 1895a).

As a counterpoint to the etiological model of anxiety neurosis, anxious manifestations of psychoneuroses (hysteria, phobias, obsessions) found their meaning in interventions related to memory, fantasy, trauma, and desire, a hypothesis that would be reaffirmed by the invention of the category of anxiety hysteria (Freud 1909), a term which was proposed in order to conceptualize phobias from the psychoanalytic point of view. In other words, as much in psychoneuroses, as in anxiety hysteria (phobia), anxiety was determined by an unconscious conflict and the use of the ego’s defense mechanisms, employed in order to counter an irreconcilable representation.

Advances in the conceptualization of psychosexual development (Freud 1905), studies on phobia (Freud 1909) and the metapsychological study of major concepts in psychoanalytic theory (unconscious, instinct, repression), led Freud (1915a) to deepen his hypothesis on the possible relation between anxiety, instinct, the unconscious, and repression, distancing himself from the study of actual neuroses (neurasthenia, hypochondria, anxiety neurosis). From this perspective, he concentrated his investigations in the area of psychoneuroses and sustained that anxiety in these cases could be explained, specifically, through the repression mechanism {Verdrängung}. He proposed that the ego’s repressive action on the threat of instinctual impulse produced a disassociation between representation {Vorstellung} that represents {rapresentieren} the drive and its cathexis (quantum of energy). On the one hand, the representation that carries an irreconcilable unconscious desire for the ego is repressed and enters into an associative chain that moves it away from consciousness. On the other hand, the amount of affect {Affektbetrag} derived from the repressive process (quantum of energy) is discharged and takes the form of anxiety. In this sense, anxious affect can be considered as one of the possible destinations of instinct (Freud 1915b). In a note added to Three Essays on Sexual Theory, Freud (1905 [1920]) summarized his new thesis on anxiety and highlighted its importance: “One of the most important results of psycho-analytic research is this discovery that neurotic anxiety arises out of libido, that it is the product of a transformation of it, and that it is thus related to it in the same kind of way as vinegar is to wine” (Freud 1905[1920], p. 224).

After assuming that anxiety could be considered an effect of the repressive process, Freud (1916–17, 1932) continued his analysis within the framework of his Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Although he did not examine in detail the differences between the most common expressions of anxiety, such as anguish{Angst}, fear {Furcht}, and terror {Schreck}, he did propose, in concordance with the psychopathology of his time that, “Angst relates to the state and disregards the object, while Furcht draws attention precisely to the object. It seems that ‘Schreck’, on the other hand, does have a special sense, it lays emphasis, that is, on the effect produced by a danger which is not met by any preparedness for anxiety. We might say, therefore, that a person protects himself from fright by anxiety” (Freud 1916–17, p. 360).

Freud (1895a) had employed the expression neurotic anxiety in his first studies on anxiety neurosis, but in 1917 he proposed to distinguish between realistic anxiety and neurotic anxiety. The first, he held, “(…) strikes us as something very rational and intelligible. We may say of it that it is a reaction to the perception of an external danger – that is, of an injury which is expected and foreseen. It is connected with the flight reflex and it may be regarded as a manifestation of the self-preservative instinct” (p. 358). That is, a “state of increased sensory attention and motor tension which we describe as ‘preparedness for anxiety’” (Freud 1932, p. 82). As for the second, which could appear as expectant anxiety, anxious expectation, phobia, or anxiety attack, “(…) the ego is making a similar attempt at flight from the demand by its libido, that it is treating this internal danger as though it were an external one (…). Just as the attempt at flight from an external danger is replaced by standing firm and the adoption of expedient measures of defense, so too the generation of neurotic anxiety gives place to the formation of symptoms, which results in the anxiety being bound” (Freud 1916–17, p. 369).

Toward the mid-1920s, and motivated by the controversial hypotheses of Otto Rank (1924), which proposed that the trauma of birth is the definitive cause of anxiety and neurosis, Freud (1926) sought to profoundly revise his hypotheses on anxiety (Pizarro Obaid 2012). After rejecting the hypothesis of trauma at birth, Freud (1926) strongly defended the concepts that had shaped his theorization of neurosis and anxiety: repression, drive, Oedipus complex, and castration. However, when trying to perfect his understanding of the problem, he inverted the causal relationships between anxiety and repression, now supposing that it was anxiety that set off the repressive process. From this perspective, it was possible to sustain that anxiety acted as a signal that anticipated a possible danger for the ego and, therefore, that the ego led to a defensive action (repression) that sought to alleviate displeasure. Following this idea, he proposed the concepts of signal anxiety and automatic anxiety and considered castration anxiety as the prototypical manifestation of danger and the most important cause of anxiety and neurosis. The signal function would imply “[…] a transition from the automatic and involuntary fresh appearance of anxiety to the intentional reproduction of anxiety as a signal of danger […] In these two aspects, as an automatic phenomenon and as a rescuing signal, anxiety is seen to be a product of the infant’s mental helplessness which is a natural counterpart of its biological helplessness” (Freud 1926, p. 138).

In the early 1930s, the old opposition between realistic anxiety and neurotic anxiety was taken up again in light of new positions that Freud had assumed in his dispute with rank and the principles of his second psychic apparatus model (ego, id, superego). After proposing the ego as the seedbed of anxiety (Freud 1923) and attributing to anxiety the function of being a sign of danger, Freud (1932) sustained that, “if we take in succession neurotic anxiety, realistic anxiety and the situation of danger, we arrive at this simple proposition: what is feared, what is the object of the anxiety, is invariably the emergence of a traumatic moment, which cannot be dealt with by normal rules of the pleasure principle (…) we shall no longer maintain that is the libido itself that is turned into anxiety in such cases. But I can see no objection to there being a twofold origin of the anxiety – one as a direct consequence of the traumatic moment and the other as a signal threatening a repetition of such a moment” (Freud 1932, p. 87).


Without a doubt, anxiety was a central concept in Freudian psychoanalytic theory. Moving beyond its indubitable neurovegetative components and evident corporal manifestations, the distinctive and original hallmark of the different Freudian conceptualizations of anxiety (anxiety neurosis, neurotic anxiety/realistic anxiety, signal anxiety/automatic anxiety, castration anxiety) was to propose that, while anxiety is, by definition, something experienced by the ego and consciousness, from the point of view of its fundamental base, it could be considered an unconscious affect that has, as its principal function, that of being a defense when confronted with instinctual dangers and unconscious desires.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Facultad de PsicologíaUniversidad Diego PortalesSantiagoChile

Section editors and affiliations

  • Virgil Zeigler-Hill
    • 1
  1. 1.Oakland UniversityRochesterUSA