The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.

—Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety

The stomach lurches and the throat tightens. The eyes twitch and the mind zigzags across endless possibilities. Unlike fear or worry, which usually have a defined cause, anxiety buzzes hungrily around the buffet of life’s problems, alighting on ordinary troubles and turning them into visions of disaster. It makes us fidgety and breathless. It’s inhibiting. It’s easy to recognize its pinched and constricted feeling from the word’s Greek roots: anxiety comes from angh (to press tight, to strangle, to be weighted down with grief).

Anxiety is something we all experience from time to time. But today we tend to think of it as a rather pointless episode, something to be overcome and certainly not savored. We might think of sweaty, stuttering film characters—Jack Lemmon as Jerry in Some Like It Hot, Woody Allen in, well, anything—ratty and debilitated by endlessly imagining worst-case scenarios, and conclude that anxiety is not for the successful, or the happy. The pharmaceutical and alternative therapy industries bear this out, offering pills and potions, exercises and meditations, to calm the anxious mind and make it “free.”

That anxiety is a curse seems inevitable in the twenty-first century. So it might be a surprise to discover it only became thought of as an affliction a hundred or so years ago—and that before then some philosophers spoke of feelings of fear and anguish as an enriching response to discovering one’s own freedom.

The idea that anxiety might be an illness was first suggested in 1893, by the Wiesbaden psychiatrist Ewald Hecker, and two years later by his more famous Viennese colleague Sigmund Freud. They called it Angstneurose, and Freud thought it offered a more precise alternative to the vague catchall neurasthenia, with which many patients were diagnosed at the time. Among Angstneurose’s symptoms were oversensitivity to loud noises, night terrors, heart palpitations, asthma and excessive sweating. But one feature dominated: “anxious expectation,” or fearing the worst. Its archetype was a fretful housewife: “She will think of influenza pneumonia every time her husband coughs when he has a cold, and in her mind’s eye, will see his funeral go past,” wrote Freud. He believed one of the major causes of the neurosis was an “accumulation of excitation,” or, in today’s terms, “sexual frustration,” which is why he thought young married women were most at risk. In his view, the birth-control methods practiced at the time—condoms and coitus interruptus—inhibited female orgasm. Unspent, a woman’s libido would erupt in strange ways: the heart palpitations and shallow breathing of a panic attack, for instance, which Freud understood as a substitute for the sweaty huffing and puffing of sex. For Freud, then, anxiety was libido gone sour, related to genuine desire “in the same kind of way vinegar is to wine.”

In the 1940s, amid the psychological wreckage caused by the war, the poet W. H. Auden was moved to speak of an “Age of Anxiety.” The governments of Britain and the United States attempted to stem the tide of anxious feelings, employing psychologists to measure and improve the population’s “serenity” and “security”—an undertaking that resembles today’s HAPPINESS agenda (see also: COMFORT). By the time Miltown, the first of the blockbuster tranquilizers, hit the market in 1955, followed by Valium in 1963, anxiety had become a multimillion-dollar industry, and the twentieth century’s signature psychiatric condition. By the 1960s, however, the “Age of Anxiety” was on the wane. A new illness—a rare condition known as “depression”—was catching on, in part due to new diagnostic reclassifications encouraged by a rapidly expanding pharmaceutical industry (see: SADNESS). Today, anxiety is once more on the rise, and has recently overtaken depression as the most commonly diagnosed disorder in the United States, with an expansion in the different types of anxiety it is now possible to suffer (in the most recent edition of the psychiatric diagnostic bible the DSM-V, there are twelve). As in the late nineteenth century, more women than men are diagnosed. Are women naturally more anxious? Or, since the way the illness has historically been described is so clearly gendered, are women always more likely to meet the criteria for being diagnosed with it?

For the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, born some forty years before Freud, the idea of anxiety as a widespread psychological disorder would have been hard to countenance. He believed it was not possible to think about human existence without understanding our emotions, even the more burdensome ones. He spoke of us as trembling, terrified, sickening creatures—and one of the emotions that particularly intrigued him was, in Danish, angest, a combination of anguish about the present and dread about the future. With its asides and jokes, its subversions and pastiches, his 1844 treatise Begrebet Angest, translated into English as The Concept of Anxiety exactly a hundred years later, is so labyrinthine that just trying to read it would make anyone anxious. Kierkegaard argues that angst is the appropriate response to realizing life is not predetermined, but that we have absolute freedom to make any choice we want—and total responsibility for the outcome. “He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy,” writes Kierkegaard. But though this vertigo might be unnerving, a capacity to feel it is a hallmark of a life lived authentically. Only the “most spiritless have lived without anxiety,” he proclaimed. The challenge was not to avoid the panicky fretful feelings or become paralyzed by them, but to learn to acknowledge and understand the significance of the choice they offer.

So he would probably be alarmed to see how we treat anxiety today, as something to be freed from, rather than evidence of freedom itself.

Only a “prosaic stupidity,” he cautioned, would dismiss such an important feeling as a mere illness.