The Meaning of Anxiety -or- The Nightmare of Everyday Life

The Concept of Anxiety -or- Ontological Fear and Loathing in the Global Village 

In "The Meaning of Anxiety", Rollo May turns to the poet W.H. Auden to help define the social origins of anxiety.  

"...for the ego is a dream

Till a neighbor's need by

name create it." 

One of the primary developmental causes of anxiety is seen as coming at the moment "when the child becomes aware of other people as distinct from himself" (paperback, p22). Rollo May believes that; "Anxiety is essential to the human condition." May in making a distinction between fear and anxiety, asks; "What is the relation, speaking developmentally, between anxiety and fears?" Using Kurt Goldstein's model of anxiety and fear, anxiety is a "primal" response while fears are learned. Goldstein relates anxiety and fear by asking; "What is it then that leads to fear?", his own answer; "Nothing but the experience of the possibility of the onset of anxiety." 

May reviews the philosophical problem of anxiety as seen through the ideas and thoughts of such philosophers as Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal and Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard "The Concept of Dread", saw the problem of anxiety related to freedom. Seen from this perpective, "Freedom is the goal of personality development." Kiekegaard's hermeneutic point of departure for understanding anxiety begins with the infant who in a state of innocence is unaware of the potentials of growth and its own path of separation-individuation possibilities. This developmental path can be arrested leading to developmental disorders and disabilities

The developmental movement of each individual towards freedom leads the infant down the ontological road of numerous early milestones of walking, talking, excremental body control to name a few. Like our shadow, the developmental dark potentials for anxiety and fear becomes the constant companion of the child. Kierkegaarde turns to the Biblical myth of Adam to understand the relation of anxiety and freedom. Adam by eating the forbidden fruit was the first human to experience the concepts of good and evil. 

In this sense, for Kiekegaard anxiety informs the self of its choices, and thereby provides the social foundation for responsibility of both the individual and collective. When via anxiety and fear the choice to diffuse responsibility, there is the cultural growth of an individual and a collective moral shadow. This cultural shadow found in our dreams, is the source of moral panic, caused by a variety of "folk devils".  

From the perspective of culture, May sees the perceptions of fear varying from culture to culture. Western civilization with its emphasis on competition and competitive success, at school and at work are seen as primary sources of anxiety and fear. May asks; "How did individual competitive success become the chief source of anxiety in our culture? Why is the threat of failure to achieve this success so prevalent?" May sees historical changes in the growth pattern of self consciousness during the Renaissance that created cultural changes as a whole in philosophical form of competitive political-economic individualism and "economic egotism." 

May unfortunately does not talk about dreams, nor is the keyword "dreams" found in his book's index. Where May's more self conscious concepts of anxiety and fear leave off, the International Institute for Dream Research has investigated the evolutionary and philosophical nature of anxieties, fears, dread, Angst, stress and "ontological insecurity" found in our dreams and nightmares. Here are some of those dreams and nightmares; 

I. The Anatomy of the Culture of Anxiety, Fear and Stress 

II. Psychohistory of Anxiety, Fear and Nightmares 


All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.