Philosophy, Psychology, Videos

Soren Kierkegaard and The Psychology of Anxiety

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The following is a transcript of this video.

“Just as a physician might say that there is very likely not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say there is not one single living human being who does not…secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself…an anxiety he cannot explain.” (Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death)

The title of W.H. Auden’s 1947 poem “The Age of Anxiety” is surely one of the more apt phrases to capture the spirit of the times. Anxiety disorders are the most common psychological ailment today, yet even for those not suffering from a disorder, mild feelings of anxiety often linger in the background for the greater part of one’s day. Most are of the opinion that anxiety is an emotional state that offers no positive value, and thus many attempt to alleviate their anxious feelings through frantic activity, stimulating distractions, or a concoction of pharmaceutical and recreational drugs. Those who have spent time studying this emotion, however, have realized that the role anxiety plays in our lives is not so cut and dry. 

“There is no question that the problem of anxiety is a nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge, a riddle whose solution would cast a flood of light upon our whole mental existence.” (Freud, General Introduction to Psychoanalysis)

In this video we will attempt to shed some light on the problem of anxiety by turning to the ideas of the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

In order to understand anxiety it is helpful to contrast it with fear, both of which are emotional responses to perceived threats. However, the types of threat which triggers these emotions differ. Fear is usually triggered by a threat which is known to us and located in some external object or situation. Anxiety, on the other hand, consists in the feeling of being threatened yet unable to know from where the danger arises. The source of our fears can usually be localized, but anxiety, in the words of Rollo May, “attacks us from all sides at once”. Hence, fear sharpens the senses and prepares us for a flight or fight reaction, while anxiety, given its unknown cause, paralyzes the senses, inhibits action, and leaves us oblivious as to how to diminish our discomfort.

Because of the disorientation involved, coping with severe anxiety is an agonizing experience. Most people, however, are spared from the tortures of severe anxiety, but few can escape from the milder form of anxiety which permeates the background of our daily existence. To differentiate it from severe anxiety, this more common form is sometimes called “angst” or “existential anxiety”, and rather than attempting to alleviate it Soren Kierkegaard considered it an indispensable ingredient in a life lived to full potential.

“If man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in anxiety. Since he is both beast and angel, he can be in anxiety, and the greater the anxiety, the greater the man.” (Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety)

In his book The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard suggests our ability to feel existential anxiety emerges with the birth of self-consciousness. In our childhood state, growth entails actualizing the latent potentials within with little to no conscious reflection or choice on our part. At a certain stage in development we awaken to self-consciousness, or to put it in symbolic terms represented in the myth of Adam and Eve, we eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge and become aware not only of good and evil, but of the possibility of freedom. We start to fathom the innumerable possibilities before us, and see how the pursuit of each one would open a door into a different unknown. This awareness of freedom in the midst of a near infinite number of possibilities generates anxiety. Or as Kierkegaard put it: anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom”.

Kierkegaard compares the dizziness felt in the face of boundless possibility with a man standing at the edge of a cliff over an abyss. Along with the fear of accidentally falling to his death, he experiences anxiety in the realization that he is free to jump. In the face of all life’s possibilities we too stand on a metaphorical cliff over an abyss, aware of “the alarming possibility of being able” (Kierkegaard). We apprehend it is our freedom in the face of possibility, or our capacity to jump if we so choose, which grants us control over our destiny. But we feel ambivalent towards this freedom. We are attracted by the power it grants us, but repelled by the demands and confusions it imposes on us. And so we often tend to draw back from freedom and deny its existence, or as Kierkegaard put it, we “grasp at finiteness” (Kierkegaard). We live as if the world and our situation in it were bound and immune to change. This may serve the purpose of alleviating anxiety, but it comes at the cost of our growth.

To move forward in life requires being open to possibilities, but this entails experiencing the dizziness of anxiety. Without an ability to co-exist with anxiety and take action in the presence of it we would be unable to pursue risks, explore the unknown, and determine the limits of our capabilities. We would be unable to stand openly towards the future and choose among the possibilities that appear before us, nor able to utilize our power to create new possibilities that have never before seen the light of day.

“Learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront…He therefore who has learned rightly to be in anxiety has learned the most important thing.” (Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety)

But if we decide to flee from our freedom in the attempt to rid ourselves of anxiety, avoiding the possibilities that lie before us, we will succumb to despair. A life without possibilities and freedom is sterile, breeds stagnation and rids us of the hope for a better future. Therefore, since possibility and freedom are only possible with anxiety present, we would be wise to heed Kierkegaard’s advice, and learn to be anxious in the right way. Or as the psychologist James Hollis explains:

“Thus we are forced into a difficult choice: anxiety or depression. If we move forward, as our soul insists, we may be flooded with anxiety. If we do not move forward, we will suffer the depression, the pressing down of the soul’s purpose. In such a difficult choice one must choose anxiety, for anxiety is at least the path of personal growth; depression is a stagnation and defeat of life.” (James Hollis, Swamplands of the Soul)

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Edvard Munch - The Scream - Google Art Project
Edvard Munch - Melancholy (1893)
Edvard Munch, Rød villvin
Edvard Munch - At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo - Google Art Project
Edvard Munch-The Day After
Schuler, The Chariot of Death, detail
Adam Listening to the Voice of God the Almighty. John Martin
John Hamilton Mortimer - Man attacking a monster - Google Art Project
Edvard Munch - Night in Saint-Cloud (1890), NG.M.01111
'The Bear Hunters' by François-Auguste Biard, 1852
Bosch, Hieronymus - The Garden of Earthly Delights, right panel - Detail Monster riding a creature left
Guido Reni - Hercules Vanquishing the Hydra of Lerma - WGA19284
Akseli Gallen-Kallela - Portrait of Edvard Munch
Jalousi i haven
Edvard Munch - The Girls on the Bridge, Hamburger Kunsthalle (1901)
Edvard Munch - Self-portrait (1886)
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) - 9645353110
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) - 9645352684
William Blake - Virgin and Child - Google Art Project
Thomas Eakins - Baby at Play
Abbott H. Thayer - My Children - Google Art Project
Cranach the Elder Adam and Eve
Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis - CREATION OF THE WORLD (XII) - 1905 - 6, Varsuva
Joseph Mallord William Turner 007
Pasaulio sutverimas I
Man Watching Volcano Lava Falls by Charles Furneaux, 1889
John Martin 003
The Death of Empedocles by Salvator Rosa
Edvard Munch - Workers on their Way Home - Google Art Project
Nicolae Grigorescu - Andreescu la Barbizon 2
Peder Severin Krøyer - Summer evening on the beach at Skagen. The painter and his wife. - Google Art Project
Vincent Willem van Gogh 080
Lionel Walden - 'Racing Yachts', oil on canvas, c. 1900
Eilif Peterssen - From the Beach at Sele - Google Art Project
Gustave Courbet - Le bord de mer à Palavas (1854)
Jindřich Prucha - Funeral
John Everett Millais - Ophelia - Google Art Project
Thomas Cole - The Voyage of Life Manhood, 1840 (Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute)