Why are you anxious?

The somewhat over-rated genius Sigmund Freud proposed that anxiety is the result of sexual thoughts, that you unknowingly are keeping out of awareness.  He proposed that your unconscious mind decides what memories you can or can not handle.  If your unconscious decides that letting some memories or desires into consciousness would be too hard for you to manage it represses the memories.  That is, without any input from you, your unconscious contains independent censors that laboriously work to keep offensive material from airing in  your minds viewing screen.  This censoring process, according to Freud, drains your life energy or libido. When it gets overburdened in the process of protecting your from your own impulses  you will feel the weakening  of the censoring mechanism as anxiety.    Suppose your darkest wish is to make incestuous love to your mother  –  this maternal example, incidentally, is a key tenet of Freud’s theory.  Suppose further that your incestuous impulse begins to grow increasingly strong.  According to Freud the unconscious repression mechanisms will begin to strain under the pressure and this will be experienced in the conscious mind as increasingly intrusive anxiety.

In contrast, the more research based view of anxiety is quite different.  In short, areas of the brain that regulate fear are exposed to thoughts, images, or other sensations that provoke feelings of dread.  These largely originate in a brain region called the amygdala that is part of an evolutionary old brain region called the limbic system.  It is responsible for most survival behaviors and emotions — including fear and anxiety.  Indeed, anxiety can be triggered by a range of feared objects that might escape overt notice.  Or it can result from irrational thinking that is so habitual that is goes unnoticed until pointed out.

It is conscious reasoning largely in the prefrontal cortex that can consciously attenuate anxiety arising from the more phylogenetically primitive limbic system.  Albert Ellis proposed that many people are genetically prone to developing emotional vulnerabilities. He said:

I am still haunted by the reality, however, that humans . . . have a strong biological tendency to needlessly and severely disturb themselves, and that, to make matters much worse, they also are powerfully predisposed to unconsciously and habitually prolong their mental dysfunctioning and to fight like hell against giving it up.

Thus, anxiety may have unconscious causes but they are freely accessible and open to challenge if one’s attention is directed there.  And the anxiety can be greatly lessened or eliminated by conscious effort.