Anxiety: A Threat to the Ego

We have often heard people say that it would be good if they could go back to their mother's womb as that was the safest world, and they did not have to deal with the odds of reality. As a fetus, their needs are satisfied without delay. From that secure environment to suddenly being thrust into the real world where there is so much to perceive at once, the child becomes ill-aware of its surroundings and finds it hard to cope—this unwelcoming change of being put in such a hostile environment account for future reactions to traumatic experiences.

What is Anxiety?

According to Freud, birth trauma is our first encounter with anxiety, which is the fear that arises from a conflict between the id, ego, and superego. The failure to cope with this anxiety and let it escalate to a point where we are in danger of being overwhelmed implies that it has turned traumatic. What Freud meant is that irrespective of age or maturity, we shall certainly be reduced to a faltering state of helplessness that will leave us feeling anxious and threaten the sanctity of the ego. Freud initially reasoned that anxiety was largely sexual in origin. Sexual thoughts and impulses which could not be expressed were repressed and then transformed into some symbolic representation.

Phases of development of the concept of ‘anxiety’ by Sigmund Freud

The earliest theory of anxiety goes as far back as the mid-1890s, when Freud linked anxiety to sexuality, defining it as a sexual excitation that has been transformed into anxiety. This was the toxic phase which argued that when the paths to gratification are blocked, the unsatisfied libidinal energy builds up by taking on a toxic characteristic, only to find its release in anxiety.

From that, Freud defined anxiety as a phenomenon arising out of repression, which occurs when society's moral codes thwart sexual urges. His 'toxic theory' was thus modified to include internal blocks to sexual release well instead of focusing on just the external ones.

After initially viewing anxiety as a modified libido, Freud started to develop a new and quite different theory of anxiety in the late 1920s. This was the third phase. Here, he made an important dichotomy between:

  • Automatic Anxiety: A more primary type of traumatic and reality-oriented anxiety wherein the 'helpless ego' is overwhelmed. It is an affective reaction elicited during such traumatic experiences and can be traced back to the difficult transition of the psychic system experiencing a host of new stimuli when the child is born.

  • Signal Anxiety: This can be understood in the ego's responses to situations of danger where it is a warning sign of impending danger or traumatic situations so that defensive measures can be activated to safeguard against them.

This final phase gives anxiety a much more central place in the workings of the psyche: instead of being a kind of side-effect of repression, it was now possible to think of the very contours of the mind itself, with its defenses and symptoms, as above all a means of avoiding anxiety.

Types of Anxiety

Freud proposed three different types of anxiety:

  • Reality Anxiety
  • Neurotic Anxiety
  • Moral Anxiety

  • Reality Anxiety: It is also called 'objective anxiety' from which the other two types are derived. As the name suggests, it stems from reality - fear involving real dangers of the real world, such as our justifiable fears of fires, hurricanes, storms, earthquakes, wild animals, and other devastating worldly threats. It serves the purpose of guiding an individual's behaviors to either safeguard themselves or escape from the face of real dangers. Naturally, once the threat is gone, the fear dissipates too. However, if the fear incapacitates and hampers our day-to-day lives, these reality-based fears are said to have strayed away from normality and inched towards the extremity. An example of this would be when an individual cannot take the stairs for fear of an earthquake making the building collapse or an inability to cross the road for fear of being run over by a speeding car.

  • Neurotic Anxiety: Neurotic anxiety lays its foundation in childhood when an individual is often bogged down by a conflict between achieving instant gratification and facing the realms of reality. It is described as an overwhelming feeling experienced by the ego as the id threatens to showcase its irrationality in our thoughts and behavior and is consistently troublesome to our minds. Frequently, children are punished for overtly expressing sexual or aggressive impulses. Therefore, the generation of anxiety results from this wish to gratify certain id impulses. Neurotic anxiety is related to an unconscious fear of being reprimanded for displaying unappealing id-dominated behavior with little or no regard for reality. However, it is important to understand that the instincts do not generate fear but the result of what would happen if the instincts are granted gratification.

  • Moral Anxiety: Moral anxiety is an outcome of the conflicts between the pleasure-seeking id and the morally driven superego. It expresses how strongly developed the superego is and how "conscience-driven" individuals are. Whenever the id threatens to forecast one of its instinctual impulses that do not resonate with our internal moral code, the superego retaliates using shame or guilt feeling that arises in us. Compared to a person with relatively low standards of moral code, a person with a strong inhibiting conscience will most definitely experience greater conflict. It also has a basis in reality in childhood punishments bestowed upon by parents for violating their moral codes of conduct or as adults being punished for violating society's moral standards. All in all, it is a feeling that one's internalized values are on the brink of being compromised if the ego does not deal with the id's impulses according to the superego's standards.


Anxiety serves as a warning to the person that something is amiss within the personality. It induces a certain state of tension in the body, which drives the individual or motivates them to satisfy or reduce it, much like the satisfaction of hunger or thirst. It serves as an alert that the ego is under threat, so unless actions are taken, the ego might be in danger of being overthrown. Thus, if basic anxiety ceases, there will not be a warning sign to safeguard the ego. However, if it exceeds normal levels, the ego, again, is in danger. Therefore, the ego has to be a bridge between the id and superego and constantly work towards achieving harmony.


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