The Freud Museum



by Ricky Emanuel

The study of anxiety is at the root of psychoanalytic explorations of the human condition. Anxiety is a warning signal that danger is present and that overwhelming emotions may be felt, giving rise to unmanageable helplessness. The danger may be perceived as arising from internal or external sources, and be the response to a variety of powerful phantasies in the unconscious mind. Recent work in neuroscience places emotional regulation at the heart of human development.

Automatic and Signal Anxiety

Freud's later thinking about anxiety included a differentiation of two main types of anxiety. The more primitive and primary anxiety relates to a traumatic experience of total disintegration leading to possible annihilation, consequent on being flooded by overwhelming quantities of instinctual tension. Laplanche and Pontalis describe automatic or primary anxiety as

"the subject's reaction each time he finds himself in a traumatic situation- that is each time he is confronted by an inflow of excitations, whether of external or internal origin, which he is unable to master." . (Laplanche and Pontalis The Language of Psychoanalysis 1985).

This so called automatic anxiety is defended against by later signal anxiety which serves as a warning about the potential emergence of the automatic anxiety i.e. a fear of annihilation.

Freud's later work (Freud 1926) described "signal anxiety, not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension". Thus the classical psychoanalytic view of anxiety is a signal or warning that something really overwhelmingly awful is just about to happen and you had better do something about it quickly if you are to survive physically and mentally. It can be likened to a massive electrical storm in the mind.

Freud thought it had connections to the overwhelming experience of birth. The signalling function of anxiety is thus seen as a crucial one and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. The anxiety is felt as an increase bodily or mental tension and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows it the possibility of taking defensive action toward the perceived danger which Rycroft describes as "an inwardly directed form of vigilance". (Rycroft op cit.).

Both forms of anxiety, signal and automatic, are seen as deriving from the "infant's mental helplessness which is a counterpart of its biological helplessness." (Freud 1926). The automatic or primary anxiety denotes a spontaneous type of reaction connected to a fear of total dissolution arising from being utterly overwhelmed and it implies no capacity to judge or perceive the origin of the overwhelming stimuli and is thus differentiated from the signal type of anxiety. The function of the signal anxiety "is to ensure that the primary (automatic ) anxiety is never experienced by enabling the ego to institute defensive precautions". (Rycroft op cit. My italics). We are thus talking about a situation where we learn to distinguish warning signs or signals learnt from previous bad, unpleasurable or traumatic experiences to try and avoid them again.

The anxiety thus has a crucial function in preserving the organism from physical or psychic danger. The "never again" quality is familiar to all of us where we have been hurt or harmed or just overwhelmed. The fear of dissolution of the ego, or disintegrating or ceasing to be, is a primitive anxiety situation for us all. It was thought to have connections to the trauma of birth but later psychoanalytic thinkers like Melanie Klein and Freud himself in his later works, link it to a fear of the death instinct or aggression operating within.

It is easy to see children's fears of disintegration, fragmentation or dissolution in many children's nursery rhymes or stories. Perhaps the most well known is Humpty Dumpty. He had a great fall and was in so many pieces that he could not be put back together again by all the Kings Horses and all the Kings men. The anxiety about an irreparable Humpty has many sources, but for this discussion, I am focussing on the fear of disintegration or automatic anxiety.

One 3 year old child was so distressed when he heard the first bars of Humpty Dumpty being played on a nursery rhymes cassette, (signal anxiety), that he clasped his hands together by his face and pleaded urgently, "fast forward Humpty, fast forward Humpty". If there was no one in the room available to do so, he would run away and wait outside the room until the song was over and he would then return. Here we see the operation of signal anxiety in instituting defensive manoeuvres in order to prevent primary anxiety of total disintegration.

It is important to note that Freud's notion of anxiety derives from the fact of life that human infants are helpless creatures and utterly dependent for longer periods of time for survival, than any other species, on parenting functions to reduce states of internal tension arising from hunger, thirst, danger, cold etc. This experience of helplessness is seen as the prototype of any situation of trauma.

Freud, S (1926) Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety Standard Edition Vol 20
Laplanche and Pontalis (1985) The Language of Psychoanalysis London: Hogarth Press
Rycroft, Charles (1968) A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis Harmondsworth: Penguin

Ricky Emanuel is Consultant Child Psychotherapist at the Royal Free Hospital in London, and Head of Child Psychotherapy Services for Camden and Islington Community NHS Trust. This extract is from his book Anxiety, part of the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series, published by Icon Books.

Ideas In Psychoanalysis
edited by Ivan Ward Icon Books £3.99

Now available from the museum shop

This website uses cookies to ensure we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on this website. Find out more about our cookie policy.