Anxiety – Words, Phrases, Terms and Meaning.

Anxiety is an essential and mysterious human emotion. What is it that triggers anxiety? Is it the scary sounds we hear in the night that cause it, or is it the search for causes that are necessitated by our essential human quality that is unable to let events go unexplained?

Speculation about cues for anxiety has played a pivotal role in the generation of theories about anxiety over the years. Many therapists and theorists such as Freud and Kierkegaard based definitions and distinctions of fear and anxiety on the absence or presence of cues. These early psychiatrists made one important distinction: Fear was seen as a reaction to a specific, observable danger, whilst anxiety was seen as a diffuse object-less apprehension. Theorising about anxiety therefore involved a search for hidden cues. The distinction between fear and anxiety produced the rich theoretical framework that still underlies much of psychologists thinking on the development of psychopathology. The standard definitions of anxiety and fear in dictionaries and introductory psychology textbooks continue to refer to the absence or presence of identifiable cues as the essential distinction. Direct behavioural approaches to treating fears and phobias began to change this in the late 1950s. Behaviour therapy assumed that all anxiety has clear identifiable cues, although it recognises that some cues are more diffuse than others. The distinction between anxiety and fear since then became blurred for many psychologists, and these terms have until recently been equated in psychiatry and psychology.

Terminology describing the experiences of the anxious is more varied and confusing than the hypothetical distinction between anxiety and fear. There are many terms in common use in English language today for anxiety, such as: fear, dread, phobia, fright, panic, apprehensiveness, worry, angst, botheration, butterflies, cold sweat, concern, creeps, disquiet, emotional distress, foreboding, fretfulness, goosebumps, jitters, nervousness, restlessness, shakes, shivers, unease and worriment.

Each of these terms is frequently qualified with other words such as acute, morbid, diffuse, generalised and so on, to provide different gradients of meaning.

The German word angst is interesting. This word is difficult to translate from the German, and it forms the basis for a lot of our thinking about the role of anxiety in psychopathology since it was the word that was used by both Freud and Kierkegaard. When Kierkegaard used the word angst it meant both anxiety and dread. In Freud’s case, angst came to reflect the of notion of anxiety without an identifiable object. For Freud, angst was a vague apprehension about the future. When anxiety had an object, then Freud preferred the word furcht or or fear. In 1980 Sir Aubrey Lewis suggested that a more precise translation of angst is: agony, dread, fright, terror, consternation, alarm or apprehension. Essentially, psychologists comment that the word angst signifies a far more shattering emotion than the English word anxiety which is often used as being synonymous with concern.

The profusion of flavours and meanings surrounding the keywords anxiety, angst and dread, the various different usages in different languages, and the lack of precision resulting from the translations of important works have all resulted in a tremendous vagueness around the term anxiety in English. In the short time that psychiatrists and psychologists have been using the term, there is arguably even less precision. In recent years anxiety has been used by psychologists to refer to emotional states such as: doubt, boredom, disappointment, bashfulness, mental conflict and feelings of unreality. In addition various cognitive deficits such as lack of concentration are also sometimes referred to as anxiety. In addition the word has been inextricably bound up with the variety of terms which are used to describe depressive emotional states and affective disorders. The emergence of descriptive and theoretical qualifying words such as conscious, cognitive, unconscious, somatic, bound, signal and free-floating also results in further confusion. For these reasons the difficulties in settling on exact and precise distinctions amongst the anxiety related terms in English is not surprising.

Some psychologists have have even suggested that the use of the word anxiety be dropped altogether, because it is so imprecise as to be unscientific. For example some psychologists have suggested that anxiety is basically a lay construct that can refer to many vastly different somatic and cognitive points of reference from person-to-person. For psychology theorists known as, social constructivists, anxiety is best considered a metaphor.

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