Anxiety was a philosophical concept before it taken up by psychology and psychiatry. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard (1813-1855) argued that anxiety is part of human nature. Anxiety arises where possibility and actuality come into contact and the present touches the future. Anxiety is a product of having the freedom to make choices and act, and by doing so make a commitment to one’s identity, ways of being in the world, and standing in relation to other people. For Kierkegaard, anxiety can be an avenue to stand in relation to God. This is why he wrote, “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”

One can bracket out the God dimensions and still learn something valuable from Kierkegaard, namely that anxiety can cause inaction, which is, in its most basic sense, a loss of freedom. What is possible may never actualize and one may lose the present by tending to an imagined future. One becomes immobilized and unable to meet needs and realize goals and aspirations.

You may suffer from Kierkegaardian anxiety if... :

You become less able to prioritize matters. Everything that needs to get done becomes the same size to you. Cleaning out the linen closet and doing your taxes become equally weighty even though there are far greater penalties for not filing your taxes. You begin to lack the perspective about what you must do as opposed to what you might like to do. As a result, too many matters begin to slide, which only makes it even more difficult to prioritize.

You begin to procrastinate. Perhaps you were always a person who got everything done, early even. Procrastination is especially tricky because it can look like productive activity. You may make fabulously detailed lists; they are works of art themselves. You may convince yourself that you can only start here but can’t yet because you have this other task to finish over there. Kierkegaard compares procrastination to sewing without tying a knot on the end of the thread. All the motions of sewing are made but none of the practical effects are produced.

You are governed by “if onlys” and “what ifs.” This means you spend too much time imagining and then giving weight to what isn’t really the case. You might tell yourself, “I would join the gym if only the boss didn’t require so many hours from me. And what if he thinks I am not committed enough to my job?” This may send you down a path of not only not joining the gym but working even harder to convince your boss of a belief or set of beliefs he doesn’t even hold.

You consistently second guess yourself. Second guessing yourself is, at rock bottom, not trusting yourself. You might be afraid to make any decisions because you don’t trust your decision making ability. If you do reach a decision, you may feel as if it will be the wrong one because you are the one who made it. This may prompt you to disregard the knowledge you possess or to go against your intuition and gut instinct. Lacking trust in yourself leads to a kind of confirmation bias: everything that doesn’t go well or turns out badly will count as proof that your decision making ability is flawed. To avoid making a bad decision, you make no decision.

You are a perfectionist. You may not hand in a work assignment or finish a project because everything is not absolutely perfect. Anything less than perfection is abject failure. Even a minor mistake has dire consequences, all of which would confirm that you are a type of person you’d rather not be.

You anticipate every possible bad consequence will come to pass. If “bad” is synonymous with less than perfect, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Moreover, you tend to be unable to imagine what good consequences might come to pass.

You seek to control everything in the hopes of managing your worry and dread. This may properly belong under the “if only” heading but it can stand on its own too. There’s a saying, “It’s much easier to put on slippers than carpet the world.” Wearing slippers and carpeting the world are two different ways to make walking easier. Putting on the slippers is an action that allows further action of walking. Trying to do the impossible—controlling everything/carpeting the world—hinders doing the possible.

While it might be tempting to run from anxiety or try to eliminate it entirely from our life, that would mean rejecting part of our human nature. Anxiety can provide an (unwanted) opportunity to assess not just particular choices we are making but more holistically, the way we are living our lives. Most fundamentally, anxiety turns our attention to what Kierkegaard calls our greatest task in life, which is to become who we are. We become someone when we act. That is to say, we form our identities by having and acting on our principles, commitments, hopes, and dreams. Inaction is unfreedom; it keeps us from standing in right or good relation to ourselves, our friends and family, and most importantly for Kierkegaard, to God. As Kierkegaard recognizes, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”

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