Kierkegaard on what it is like to be anxious

Shared Experience – Mental Breakdown

All my movements became jarred…the anxiety and the fear, I was terrified all the time. I was terrified of everything…

I always remember the remote control. Somebody said if you want to turn on the television or watch a DVD you have to shift from antennae over to that you know, and I remember looking at the remote control and thinking ‘I can do this I can do this’…no I can’t, no I can’t…I couldn’t have that degree of change, I couldn’t lift the remote control and change it from that to that, because you know what if I couldn’t change it back…I couldn’t bear any change at all.

Mental disorders like anxiety and depression manifest themselves phenomenologically. That is to say that they become part of everyday lived experience, changing how we view our relation to ourselves, others, and the world at large. The relationship between anxiety and the self, world, and others, is explored by phenomenological/existentialist thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard. A phenomenological interpretation of anxiety – i.e. as something that is consciously experienced, – grounds the argument for why anxiety is a fundamentally existential (as opposed to a physical or a medical) phenomenon.

Sartre argued that consciousness is a paradoxical merging of transcendence and facticity. Facticity is those contingent aspects of our existence – things like where we were born, at what time, and to which parents. Facticity also includes all of the choices that we have made up until now that have shaped us in to the person we are – who we are ‘for others’. Transcendence is the purely hypothetical aspect of our existence: what we can do, but have not yet committed ourselves to, given a whole range of possibilities available to us at any one time.

Kierkegaard compares anxiety to a kind of dizziness – something that stops us in our tracks and disables effective decision making. He writes:

Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility.

According to Kierkegaard, anxiety arises out of a tension between that aspect of ourselves that is always choosing, reconstructing and renewing ourselves (transcendence), and ourselves as things ‘for others’ – as a collection of contingent and chosen facts (facticity) that make us who we are for others at any one time. Under such a view, anxiety is a fundamentally existential phenomenon: it discloses to us our radical freedom, whilst reminding us at the same time of the cost of that freedom, i.e. that what we will is what we become.


This theory is corroborated by phenomenological accounts of anxiety such as the one given above. The woman describes her experience of anxiety as one that manifested itself as ‘being unable to bear any change at all.’ This fits with Kierkegaard’s ideas that anxiety is a sort of confrontation with freedom; that to be free – to choose this or that – is to always at the same time fundamentally and irrevocably change who we are at that moment. This realisation causes the sort of panic associated with anxiety and illustrated so viscerally by paintings like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream.’ The ability of anxiety to disable us; to alter our experience so dramatically that we begin to see the world differently (everything is frightening when you are terrified of everything), is what makes anxiety fundamentally existential. When we experience anxiety, we do not merely feel anxious; we are anxious.












5 thoughts on “Kierkegaard on what it is like to be anxious”

  1. I loved this! As someone who suffers from anxiety, Kierkegaard’s interpretation of anxiety as being a phenomenological state of affairs resonates with me for some reason. Though I do disagree with Kierkegaard in that anxiety is purely phenomenological, there are biological correlates to be found (neurotransmitters etc.).


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I agree – there are biological correlates to be found. However I think it is a mistake to reduce anxiety to these biological correlates, which we see happening quite frequently in some discourse.


  2. Sartre talked of being ‘condemned to be free’, and this is certainly similar to Kierkegaard’s idea of anxiety, I think. Not only may anxiety come from the idea of who we will become, but also from the idea of who we won’t become. We must choose, yet we cannot choose everything and so we may also become anxious that we have chosen wrongly. As you said, we are anxious of change, and that is why anxiety is such a great part of human nature, because we cannot not change.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Outstanding. Thank you. You must also like William James? Kierkegaard is someone that I have counted on when I lost faith and fell into depression. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.


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