Barry O’Donnell – What Is Anxiety

Issue 64 Spring 2017 (Pages 1-13)

What Is Anxiety?
Barry O’Donnell

In his comprehensive and scholarly Hearing Voices, The History of Psychiatry in Ireland Professor Brendan Kelly writes ‘In the early twentieth century, the preeminent intellectual movement of the day, psychoanalysis, conspicuously failed to grab the imagination of psychiatrists in Ireland as much as it did elsewhere.’  I argue here that we do not have to make the same mistake twice, that psychiatry and mental health work in Ireland, in the early twenty first century can make it their business to draw from the well of psychoanalysis with the confidence that it can provide an understanding of, and a clinical technique for, the handling of aspects of mental life that otherwise escape attention and care.

How often do we hear, as a conclusion to the carrying out of a raft of necessary medical investigations the conclusion: no organic cause can be found so it must be …. anxiety or depression. Full Stop. The psychoanalytic field does not stop with these catch-all words. On the contrary it is from these words that psychoanalysis begins its interrogation of the field of the mental. In this paper it is argued that psychoanalysis can provide direction for the treatment response, specifically, to anxiety. To make this case the first step is to open up the question: what is anxiety?

In what follows there are indicated a number of responses to this question that we find in the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan with the assistance of the work of Cormac Gallagher and Charles Melman. To assuage frustration with the fact that the responses do not necessarily reduce to some ideal synthesis, we note Sigmund Freud’s remark made after over forty years of serious work on the question ‘Anxiety is not so simple a matter. Up till now we have arrived at nothing but….

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