Anxiety is experienced as a threat from the outside world, not the inner one. How is this possible if the source of danger is one's own impulses? The answer lies in a defense mechanism known as projection, a tendency to perceive the external world in terms of the conflicts experienced at an unconscious level.
An example is this: Timothy is a married minister with a traditional, conservative outlook on life. He has been married 11 years and has three children. His wife is a sincere person and very supportive of his work. More than once, he has experienced fleeting sexual fantasies relating to women in his congregation, particularly those who have sought pastoral counseling. He thinks of his fantasies as nothing more than will of the wisps and is offended by what he imagines is the seductive behaviour of some of the women. Of course, most of this is projection. He manifests most of the symptoms of a generalized anxiety disorder. The source of danger is his own forbidden sexual impulses.
A similar state of affairs can exist if the individual has forbidden aggressive desires. The wish to insult, injure or even kill another may exist at an unconscious level of one's personality. The possibility that one may actually do the forbidden thing is experienced as undefined anxiety.
It is not presently believed that all pathological anxiety arises from the kind of dark, murky, unconscious motives identified by psychoanalysis. Another way to explain anxiety is offered by the behavioural viewpoint, a viewpoint based on learning theory. According to the behavioural viewpoint, anxiety represents a generalization of learning from past experiences, a tendency to confuse two similar objects or situations. Assume that Sally was very badly mauled and bitten by a dog when she was five years old. It is understandable that as an adult, she is apprehensive int eh presence of dogs. This dog phobia is not, of course, generalized anxiety, but a specific fear. However, further assume Sally has had many bad experiences in the past, particularly during the early developmental years. She was a victim of child abuse, came close to drowning, almost died of a kidney infection, and so forth. It is easy to understand why Sally frequently experiences pathological anxiety. She has had enough bad experiences in the past that she generalizes her fear to almost anything.
Life can also be complicated by existential anxiety, apprehension revolving around one's very being. Everyone knows that life hangs by a thread, that it can be lost at any time by an accident or an illness, and that even a long and productive life ends in death. The future may be filled only promise and joy. But even if this is your perception, in the far future only the grave beckons. These kinds of sour musings were proposed by Soren Kierkegaard, the father of existential philosophy, as the basis for a built-in anxiety that can never be completely eliminated.
People try to brush existential anxiety away, to deny its existence. And in some ways this only makes matters worse. Kierkegaard's point is that existential anxiety cannot be explained away nor denied. It must be faced with courage and accepted. Then the individual can go on living in spite of the burden of existential anxiety.
Biological processes can contribute to anxiety. There is evidence that some individuals have an inborn temperament that makes them prone to anxiety. They are more emotionally reactive as infants and children than their peers, and this tendency carries over into adulthood. Individuals who suffer from hypoglycemia, or chronic low blood sugar is below normal, it is difficult to think, behave, and feel in a normal manner.
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