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Rollo May : Understanding and coping with anxiety

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mai 2023

Rollo May (1909 –1994)

Extract from :

Understanding and coping with anxiety

(New York : Psychology Today, 1978)

CG- You mention stress and that people sometimes confuse and perhaps use the term stress and anxiety interchangeably. I gather then that you feel that there is a distinction to be made between the two.

RM - Oh, I think there's a great distinction. I think its a great error to identify stress with anxiety. Anxiety differs from stress in that anxiety is first of all a subjective reaction, its an inner state of conflict with oneself and the fact that someday one is going to die. And this cannot be put outside oneself even though people try very hard to do so. I think stress and anxiety cannot be identified with each other because sometimes in stress we don't have any anxiety at all and I think I think there's a tendency in American to identify stress with anxiety because all anxiety experiences simply stress. It is an escape from the problem of anxiety.

I think its very important to remember that anxiety is essentially our feeling of the awareness

of death. All of us realise that although we are all now alive, ultimately we will die. Even though we are not anywhere near death at the present moment, this comes out in many different ways in life, it comes out in the loss of love, which is a partial death, it comes out when you write a book that turns out not to be publishable or to be a success, when something is not as good as you hoped. All of these things are partial deaths that precede our ultimate death. Now that may sound very pessimistic, but its not at all . It is what keeps us alert and live. Its the struggle with this dilemma of being alive but someday we will be dead that gives life zest, and helps us to make the most of it, that gives us our energy to put into it.

And that's why I define anxiety as the struggle of being against non-being. Now we are a part of being and ultimately we will be absorbed into non-being. Anxiety stimulates us, its

keeps us alive , it keeps us sensitive to each other and in general it gives a great deal of zest to a life that otherwise would be dead.

CG - So you're saying Dr May that a certain amount of anxiety is essential for well


RM - Yes, I'm saying that exactly. Anxiety is inescapable, anxiety is a part of all our lives. Anxiety is the source of all creativity. You don't paint a great picture lying on the couch having an afternoon nap. You paint a great picture by struggle, by throwing yourself into it...

This is a result of our original anxiety as cavemen, cave people, in our struggles against the animals, who were stronger and had sharper claws than we had, and out of this anxiety, this inadequacy of human life there came the capacity to think which we were forced to have, and we were forced to develop the capacity to talk and this is the beginning of human civilisation. Without anxiety we would not be able to have the civilisation we now have.

CG - Lets distinguish if we may between different kinds of anxiety. You mention in your book that there's normal anxiety, that which is normal and neurotic anxiety ? What are the differences between the two ?

RM - Well, normal anxiety is the anxiety we all have. The anxiety of our day to day existence, the anxiety that goes with our love for other people and this is appropriate to the situation. We are anxious about the atom bomb, about war, losing love, pollution and these sort of problems. And secondly it doesn't require repression, we don't have to block it off into our unconscious, and thirdly normal anxiety can be used creatively, it can be directed towards new discoveries in life, and new creative possibilities and also normal anxiety does not leads to symptoms. Heart trouble, gastric symptoms, and all these sort of symptoms come not from normal anxiety, this is the difference between anxiety and stress incidentally also, they come from repressed anxiety - anxiety you don't face. This is what leads most of all to heart


Now, neurotic anxiety on the other hand is anxiety that is not appropriate to the threat, that is suppose one is afraid that ones child is going to get run over by a car, that would be normal anxiety and one teaches the child not to run across the street against the lights and so on, whereas neurotic anxiety would be demonstrated by the person that always keeps the child indoors because of that fear and this of course makes the situation all the worse. Neurotic anxiety is not appropriate to the situation, it requires repression, you have to block off real aspects of what you're worried about and thirdly, its what leads to symptoms like physiological, psychosomatic symptoms and fourth it does not lead to creative activity.

Now, the normal anxiety that we were talking about is the anxiety that everyone feels and all of us need to be aware of, to face constructively and to use creatively as the cave man used it originally to develop the power to think, and therefore to survive in the conflict with the animals. And this is what i am hoping that this is what we will be able to do in our century.


CG - OK we've said that anxiety has at least one purpose, to protect us from what we believe to be dangerous. And that although it cannot be avoided except at the price of numbing ones sensibilities, it can be reduced. Can you talk some more about the management of anxiety, how it can be used constructively, Can you give the listeners some ideas of what can be done to reduce the anxiety and deal with it more creatively ?

RM - Yes well I'd certainly be glad to try to do that. One of the changes that is occurring is the less emphasis upon getting ahead of the next person, the competitive individualism in our work which has been a great cause of anxiety earlier in the 20th century and the century since the renaissance. The young people have taught us its not about the money you make on the job. Rather it is the meaning of the job for you. In this sense it is the young people of the 60's have made a very important contribution. I think that each of us has to ask himselfif he is concerned with managing his own anxiety, what is the function and purpose of my life ?

Does he live only as a routine, doing the same thing over and over again each day in which

case his anxiety will be unmanaged and give him some real problems, or does he see his life as a way of contributing something, or creating something that will be of genuine interest to him and of genuine interest to other people ? Now the latter is part of a way of managing anxiety. Your life becomes more of what you want it to be and therefore you can channel your anxiety into creative activities rather than simply holding off the sense of despair and loss of being.

Now community is another very important thing we are learning these days, that if you can not only make friends but joining communities, communities of young people, women's consciousness raising groups, men's consciousness raising groups, one of these groups of communities in which people can actually live together not in the sense of competition, but in the sense of supporting each other, these are ways of constructively managing your anxiety and sharing with your fellow human beings who happen to live around you.

CG - How is interpersonal community developed and integrated with the values of

individual self realisation. How does one do both ? Can it be done or are the two at

times at odds with each other ?

RM - Well the two are at times at odds with one another. they don't have to be all the time. The problem with our society was that if I got ahead then you got behind. It I get a good grade them it means someone else gets a bad grade and I think this is vicious and harmful and produces neurotic anxiety of a very destructive nature. Now this is not necessary. We need ways to develop ways in which you and I can do our work as a contribution to others rather than an undermining of others. We can do our work as a gift to others.

Now if you look at the arts, someone paints a beautiful picture , and this helps others to paint beautiful pictures rather than putting them down. Art is non competitive, even though individual artists may be, still the great treasures that Michaelangelo, Dante, Shakespeare gave to us now give pleasure to every human being. The qualitative aspects of the humanities and arts by and large are the non-competitive aspects and these help us to meet our problems in a way is good for the community, rather than good for us at the price of

the communities laws.

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