Chapter 25: May – Existential Psychology

Part 2: Anxiety

May considered anxiety to be the underlying cause of nearly every crisis, whether domestic, professional, economic, or political.  He described the world we live in as an age of anxiety. Even though May published The Meaning of Anxiety in 1950, it is safe to say that his concerns are even more relevant today, particularly with the advent of the depersonalization of our world due to the computer age (Reeves, 1977).  May considered a wide range of theories on anxiety, including philosophers, neurologists (Kurt Goldstein), and the major psychodynamic theorists (including Freud, Adler, Jung, Horney, Sullivan, and Fromm).  He came to the conclusion that Freud had done the best job of explaining anxiety, but it was Kierkegaard who best understood anxiety. May was particularly impressed by Kierkegaard’s idea that anxiety must be understood in the context of an orientation toward freedom.  Freedom is the goal of personality development, and although this freedom brings with it anxiety, it is through facing this anxiety that the possibility of freedom arises (May, 1950).

In defining anxiety, May distinguished between anxiety and fear, and between normal anxiety and neurotic anxiety.  According to May, “anxiety is the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value which the individual holds essential to his existence as a personality” (pg. 191; May, 1950).  The threat may be either physical or psychological, such as facing death from tuberculosis or being imprisoned in a concentration camp (which, of course, brought the threat of death in addition to the loss of freedom), or the threat may challenge some other value that the individual identifies with their existence or personal identity (such as the loss of a career, a divorce, a challenge to patriotism in time of war, etc.).  What differentiates anxiety from fear is that fear is a reaction to a specific event, whereas anxiety is vague and diffuse. For example, during a robbery you may fear a man with a gun, but in America today, many people are anxious about terrorism. No one can tell when or where terrorists may strike, or even whether they will be foreign terrorists (such as in the World Trade Center attacks) or American terrorists (such as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City or the D.C. sniper killings).  May carefully pointed out that using the terms “vague” and “diffuse” to describe anxiety should in no way diminish our understanding of the intensity and painfulness that anxiety can bring. Therein lies the difference between normal vs. neurotic anxiety (May, 1950).

This is a color image of a person sitting on the floor with their legs pulled up towards their chest and their arms and face resting against their knees. The person is wearing a blue and white striped knit hat, jeans, and a long sleeved blue top. There are visions of a ghost, a crow, a skeleton, and a snake looming around the person.
Image Source: Dieterich01. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Everyone faces challenges in life, but not everyone sees the same challenges as actual threats.  Losing one’s job can be an opportunity to begin a new career, or perhaps to go back to school to pursue a new career.  However, the transition is often difficult, especially when one is used to being the primary wage earner in the family, and also if the family has to cut back on items they can no longer afford.  So anxiety would be a reasonable reaction. That anxiety is considered normal if it is 1) not disproportionate to the objective threat, 2) does not involve mechanisms of intrapsychic conflict, and 3) does not require defense mechanisms for its management (May, 1950).  Normal anxiety is often overlooked in adults since it is not particularly intense, especially compared to neurotic anxiety, and it can be managed constructively. It does not show itself in panic or other dramatic symptoms. Neurotic anxiety is, simply, the opposite of normal anxiety.  It is disproportionate to the objective threat, it does require intrapsychic defense mechanisms, and it results in neurotic symptoms in spite of those defense mechanisms. It is important to keep in mind that we should not consider individuals who suffer from neurotic anxiety as suffering from objective weaknesses, but rather they suffer from inner psychological patterns and conflicts that prevent them from using their powers to cope.

True to his training in psychodynamic theory, May believed that the psychological patterns resulting in the inability to cope have their origin in childhood, particularly due to poor early relations between the infant and its parents, since an infant’s essential values arise from the security patterns established between the infant and its caregivers (as in Erikson’s first psychosocial crisis:  trust vs. mistrust). One of the most important factors seems to be the infant’s subjective interpretation of rejection by its primary caregiver, and that subjectivity is influenced by expectations that form later in life (e.g., middle- and upper-class children, who expect more support from their parents, are especially prone to react to rejection with neurotic anxiety; May, 1950).

May felt that we must understand anxiety in relation to freedom, or rather, as the fear that we will lose our freedom.  He said that some of this anxiety is normal, and only in extreme cases does it become neurotic anxiety. What are some of the situations in your life that make you anxious, and how might they be a threat to your personal freedom?  Do you think the level of these anxieties is normal, or is it severe enough to perhaps be considered neurotic?

Culture, Anxiety, and Hostility

May also addressed the effects of culture on anxiety, and the close interrelationship between anxiety and hostility.  Culture affects both the kinds and quantities of anxiety experienced by individuals.  Beyond the essential relationship between infant and caregiver, the determinants of personality that each of us consider essential to our existence as a personality are largely cultural.  Indeed, even the nature of the infant/caregiver relationship is subject to cultural influence. The amount of anxiety most people are likely to experience is determined, in part, by the stability of the culture.  For example, if a culture is relatively stable and unified, there will be less anxiety throughout that culture (May, 1950). Today, however, many societies are in dramatic flux, due in large part to the powerful trend toward globalization.

As psychologists have begun to examine anxiety in different groups around the world, a variety of interesting, and sometimes disturbing, results have been found.  Keep in mind, however, that these are generalities, and do not necessarily apply to each individual within any group. Generally, Asians are more anxious than Europeans, and White Americans are more anxious than Black Americans and Africans.  There may be a neurological basis for these relative anxiety levels (Rushton, 1999). However, when looking at the specific form of anxiety related to taking academic tests, Black Americans and Chilean students demonstrate higher levels of test anxiety than White Americans (Clawson, Firment, & Trower, 1981; Guida & Ludlow, 1989).  One suggestion for the higher levels of anxiety among Blacks in America is that our society is much less sociocentric than most African cultures. Thus, Blacks in America, even if they have lived here for generations, still experience the effects of their displacement from Africa when the culture they carried with them is at odds with Western cultural expectations (Okeke at al., 1999), and even more so when an individual seems to be at odds with most members of their own cultural group (Copeland, 2006).  Indeed, the greater the discrepancy between one’s individual cultural expectations and the cultural expectations of the majority of society, the greater the anxiety an individual experiences. This is particularly true during attempts at intercultural communication (Matsumoto & Juang, 2004). Any subsequent breakdown of intercultural communication, which is more likely during periods of high anxiety, can either lead to or enhance pre-existing hostility, prejudice, discrimination, and scapegoating (Whitley & Kite, 2006).  One important challenge to intercultural communication in psychology is the need for clinical psychologists to recognize the growing number of anxiety disorders unique to non-Western cultures, such as: hwa-bung (Korea), koro (Malaysia and Southern China), nervios (Latin America), dhat syndrome (India), susto (Latin America), and taijin kyofusho (Japan) (Castillo, 1997).

Culture can influence individuals in a wide variety of ways.  May (1950) used the example of competitive individual success in the Western world as his main example, which he considered to be the dominant goal in America.  There are many negative effects of this competition, including the high incidences of gastric ulcers and heart disease in our society.  Less than a decade later, Freidman and Rosenman (1959) published their classic study on the relationship between Type A behavior (studied in highly competitive businessmen) and cardiovascular disease.  Subsequent studies have shown that the key component of Type A behavior predictive of heart disease is hostility, which we will discuss in more detail below (Dembrowski et al., 1985; Lachar, 1993; MacDougal et al., 1985).  There has also been a great deal of discussion in our society about media influences on body image, the relationship between unreasonable expectations for women to be thin and the incidence of eating disorders in girls and women, and the repression of female sexuality in many cultures.  Goldenberg (2005) recently presented an existential perspective on the body itself as a threat. Cultural beliefs often help to overcome fears of mortality by convincing individuals that they are of greater value than other, lower animals. However, despite the beliefs of many that only humans have a soul, our body is still a mortal animal.  As a reaction to the anxiety presented by the reality of our mortal body, many people act in a hostile fashion toward their own bodies, ranging from denying themselves healthy physical relationships with others (e.g., sexual repression) to outright self-destructive behavior (e.g., anorexia nervosa). The problem reaches its extreme, however, when one powerful group directs its hostility in an organized fashion toward another group.

The relationship between anxiety and hostility, according to May, involves a vicious circle.  Anxiety gives rise to hostility, and hostility gives rise to increased anxiety. But which comes first?  May believed that it was anxiety that underlies hostility, and the evidence can be found in clinical cases involving repressed hostility.

In Reeves’ analysis of May’s theory (1977), Reeves discusses one of the most important social issues to have faced the United States: the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  When an individual’s sense of selfhood is challenged by dramatic changes in society, it can be a very painful experience. And one is likely to resent those responsible for those changes.  While it is true that many White people in America supported the civil rights movement, White people in the Deep South (and elsewhere, of course) turned their anxiety, and its associated hostility, toward Blacks.  It should not be necessary here to describe the many terrible acts of violence that followed. Suffice it to say that the federal government had to use military troops to intervene in some of the worst cases. Today, we face a similar problem in the war on terrorism.  Given the often unequal and unfair manner in which globalization brings vastly different cultures into conflict, and the ease with which so many people can travel the globe, perhaps we should not be surprised at the dramatic level of terrorism in the world today.


Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.