Angst versus Anxiety
When does worry qualify as "Angst", and when does it qualify as "Anxiety"?
OK, I’ll admit right away that I am not a psychologist. But I very much like to think about the subject, especially when it verges on philosophical issues. So I would here like to consider how these two psychological terms, Angst and Anxiety, might differ.
I watch a lot of Woody Allen films, and it is clear that he often refers to having feelings of Angst. Some of this is no doubt to colorfully enhance the neurotic stage persona he has developed in most of his films over the years. Google defines Angst as “A feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.” This comports well with the kinds of concerns that Woody Allen typically expresses as a character in his films. But the Google site goes on to list “Anxiety” as a synonym for Angst, which to my notion is not entirely true. indeed, the same site goes on to define “anxiety” as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”
My take on the difference between there two terms is that “Angst” properly refers to some type of metaphysical dread, while “Anxiety” refers more to a practical kind of fear, or set of worries, that are limited to practical existence. The above cited Google definitions seem to support this interpretation, at least to a fair approximation.
The reason I find the distinction a useful one for myself is that many times, when I confess to a friend as having Angst, the friend often responds as if to say “Oh come one, just admit that you are just a ‘worry wart’ about some practical issue, such as keeping your job, fixing up or selling your house, meeting a potential spouse, not losing money in the stock market, etc. Don’t try to make it seem more highbrow by using some hoity-toity “Kierkegaardian” term like Angst.”
One of my favorite jokes can bear on illustrating feelings of Angst:
Question: What is the difference between an Optimist and a Pessimist?
Answer: An Optimist believes that this is best of all possible worlds. A Pessimist fears that the Optimist is right.
Here are some examples of what kinds of thoughts might prompt Angst:
-- The fear that life is meaningless, or that there is, in some sense, a void at the heart of existence.
-- The deep concern about a possible existence that follows this life. As Hamlet worries in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy : “To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause”.
-- The worry that we might be “reincarnated” as some kind of creature, maybe an animal such as a crustacean or even as some alien creature from a distant galaxy.
-- The rather bizarre worry that there is in fact some kind of God or Deity, but He/She is a “perfect stinker”, or otherwise not totally in control of existence.
-- The fear that somehow we will all have to “pay” in some so far unspecified or unknown way for any misdeeds (whether slight or major) we have performed in this life.
-- The fear that our life is really just a simulation of some kind, and we will awaken from it as from a dream into some form of existence that is unimaginably different than what we now experience.
-- The worry that we do not even have any idea about what to worry about, metaphysically speaking.
I do not want to minimize the concerns that surely everyone has that fall into the perhaps more prosaic category of Anxiety. While perhaps some of us maintain the Angst kind of concerns almost all of the time in the background (perhaps subconscious?), probably conscious or subconscious practical worries pester us too: Health concerns for our families and friends, worries that our jobs and financial situations are secure, and so on. It is just that these kinds of worries are of a different kind than those represented by Angst.
What, if anything, can be done to alleviate feelings of Angst? I do not know. I seriously doubt that any kind of counseling could help, since my guess is that most counselors or psychologist would be ill-equipped to discuss the metaphysical issues behind the dread. If one were a believer in one of the existing world’s religions, then perhaps in some cases a session with a priest, rabbi, minister, or imam might help. But for those of us who are skeptics and lack any religious affiliation, we are left to deal with these feeling on our own.
In particular, I want to say that I doubt very much that any kind of medical treatment, such as a prescription pill, can help in an acceptable way. Indeed, the person who experiences Angst probably feels that it would be undesirable to alleviate his/her concerns in this way, since that would simply be a refusal to face what may be the most important questions we can ask of life. And furthermore, he/she probably feels that considering the question prompting feelings of Angst may in fact be the very purpose of life.
As far as what can be done about feelings of Anxiety. I suspect nothing at all can be done about these, because my guess is that many of these are valid concerns. Having such anxiety might even be a good thing, especially when the worry is accompanied by some kind of a plan of attack in case the worry materializes.
Finally, I do not mean to imply that somehow the people who experience much Angst are in any way superior to those who do not, or are they somehow deeper than those who are mainly beset by only Anxiety. I myself have significant degree of both Angst and Anxiety, as no doubt do a great many people in the general population. Some others will perhaps feel that the tendency to experience Angst is either an affection or an unfortunate affliction. Well, I do not feel that way about it. I have had people tell me that they pity me for having these metaphysical concerns, for indeed they are not decidable in any way that I know about, certainly not by accepted methods of science. So, they say, why allow oneself to dwell on them. Three things to that: one, is I doubt that such a person has any real choice in the matter; second, that in some ways it is, perhaps paradoxically, a privilege or a benefit, because it evokes the joy of wonder to speculate on such “Angst-inducing issues; and third, that some of us feel that it adds to the meaning of life to consider these things, and that it is even necessary for us to do so.