Posted: March 24th, 2023

How Psychological Theories of Personality Explain Anxiety


            Anxiety is a key term for psychological observations and theories. Numerous theories have been developed in an attempt to explain vulnerabilities or why some people are inclined to developing disorders than others. Nonetheless, the reason different people fear various things is a question that is a puzzle to most people. For instance, some people may experience social situations as frightening, while others may deem heights deathly. Anxiety has been at the core of both psychoanalytic and biological theories of personality, and since time immemorial, psychoanalytic and biological thoughts have been considered as central to understanding mental conflict. As such, these two personality theories can help illuminate why some individuals are more susceptible to developing anxiety disorders.

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Anxiety Through the Lens of the Psychoanalytical Theory of Personality

In his early work, Sigmund Freud considered anxiety a form of toxic transformation derived from undischarged libido. According to his discharge concept of psychological function, Freud believed this lack of discharge stemmed from realistic and psychological aspects and other unsatisfactory or incomplete sexual practices. The malfunction activities that lead to undischarged libido usually result from either actual neurosis or neurosis that comes from anxiety. In addition, it could result from repression that could characterize the continued pressure that comes from unacceptable desires, which causes psychoneurosis, including obsessions and hysteria.

Sigmund considered the cause of anxiety to result from the early stages of development. In his tripartite concept of personality, he perceived that personality is structured into three main parts: id, ego, and superego. According to his concept, the id, which is a system of the brain, is the primitive and unconscious element of personality. The ego is established so that it can act as a mediator between the unconscious and unrealistic conditions of the id and the factual external environments. The superego, also similar to conscience, helps to combine societal morals and values to the system and punishes the ego with a feeling of guilt.

            Freud characterized anxiety into to three classifications. In his approach to anxiety, Freud believed that it could only result from the ego, albeit the superego and id having taken a role. The first type of anxiety results from the ego’s dependence on the id, that causes neurotic anxiety. In other words, neurotic anxiety has its basis deeply rooted in impulses from id. Moral anxiety, which is the second type of anxiety according to Freud’s school of thought, results from the conflict amid the ego and the superego. Moral anxiety is symbolized by a conflict of actual human needs and the manner in which the superego dictates about the morality situation of the need. For example, a teenager who has recently developed the superego system may feel the desire to engage in sex but, at the same time, believes that such an activity is morally wrong. Realistic anxiety, the third type of anxiety and also known as fear, is the unpleasant feeling that one develops when facing potential danger.

            According to this school of thought, traumatic events and experiences can also bring about anxiety. Freud believes that a traumatic experience per se cannot be taken out of the brain because it is not a thing that can be construed (Morrison, 2013). Rather, he studies the anxiety that results from a traumatic experience and how it develops in the individual’s mind. Despite the fact that the traumatic experience could be repressed in a person’s mind, it does not mean that the experience has been totally removed from the subconscious mind. As such, any other experience related to or similar to the traumatic event will trigger anxiety and can be reflected in the ways in which the individual acts. Important to note is that although the event that produced traumatic anxiety may be worked out in the person, it does not mean that the anxiety that arose from experience has been dealt with.

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            The psychodynamic perspective on anxiety neurosis is that it results from somatic sensual injuries. Although several researchers have consented to the Freudian idea that anxiety plays a very important role in the development of neurosis, Freud gave it a distinction by arguing that it had its erotic etiology. Erikson is one of the theorists who have increased emphasis on Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. He emphasized that the ego is the branch that produces anxiety as opposed to the id and the superego. As well, Karen Horney also stressed at the idea that early childhood stage is critical to the development of anxiety. Freud also added that there were a number of symptoms that were distinct in anxiety neurosis, including general irritability, negative outlook, and insomnia to name but a few.

            Freud developed two distinct theories in his attempt to explain anxiety. In his first theory, he defined repression or defense as a precondition for anxiety owing to the thought that when repression has occurred, libido or other forms of sexual strife could be brought out, which were expressions of anxiety. On the other hand, his second concept arrived at the idea that signaling anxiety causes defense.  In that defense, it symbolizes a complete setback of the series of activity that was previously triggered.     

Empirical Evidence of Psychodynamic Theory

            Much has been written concerning the underlying concepts of psychodynamic perspective of anxiety. However, the evidence for psychotherapy that professionals usually give is insufficient for those supporting this model to express ambiguous complaints about the evidence being clear. Therefore, highlighting some recent empirical research on the real-life effectiveness of Freudian’s psychodynamic theory in treating mental and anxiety disorders is worthwhile.

            A study conducted by Shedler in 2010 that was aimed at evaluating the efficacy of psychoanalytic psychotherapy that summarized the finding of various meta-analysis and empirical studies indicated that psychoanalytic therapy was empirically supported through evidence-based research. In addition, this study noted that the various non-psychodynamic therapies that have been effective in treating anxiety and other forms of mental disorders have based their practice on psychoanalytic theory and practice. Moreover, individuals who have gained from psychoanalytic therapies have been shown to have significant improvements long after the therapeutic treatment has ceased.

            In another systematic review of the existing empirical evidence that was conducted by Leichnesing and Klein (2014), psychoanalytic psychotherapy was found to be a highly effective form of therapy in treating specific mental disorders, including personality disorders and anxiety. The findings of this meta-analysis study contradicted the widespread belief that psychoanalytic psychotherapy does not have the evidence and is not empirically supported. Although this study recommended further studies on the processes and outcomes of long-term practice of this therapeutic practice, it strongly denounced the perception that psychodynamic therapy lacks scientific and empirical evidence.        

Anxiety Through the Lens of Biological Concepts

            The origins and maintenance of anxiety are also known to be biological in nature. In fact, for anxiety to manifest in an individual, there has to be biological vulnerabilities. Various studies on genetic research have shown that most mental disorders have a biological component. Therefore, it is no surprise that anxiety is believed to have biological factors that increase individual’s vulnerabilities. Indeed, some people may have genetic predispositions to anxiety than others.

Biological Concepts

            One widely recognized biological theory of personality that attempts to explain the causes of anxiety from this perspective is the Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (RST). The theory proposes that the differences in individuals in various bio-behavioral systems are responsible for the vulnerability of some people towards anxiety. The three bio-behavioral systems include the fight-flight-freeze system (FFFS), the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), and the behavioral approach system (BAS). The function of the FFFS is to mediate to create aversive stimuli. On the other hand, the BAS mediates responses into appetitive stimuli, while the BIS works in resolving the objective based conflicts. In fact, the main function of the BIS is to examine the environmental peril during the conflicting times. When BIS is activated, it produces an anxious mediation. The theory proposes that the development of anxiety is directly proportional to the manner in which the variables BAS, BIS, and the FFFS process the information regarding threats that stem from external environments.

            The biological origins of anxiety are observable in the temperaments of children at birth. When children are born, they have divergences in their temperaments. These differences are viewed as a function of biological components. While some children appear more sensitive to stress and stimuli, others are not. The differences in temperament observed in children can persist up to adulthood. Various studies have shown that children born with highly sensitive temperaments have an elevated susceptibility to developing anxiety disorders compared to those born with normal temperament. In fact, the aspect is attributable to their nervous system being more stimulated and aroused. It is important to note that not all forms of anxiety are bad. Therefore, anxiety is a normal emotion that each and every individual experience at one time or another. However, pathological anxiety differs from normal anxiety due to the intensity and duration and frequency of signs and symptoms (Smillie et al., 2007). Individuals born with extra-sensitivity temperaments are vulnerable to developing greater intensities of their anxiety experiences from time to time compared to those born with normal temperaments, which translates to increased pathological anxiety rates for those with extra-sensitive temperaments.

Neurobiological Basis of Anxiety

            Neuroticism, which refers to an individual’s emotional stability, is a personality trait that can increase the chances of developing anxiety disorders. Individuals who exhibit neuroticism personality characteristics are inclined to negative environmental cues and tend to have a greater reactivity that is based on the negative interpretation. An instance of neuroticism is when individuals interpret failure in examinations to mean that exams are set to make them fail. In turn, they tend to associate all tests to their first experience and are likely to be highly anxious, thus lack concentration in the following tests. However, this is the directly opposite to the views of persons with low levels of neuroticism. Although they may fail in the first test, it will be their source of motivation to study more and as a result, pass the next exam.

Therefore, it indicates that individuals with high levels of neuroticism tend to be more sensitive to stress, which affects them with more intensity as compared to those of low neuroticism. Consequently, high neuroticism characteristics make individuals more susceptible to anxiety disorders. In addition, prolonged negative reactions to threats and stressful experiences directly impact the brain chemistry, hence causing its alteration. In fact, these alterations further increase the person’s preexistent biologic susceptibility. 

            When an individual recognizes a potential threat, the amyglada, which is a part of the brain that processes information, communicates the potential peril to other parts of the brain. The hormonal response to this information is what produces anxiety, which should be experienced to certain levels. It is thought to be disordered when experienced to levels that threaten to impede the individual’s social functioning. As earlier noted, various genetic characteristics contribute to the range in which anxiety is experienced. Neurologists have noted that people with increased amyglada responses experience augmented intensities of anxiety responses (Charney & Wayne, 2002). GABA, a neurotransmitter involved in reducing the activity of the central nervous system, has also been shown to be a determinant of the onset and maintenance of anxiety. Other biological theories put forward that 5-Ht2A, glutamane, and serotonin can potentially increase or decrease individuals’ vulnerability in developing anxiety disorders.

Empirical Evidence

The empirical basis of the biological foundation of anxiety disorders began to accumulate in the last two decades. Smillie et al. (2007) indicated that the measure of the reactivity and response of BIS anticipated elevated reactivity-sensitivity as well as response to bias during objective conflicting situations. In addition, recent reviews of RST theory in its application to anxiety disorders stressed on the importance of differentiating anxiety from fear. While anxiety is known to result from BIS, fear, on the other hand, is thought to stem from FFFS.

Charney and Wayne (2002) also indicated that anxiety and fear are conducts of various chemical components in the neurotransmitter systems. They include serotonin, dopamine, GABA, glutamane, and transmitters of amino acids as well as neuropeptide Y and monoaminergic transmitters, to name but a few. The above mentioned neurochemical systems sub-serve the vital adaptive roles that adorn the individual in responding or reacting to approaching stress or threat. They function by increasing attention, mobilizing the various places where energy is stored, modulating memory, and increasing the cardiovascular functions. According to their observation, anxiety takes place when the responses and reactions to threat become chronic or the BIS, BAS, and FFFS are inappropriately activated.


            Anxiety is a normal experience that individuals experience when faced with threatening situations from time to time. However, anxiety can become maladaptive if it fails to correlate with the stimulus-induced regarding frequency, duration, and intensity, thus impairing the normal functionalities of people experiencing it. Various theories have been developed in an attempt to explain the etiology of anxiety, including the psychodynamic theory and the biological theories of personality. Empirical evidence suggests that biological and natural aspects play a role in the onset of this mental condition. Therefore, basing the treatment procedures on these two schools of thought can go a long way in ensuring the effectiveness of therapeutic measures.              



Charney and Wayne. 2002. Neurobiological Basis of Anxiety Disorders. Neurobiology. 63. Available at file:///C:/Users/BETTY/Downloads/CH63_901-930.pdf

Leichsenring, F., Klein, S. (2014). Evidence for psychodynamic psychotherapy in specific mental disorders: a systematic review. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 28(4):4-32.

Morrison-Valfre, M. (2013). Foundations of mental health care. St. Louis, Mo: Elsevier/Mosby.

Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist 65(2): 98-109

Smillie, L. D., Dalgleish, L. I., & Jackson, C. J. (2007). Distinguishing between learning

            and motivation in behavioral tests of the reinforcement sensitivity theory of personality.    Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 476–489.


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