Anxiety’s Purpose, and How to Harness It: Rollo May, PhD

This article is a hypothetical interview constructed of answers pulled from Rollo May’s literature, videos, audio recordings and past interviews. The “response” component of this article is completely fictitious and I take no credit for evoking these responses. This article is intended for educational purposes only.

Rollo May (April 21, 1909 – October 22, 1994) was an American existential psychologist and author of many books, including Love and Will (1969). He is often associated with existentialist philosophy as well as humanistic psychology. Though, in many of his interviews he held a strong stance against the objective labeling of humanity, which he says is a cognitive byproduct of the industrial revolution and capitalism. This rejection of labeling played a huge role in his approach to therapy. May focused heavily on the phenomena of both anxiety and guilt, these of which he held as two of the most important forces in human evolution and cognitive advancement. 

In this article, we will explore how anxiety works, its purposes and the differences between healthy and unhealthy anxiety.

What exactly is anxiety?

Rollo May: “anxiety is the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value that an individual holds essential to his existence as a personality. The threat may be to physical or psychological life (death, or loss of freedom) or may be some other value which the individual identifies with his existence (patriotism, the love of another person, success, etc.” (May, 1950). 

For example, someone may say “If I couldn’t support my family, I’d as soon jump off the end of the dock. This put simply, is saying that If he couldn’t preserve the self-respecting position of being the responsible wage-earner, his whole life would have no meaning and he might as well not exist. The occasions of anxiety will vary with the different people as widely as the values on which they depend vary, but what will always be true in anxiety is that the threat is to a value held by that particular individual to be essential to his existence and consequently to his security as a personality.” (May 1950). 

It appears that in your book, “The Meaning of Anxiety,” you say that some anxiety is essential for well being? 

Rollo May: “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, but the fact we are human beings that we learn to think and to talk. 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 civilization. Without anxiety we would not be able to have the civilization we now have.” (May, 1978).

What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety? 

Rollo May: “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 lead 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 attacks.” (May, 1978). 

Neurotic anxiety (unhealthy anxiety) is that which occurs when the incapacity for coping adequately with threats is not objective but subjective, I.e.,  is due not to objective weakness but to inner psychological patterns and conflicts which prevent the individual from using his powers. “neurotic anxiety is the result of unfortunate learning in the respect that the individual was forced to deal with threatening situations at a period—usually in early childhood—when he was incapable of coping directly or constructively with such experiences (as, for example, parental rejection). ” (May, 1950). Hence repression of the object of the anxiety is a central feature of neurotic anxiety.” (May, 1978).

You mentioned that normal and neurotic anxiety are both related to inner conflict. What do you believe causes these conflicts?

Rollo May: “I think the conflict that causes anxiety is the conflict between where we are now, in present reality, and our expectations. And this presents us all with a gap. If the gap is too great, lets say I’m a high school student and I want tomorrow to be an opera singer, that gap is too great for me to leap and then I get into problems of neurotic anxiety. But if the gap is not enough then I lead a bored life, a conformist life, and thereby my life lacks zest…

This gap between the present reality and the expectations is the gap, out of which creative endeavors come, our creativity, this is when we plan for the future, this is where get visions, of beautiful works of art that we create, where we get new ideas about building new buildings, about creative new businesses. All this eruption of creative possibilities comes out of this gap. And if the gap is too great we have conflict which leads to neurotic anxiety, If the gap isn’t great enough, if you live without any conflict at all, I think you also are in trouble because your life then has no propulsion, there’s no place to go.” (May, 1978).

Do children who experienced rejection from their parents have greater susceptibility to neurotic anxiety than children who don’t have such experiences? 

Rollo May: “Yes, the middle class children do, that’s what’s terribly important. And the degree of security and trust is necessary in early childhood to give the child the basis for believing that he can live in this world and make something out of this world, and that he can have standards that are going to be dependable in this world… rejected children have a greater reason for not wanting to be where they are, the world is not very good to them and they long and they hope for new possibilities and many of them throw themselves into the effort to achieve these new possibilities.”

How would you suggest we overcome neurotic anxiety, or transform it into a healthier form of anxiety? 

Rollo May: “Two processes are held in common by the various schools of psychotherapy: (1) an expansion of awareness—the individual sees what value (goal) is threatened, together with becoming aware of the conflicts between his goals and how this conflict developed; (2) re-educationthe individual restructures his goals, makes a conscious choice of values, and proceeds towards the attainment of these values responsibly and realistically.” (May, 1950). 

“In fine, the goal with regard to neurotic anxiety is the solving of the underlying problem and thus the overcoming of the anxiety.” (May, 1950). 

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please leave a comment below! Your input is greatly welcomed, and we will do our best to provide you with a quick response. Also, if you are interested in continuing your study of anxiety, and wish to explore Rollo May’s work in more depth, you can purchase the book Meaning of Anxiety. 

Sources Cited:

May Ph. D, R. (2015). The Meaning Of Anxiety. San Francisco: Hauraki Publishing.

Rollo May. (2018, May 10). Retrieved from’s_Search_for_Himself_(1953)

Rollo May Speaking about Existential Psychology. (2017, December 10). Retrieved May 17, 2018, from

Understanding And Coping with Anxiety -Rollo May [Cassette Recording]. 1978. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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