What is Angst?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Angst in its simplest sense means fear or anxiety. The word is derived from Nordic and Germanic languages. Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, used the term to express the human condition which, he felt, was riddled with despair. This definition of angst was an integral part of the term used by existentialists.

Lord Byron's angst is reflected in his poetry.
Lord Byron's angst is reflected in his poetry.

In existentialism, angst is the struggle between the needs of the self and the requirements of others, as well as spiritual requirements. This was the fate of Odysseus caught between the Scylla and Charybdis, or “a rock and a hard place” as it is more commonly expressed. Serving oneself is in conflict with serving humanity, and thus creates angst.

The emotional conflict of teen years is often described as angst.
The emotional conflict of teen years is often described as angst.

A modern usage of the term is descriptively applied to teenagers. The process of becoming adults, and sometimes being frustrated by authority, seems to be first felt at this age. As well, shifting hormones often lead to teens to angst. They seem a little world-weary before their time, and are steeped in emotional conflict. The despair that can accompany the teenage state, often expressed in popular music among teens, is the angst of the teenager’s soul.

Charlotte Bronte wrote novels filled with angst.
Charlotte Bronte wrote novels filled with angst.

In fact, the Goth music movement, first popularized by bands like The Cure in the 1980s, is an outward expression of inward angst. The pale white face and dyed black hair makes those who dress in Goth fashion appear as if dead. These are merely the outward trappings of the conflicted soul. For many teens and young adults this costuming seems an appropriate way to show the world they are in conflict.

Yet most teens are not “Goth,” and may still feel angst. In fact, the state has existed long before modern teens ever were labeled with the term. The Romantic writers in particular often wrote out of a sense of deep emotional conflict. This is particularly the case with Byron.

Also it is impossible to look at the work of Charlotte and Emily Bronte without discussing angst. The sufferings of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, or the taciturn forbearance of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre are both examples of characters whose lives are guided by angst. The outward expression of this feeling is often romanticized. Actually both Charlotte and Emily Bronte were fairly young writers, and went with glee for the dramatic and grand gesture; just as a Goth teen or rock group might do today.

While some wish to publicize their angst, other characters in contemporary works of art suffer in silence. Superheroes in particular are often conflict-filled characters that must hide who they truly are. They often must place the needs of the world above their private needs in order to fulfill their sacred duties.

In any of its forms, angst is spiritual and emotional suffering brought on by confusion about the world. It is important to carefully watch those who wear their feelings on their sleeve because, unfortunately, in some people, angst signifies deep emotional disturbance or clinical depression, which could progress to self destructive behavior.

People might feel angst when dealing with crowds.
People might feel angst when dealing with crowds.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Angst isn't really a problem, since it's part of normal child development, unless there's lots of it. Angst can really make people suffer though, it's like sadness, but you can't cry it out. You just suffer, and almost nothing can stop it. Just thinking about random things can put you in a angst-ridden mood. It's horrible, but it does get better as you get past puberty. This text really helped me, since I've always wondered what the name of the emotion was, as I go through it a lot.


@dill1971: I think that what you will be working with far exceeds the normal angst of teenagerhood.

Troubled teens are ordinarily facing challenges that are much bigger than the norm. You are more likely to encounter teens who have lived through severely disrupting family circumstances, who have been victims of abuse of the worst kind, who very early on developed significant problems.

Angst is not so much a mental illness but a disturbance that is developmental in nature; your experiences are likely to be with children/teens with real diagnosable mental illness-- conduct disorder, attachment disorder, depressive and dysthymic disorders. These are, in ways, more treatable than angst. I wish you luck in your first post.


@dill1971- As the article stated, many teenagers with angst are often diagnosed with clinical depression, as well. It is much more difficult to diagnose teenagers than it is adults.

Many years ago, people didn’t think that teenagers could actually suffer from depression. Of course, we now know that isn’t true. According to Dr. Harold Koplewicz, director of the New York University Child Study Center, teens suffer from depression more often than adults do.

Angst can be very dangerous to teenagers. Teenagers often do not show their emotions, especially fear. That is why only one out of five teens receives treatment. Depression, or angst, is treatable. Angst doesn’t have to lead to depression. Many times, therapy works very well to help the teen to overcome any anxieties of fears that he/she might have before it leads to angst depression.


I am a social work student and will be starting my internship next week. I will be working in a group home for troubled teens.

I found this article to be very informative. Is teenage angst a big problem? If so, what can be done about it? I mean, are conditions like this treated with therapy or medication?

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