I wonder if, like me, you experienced the ‘Heebie–jeebies’ when you returned to your place of work this morning? Perhaps it is something akin to what you typically experience on a Monday morning except, at this time of the year, this heeby-jeeby feeling can be heightened significantly? I wondered to myself why this is and how we might be able to think psychologically about the phenomenon?
Firstly, what exactly are the heebie-jeebies and where does the expression come from? The term ‘heebie-jeebies’ is an American English idiom which emerged in the 1920s used to describe a particular type of anxiety usually related to a certain person or place. You might also be interested to know that Louis Armstrong, the great musician, actually recorded a song of the same name in 1926 (you can find it online on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oMJjCphBh8).
So, in what way might anxiety have some role in this back-to-work syndrome? What is it about going back today that strikes such strong feelings? Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of Armstrong’s had plenty to say about anxiety. “I can see no objection to there being a twofold origin of anxiety—one as a direct consequence of the traumatic moment and the other as a signal threatening a repetition of such a moment” (Freud, 1933, pp. 94-95). I don’t believe in reality that returning to work is, in reality, a traumatic experience in itself – but perhaps there is something about it which reminds us of a significant moment in earlier life. Leaving home to go to primary school is something that immediately comes to mind. But perhaps there are other moments in life even earlier that might be experienced as traumatic where, as Freud (1933, p.94) puts it “it is only the magnitude of the sum of excitation that turns an impression into a traumatic moment”.
The other idea from Freud which I thought might be relevant here is that of ‘ambivalence’. Freud (1909, 1913) describes the co-existence of two conflicting and diametrically opposed feelings (e.g. love and hate) in relation to a person or an object. One of the feelings is conscious to the individual, but the other is unconsciously repressed, with the “typical outcome…(that) one of the two conflicting feelings (usually that of affection) becomes enormously intensified and the other vanishes” (Freud, 1933, p.101). He goes on to say that “the conflict between these two currents cannot be promptly settled because—there is no other way of putting it—they are localized in the subject‘s mind in such a manner that they cannot come up against each other” (Freud, 1913, p. 29). In ordinary man’s language, there is a part of us that loves work, there is a part of us that hates it, and the heeby-jeeby feeling is an indication of the mixed feelings we have when we go back to work.
So, those are two possible ways of thinking in a different way about the unease of having to to go to work today. Perhaps you might have a different way of thinking about it. Either way, you still have to deal with the heebie-jeebies! Louis Armstrong sang his own solution to them as follows: “Woo, got the Heebie Jeebies, Whatcha doin’ with the Heebies? I just have to have the Heebies”. If only we could all be as easy about them as he clearly was!
Freud, S. (1909). Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume X (1909): Two Case Histories (‘Little Hans’ and the ‘Rat Man’), 151-318
Freud, S. (1913). Totem and Taboo. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIII (1913-1914): Totem and Taboo and Other Works, vii-162
Freud, S. (1933). New Introductory Lectures On Psycho-Analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXII (1932-1936): New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-
Analysis and Other Works, 1-182