What Is Existential Anxiety & How To Cope With It
By Sarah Fader
Updated December 18, 2018
Reviewer Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC
Do you ever sit around and wonder why you are here? Sometimes the very simple fact of existing can give you what is known as existential anxiety. Those who suffer from this form of anxiety are often plagued with thoughts such as "why am I here?", "what is my purpose in life?" and "does any of this mean anything?".
What Is Existential Anxiety?
To put it simply, existential anxiety is anxiety over the simple fact that you exist. When you start questioning how you got here, why you are here at this time, and what you are supposed to be doing with your life, it spirals into existential anxiety. While this can cause extreme worry and stress, it can also help you work towards certain goals in life and give you a sense of purpose.
Symptoms Of Existential Anxiety
The symptoms of existential anxiety are very similar to the symptoms of anxiety, with a strong focus on worrying about your purpose in life and what the future holds.
- Avoidance of people or situations you once enjoyed
- Excessive worrying
- Tightness in the chest
- Increased heart rate
How Can You Cope With Existential Anxiety?
Existential anxiety often stems from thinking too much about the future. What will your career be in ten years? Will you be married? Will you have children? Will you be happy? If you think too much about all of these things at once, they can all become extremely overwhelming. Instead of feeling as though you have no control over your life, there are simple ways you can start working towards long-term goals today.
- What makes you happy?
Learning what makes you happy is perhaps the most important thing you can learn about yourself. If you begin to focus your path in life based on what truly makes you happy, you'll feel more fulfilled. Make a list of everything you can think of that brings a smile to your face - no matter how big or how small. Maybe it's hiking up a mountain, or playing with a puppy, or collaborating with a team on a big project. Try to keep writing things down until you've filled an entire page with ideas.
- How can you incorporate more of these things into your daily life?
Take a look at the list you just made, and ask yourself how many of these things you encounter on a daily basis. If it's close to none, try to consider how to incorporate them more. Perhaps you can reserve some time every evening before bed to read a chapter of a good book, or you can spend the weekends painting next to a river. In some cases, the things that make you happy could even become your next career! If you love hiking, you could become an outdoor guide, a park ranger, or a camp counselor. If you love playing with puppies, why not become a dog trainer, a veterinarian or work at a boarding kennel?
- Are your interpersonal relationships causing you existential anxiety?
Ah, relationships. Whether you have spent your entire life dreaming about the day you'll get married, or you've sworn from day one that you're happiest alone, chances are at some point in your life you'll meet someone who you connect with instantly. That initial spark can be both beautiful and terrifying. Is this person right for you? How long will this relationship last? Are they the one?
Chances are when you meet the right person; you'll just know. Even so, we've been so over-saturated by the typical Hollywood love story that when we find our perfect match, we may not even realize it. You may not have one particular soul mate, and your true love might not look like the movies. If you spend your entire life looking for someone who ticks every single box, you may spend your life disappointed in everyone.
Real love - as opposed to the love in all of those romantic comedies out there - requires a lot of hard work and dedication from both parties. If you've found someone you click with, don't get rid of them just because it doesn't seem like a fairytale romance. On the other hand, don't stay in a relationship that you aren't satisfied with just because you're afraid of never finding anything else; settling is never the best option. There will always be someone and something new and exciting just around the corner.
4. Will you have children? Will you travel? What does life have in store for you?
Sometimes we are faced with so many decisions at once that we are unable to decide anything at all. Even something as simple as deciding what to eat for breakfast or where to spend our free time in the afternoon can seem daunting when dealing with existential anxiety. Every single decision you make can seemingly open doors or close them. Even so, making decisions helps you progress, so it's important not to get too hung up on all of the small details.
Remember that making one decision doesn't necessarily close all of the other doors. If you have children and then decide you want to travel, you still can! If you study a certain subject in college and decide you want to follow a different career path afterward, no problem! If you think outside the box, you can find ways of doing nearly everything you desire - just maybe not always in the exact way you've always envisioned it.
Treatment Of Existential Anxiety
There is no foolproof cure for existential anxiety, but there are certain steps you can take to try to alleviate the worst symptoms.
Medication - Both antidepressants and benzodiazepines may be prescribed for more severe cases of existential anxiety. Antidepressants work to restore proper levels of serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine in the brain, while benzodiazepines are minor tranquilizers and promote a feeling of relaxation. While helpful, benzodiazepines should only be used for short periods of time since they can become addictive and don't solve the underlying emotional issue.
Cognitive behavioral therapy - Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) acknowledges that the way in which we think and behave affects our overall emotions. By recognizing certain patterns that are leading to anxious feelings, a professional therapist can help you make certain changes that will reduce your anxiety. The first step is identifying negative thought patterns, then challenging them by considering how realistic they are, then replacing those negative thought patterns with more positive ones. The sessions will be different for everyone based on individual needs. CBT often incorporates relaxation and breathing techniques as well to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety.
Learning To Live With Anxiety
Existential anxiety may not ever completely go away, and that's okay. Without a bit of anxiety over our life purpose and future, we would never progress. The important thing to remember is that you are in control of your own life. This may be daunting when faced with so many decisions, but ultimately you can carve out the future you want, even if it seems as though the steps you are taking aren't leading you towards anything in particular. Start with small goals and keep reminding yourself that every step forward is a step closer to a larger goal.
If you feel as though your existential anxiety consumes you, and it negatively affects your everyday life, help is available. Speak with one of the licensed counselors at BetterHelp and learn how you can regain control of your emotions today.