Existential Anxiety: What It Is And How To Cope With It

Updated December 22, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

People can experience anxiety around a wide variety of topics. For some, there is an intense fear or worry around the major questions of existence, such as one’s purpose in the world, the meaning of life, and the inevitability of death. This type of anxiety is called existential anxiety. 

People experiencing existential anxiety may feel overwhelmed with feelings of meaninglessness and dread about the state of the world and their role in it. If this is something you’re experiencing, there are ways to cope. In this article, we’ll explore more about existential anxiety and offer a few suggestions for how to manage it. 

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What Is Existential Anxiety?

Existential anxiety involves a deep feeling of stress or fear surrounding questions of existence, such as why you are here, what your purpose is, what the meaning of life is, and how you can make sense of life given the inevitability of death. 

While these sorts of deep questions can cause extreme worry and stress, when they are not debilitating, they may also help you identify key goals in life and find ways to create an increased sense of purpose.

What Can Cause Existential Anxiety?

People may experience existential anxiety for a variety of reasons and at various points in life. For some, major life events and changes may prompt existential anxiety, such as:

  • The death of a person you care about

  • Divorce

  • Health issues or illness

  • Children growing up and leaving the house

  • Job loss

Symptoms Of Existential Anxiety

The symptoms of existential anxiety may vary from person to person and may experience some similarities with other types of anxiety, but with a strong focus on worrying about your purpose in life and what the future holds. 

The symptoms may include:

  • Avoidance of people or situations you once enjoyed

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Excessive worrying

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Increased heart rate

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Trembling

Some researchers suggest that existential anxiety in young people could lead to drug use. For instance, one study conducted in Hong Kong and published in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth found that young people may take illicit drugs in part to manage anxiety around existential issues, such as feeling confused about who they are and the meaning of life in general.

How Can You Cope With Existential Anxiety?

If you’re experiencing existential anxiety and grappling with excessive worry over questions about the meaning of life and your purpose in it, it can feel overwhelming—but, there are ways to cope. Included below are a few suggestions for how to manage existential anxiety. 

  1. Identify What Brings You Joy And Meaning

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by the big questions of existence, it may be helpful to zoom in and focus on what personally brings you joy and meaning in life. Try to make a list of everything you can think of that brings a smile to your face or fills you with positive feelings—no matter how big or how small. Maybe it's hiking up a mountain, playing with a puppy, or collaborating with a team on a big project. Maybe creating art, writing a story, talking with a close friend, or developing a new recipe makes your life feel a little more meaningful. Try to write down as many things as you can think of. 

Then, you can look at the list you made and try to incorporate more of those things into your daily life more regularly. Perhaps you can reserve some time every evening before bed to read a chapter of a good book, or you can spend Sunday mornings working on a new painting.  If you begin to incorporate more of these things that bring you joy, you may feel more fulfilled and feel a greater sense of purpose.  

  1. Cultivate Meaningful Relationships 

Research has shown the importance of social connection for our well-being and happiness in life. For instance, a Harvard study conducted over nearly 80 years found that close relationships have a powerful impact on our health and happiness, and that there is a strong link between close relationships and happiness. 

So, when you're feeling anxious about the big existential questions, try talking to a close friend or family, or doing something fun with someone you care about. Cultivating and maintaining strong social connections may help you find greater joy and purpose in your life, allowing those existential worries to dissipate.

  1. Practice Grounding Techniques 

Grounding techniques can be a great place to start when you are dealing with existential angst, as they aim to pull you back into the present moment. These techniques are designed to help cement you in the world around you and the present moment you’re experiencing, which may be especially helpful when your mind is consumed with big worries about the future and the meaning of life. 

There are many grounding techniques you can consider trying, and a very common one is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. With this method, you identify five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Other techniques include meditation, mindfulness, body scans, or touching something hot or cold. 

  1. Seek Help Through Therapy

For professional, personalized support with existential anxiety, you can also seek help through therapy, which can be an effective approach for individuals grappling with existential crises.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one common treatment option for individuals with anxiety, and research has found that online CBT can be similarly effective as face-to-face therapy for anxiety. For instance, one such study examined the effectiveness of internet-delivered CBT (ICBT) as compared to face-to-face CBT for anxiety disorders. As a result of the study, the researchers concluded that ICBT and face-to-face CBT “created equivalent overall effects” in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Individuals experiencing existential anxiety may sometimes feel overwhelmed with excessive worry and fear, so taking the steps to find and meet with a therapist in-person may feel very daunting. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can match with a therapist online and then meet with your therapist from wherever you are most comfortable, including the comfort of your own home. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar feelings of anxiety.

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Counselor Reviews

"I put off finding a therapist for a long time. I dreaded my first conversation with Neil and all the awkward, clunky explanations I'd have to give about my depression and anxiety. All of the things that felt like dirty little secrets that caused me so much pain. But I was so pleasantly surprised by the way Neil accurately picked up on what I was saying and gave me more insight into how my brain was working. It made my issue feel so much less of a personal problem and more of a universal problem we could examine together. He always gives me a thoughtful response within a day or two any time I send a message. I actually think we've made more progress in between sessions just by being able to communicate things that are coming up in real time. Neil is intelligent and kind. I really appreciate his communication style and highly recommend him.”


"Natasha has been a truly amazing counselor! I now feel that I have the confidence to face challenges as they come. Natasha helped me to reflect on why I might be feeling a certain way, while providing me with some tools to cope with my anxiety as needed. She was incredibly understanding and helped me to set realistic goals with myself and others. Not only can I tell that our counseling sessions helped, but also others have commented on the positive changes I have made. She's awesome!"

Takeaway

Existential anxiety can involve excessive worry or fear around questions of existence such as the meaning of life, one’s purpose in the world, and the inevitability of death. These feelings can be overwhelming, but there are ways to cope. If this is something you’re experiencing, you may consider trying some of the strategies detailed above. For further help, you can connect with an online therapist who may be able to help you find relief from these worries. 

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