What Is Existential Anxiety & How To Cope With It

By Mary Elizabeth Dean|Updated August 11, 2022

While having anxious feelings is a normal part of life, feeling anxiety over one’s own meaning in life is something else. If you ever find yourself preoccupied with the meaning of life, you might have existential anxiety. 

Those who live with this form of anxiety are often plagued with questions about the meaning and purpose of life. This sense of existential dread can lead to health issues and may even require treatment from a therapist.

Existential Anxiety Is More Common Than You Think

However, existential anxiety doesn't have to control your life. If you are willing to take the proper steps, a brighter future lies ahead. You deserve to live a peaceful life, and it's possible to get there. 

Read on.

What Is Existential Anxiety?

To put it simply, existential anxiety is stress caused from questioning your existence. 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, these thoughts can spiral into existential anxiety. 

While these sorts of deep questions can cause extreme worry and stress, they can also help you work toward certain goals in life and give you an increased sense of purpose.

What Can Trigger Existential Anxiety?

Oftentimes major life events can trigger 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

If you sense that issues such as these are causing you to experience anxiety that is consuming you, you may need to seek professional treatment.

Symptoms Of Existential Anxiety

The symptoms of existential anxiety are similar to the symptoms of general anxiety, with a strong focus on worrying about your purpose in life and what the future holds. 

The symptoms include:

  • Avoidance of people or situations you once enjoyed
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Excessive worrying
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Increased heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Trembling

According to peer-reviewed studies, those who experience existential anxiety could be more likely to engage in substance abuse. A study from Hong Kong found that young people who take drugs do so in part to escape from issues such as feeling confused about who they are, what they want to do with their lives, their place in the world, and the meaning of life in general.

If you struggle with substance abuse or know a person who does, professional help in the form of substance abuse treatment is available.

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 these things at once, it can become overwhelming. 

Instead of feeling as though you have no control over your life, there are simple ways you can start working toward long-term goals today.

  1. What makes you happy?

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 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. Try to keep writing things down until you've filled an entire page with ideas.

  1. How can you incorporate more of these things into your daily life?

Look at the list you just made and ask yourself how many of these things you encounter daily. 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? Doing things that you love can give you a sense of purpose.

  1. Are your interpersonal relationships causing you existential anxiety?

Whether you've spent your entire life dreaming about the day you'll get married, or haven’t given it much thought, chances are at some point you'll meet someone who you connect with. That initial spark can be both beautiful and terrifying. Is this person right for you? How long will this relationship last? Is the person you’re currently with “the one?”

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 soul mate, and your true love might not look like a movie star. 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 romantic comedies, requires a lot of hard work and dedication from both parties. If you've found a person 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.

  1. Will you have children? Will you travel? What does life have in store for you?

Sometimes we're faced with so many decisions at once that we struggle 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 little decision has unknown importance. But making decisions helps you progress, so it's important not to get too hung up on all the small details.

Remember that making one decision doesn't necessarily close all 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 expand your imagination, you can find ways of doing nearly everything you desire. Just remember that the path you travel might not look the way you've always envisioned it.

Existential Anxiety Is More Common Than You Think

Treatment Of Existential Anxiety

There are various methods for treating existential anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one common treatment option. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy - Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) acknowledges that how we think and behave affects our overall emotions. By recognizing certain patterns that are leading to anxious feelings, a professional therapist can give you coping tools to help you make certain changes that will reduce your anxiety.

The first step is identifying negative thoughts, then challenging them by considering how realistic they are, and replacing them with more positive ones. The sessions will be different for everyone based on individual needs. CBT often incorporates relaxation and breathing techniques to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety.

Learning to Live with Anxiety

Existential anxiety may not ever completely go away, and that's okay - some anxious thoughts are a normal part of the human experience. Without a bit of anxiety over our 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. Start with small goals and keep reminding yourself that every step forward is a step closer to a larger goal.

There is no specific treatment that is best for anxiety or an existential crisis, but rather a variety of therapy types are available.

Grounding techniques are a great place to start when you are dealing with existential angst. These techniques are designed to help cement you in the world and take power from your anxiety. This will help you realize how to battle your anxiety or stop it altogether.

When you're feeling anxious, try talking to a friend or family member. The circle of people we keep around us greatly impacts our mental health. Sometimes having an ear to listen to your problems makes all the difference.

Self-care is another important consideration. If you aren't taking the time to care for yourself, you won't have the energy to deal with your anxiety. Make sure your batteries are fully charged each day by taking a few minutes to think about yourself.

The success of treating existential anxiety with CBT and other forms of psychotherapy isn’t just conjecture. These methods have been clinically proven to work. Reflecting on his relevant experience as a therapist treating existential anxiety issues, Dr. Barry E. Wolfe writes, “My clinical experience over the past 30 years with several hundred patients [experiencing] anxiety disorders has led me to two broad conclusions. 

The first is that anxiety disorders are typically generated by failed efforts to confront and solve a finite number of unavoidable existential dilemmas that every human being will experience. The second conclusion is that these disorders can be comprehensively and durably treated by integrative psychotherapy that begins with symptom alleviation and then proceeds to emotion-focused work on the patient's specific existential crises.”

If you feel as though your existential anxiety is at the point it is negatively affecting your everyday life, help is available through online counseling. Speak with one of the licensed counselors at BetterHelp and learn how you can regain control of your emotions today. Specialists are available to work with your schedule and connect with you when it is convenient. 

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar feelings of anxiety.

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!"


Existential anxiety doesn't have to control your life. With a little help, you can overcome the symptoms brought about by anxiety. Reach out to a therapist at BetterHelp and take that first step to a fulfilling future.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.