Different experiences or parts of life can cause anxiety for different people. For some, anxiety is most intensely felt when thinking about existence in general, such as their purpose in the world, the meaning of life, and, primarily, the inevitability of death. It’s known as existential anxiety, and it goes beyond wondering about these questions; instead, this anxiety is characterized by intense fear and worry. Read on to find out more about existential anxiety, including strategies that may help you cope.
Existential Anxiety Defined
As the American Psychological Association puts it, existential anxiety is “a general sense of anguish or despair associated with an individual’s recognition of the inevitability of death”. As a result, a person may become preoccupied with existential questions about why they’re here and what the meaning of their own life is, or they may develop an intense, debilitating fear of death that prevents them from doing things they’d otherwise like to.
For example, someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may be more likely to be overcome by existential worry about a topic like this. In general, an anxiety disorder may be present when a person’s anxieties are persistent and interfere with their daily functioning. Other conditions that may trigger existential anxiety include mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, major life events that can cause stress, or painful emotions.
So while it’s not uncommon for us all to ponder existential questions like the meaning of life from time to time and perhaps even feel uneasy or worried about death, someone with existential anxiety may frequently experience overwhelm and existential dread as a result of negative thoughts.
What Can Trigger Existential Anxiety?
One academic paper published in 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health examines existential anxiety as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It outlines three key elements of existential anxiety, which are:
- Anxiety about fate and death along with an awareness of human mortality
- A sense of emptiness and meaninglessness of life as a result
- A sense of existential guilt related to not living up to one’s own moral standards
Again, existential anxiety itself is not a clinical mental health condition, but it may be present or exacerbated in an individual who already has a diagnosable mental health disorder. An individual with an anxiety disorder for instance, could also experience the following symptoms:
- Excessive worry
- Lack of motivation
- Inability to control worry
- Tightness in the chest
- An increased heart rate
- Panic attacks
The experience of an existential crisis (overwhelming existential anxiety) may drive a person to engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms that could be dangerous to their health. If they come to believe that nothing matters in life because death is inevitable, they might take risks with little regard to their own safety or well-being, or even develop suicidal thoughts. For instance, one study conducted in Hong Kong found that young people may take illicit drugs in part to manage anxiety around existential concerns, such as feeling confused about who they are and the meaning of life in general.
Coping With Existential Anxiety
Feeling anxious about existence, death, and the meaning of life can be scary and overwhelming. If you’re experiencing existential anxiety, the following strategies may help you cope.
Identify What Brings You Joy And Meaning In Your Own Life
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or the big questions of existence, it may be helpful to zoom in and focus on what brings joy and meaning to you personally. You might try and make a list of everything that brings a smile to your face, fills you with positive feelings, or makes you feel gratitude, no matter how big or how small the positive impact is. Examples of activities or experiences you might add to your list could include things like going for a hike, playing with a pet, cooking a nice meal, getting lost in a good book, or feeling the sun on your face.
First, the act of simply putting these things down on paper can provide mental health benefits. As an article from Harvard Health Publishing reports, taking time to focus on what you’re grateful for can help people “feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships”. Second, once you have this list, you can work to incorporate more of these activities or moments into your daily life as you navigate existential concerns.
Connect With Loved Ones
Peer-reviewed studies show the importance of healthy relationships for mental well-being. For example, a Harvard study conducted over nearly 80 years found that there is a strong link between close relationships and personal happiness and well-being, so cultivating or strengthening the relationships in your life can help you combat existential anxiety. Another study reports that the experience of receiving physical touch can help “alleviate existential fears”, particularly in those who have low self-esteem. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed with existential concerns or anxiety, you might try connecting with a friend or family to get the worries off your chest—and a hug or some hand-holding might help, too.
Practice Grounding Techniques
It can be helpful to turn to grounding techniques when you’re experiencing existential angst or existential anxiety. They’re designed to help pull you back into the present moment and connect you with the world around you, which can be especially helpful when your mind is consumed with worries about the future and your own meaning of life.
There are various grounding techniques you can try, from breathing exercises to body scans to sensory strategies. One simple approach you might consider employing is the 5-4-3-2-1 method, where 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 to help you be more present in the now instead of worrying about the future or being swept in anxiety.
Seek Help Through Therapy
Again, experiencing anxiety about the future sometimes is a normal part of the human experience and does not necessarily indicate that anything is wrong. However, if your existential anxiety has become debilitating, causes you significant distress, or is negatively impacting your relationships or daily functioning, it may be worth seeking professional help. A therapist can provide a safe, nonjudgmental space where you can express your feelings and anxiety openly. They can also use cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) techniques to help you shift the way you think about the existential factors that are making you anxious. Some therapists even specialize in existential therapy, though it’s typically intended for the elderly or those with a terminal illness.
Those experiencing existential anxiety may sometimes feel overwhelmed with worry and fear, so taking the steps to find and meet with a therapist in person may feel daunting. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a more approachable, effective option. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of your home. Research suggests that face-to-face and virtual CBT can be equally effective in most cases, so you can generally feel confident in choosing whichever method feels best for you. See below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors who have helped individuals facing similar concerns.
Help For Existential Crises
"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!"
What is an example of existential anxiety?
Existential anxiety takes many forms, but the most common is having compulsive, overwhelming feelings of fear and dread when thinking about death. Some people may have existential anxiety over significant changes or specific events in their lives, such as divorce, marriage, job loss, or a severe medical diagnosis.
Is existential anxiety normal?
Existential anxiety is a natural part of being human, and most people experience it multiple times throughout a lifetime. However, preoccupations and thinking patterns concerning death or distress over significant life changes can become unmanageable. This could be a sign of a broader mental health condition.
How do you get over existential anxiety?
How one successfully overcomes existential anxiety is relative to the individual and their circumstances. Some people can find relief from the associated painful emotions by reaching out to friends and family, keeping a gratitude journal, and practicing self-care. Others may take self-help measures but see minimal progress— therapeutic intervention can help in these cases.
Does existential anxiety ever go away?
Like most other typical human conditions, existential anxiety comes and goes. But while it may not overrun a person’s life, it won’t likely disappear entirely.
What are the four existential anxieties?
According to psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom, four existential anxieties (or concerns) represent the full range of existential issues humans face. These include:
This relates to our awareness of death’s inevitability and uncertainty about what happens afterward.
People may experience existential dread when considering the freedom of choice we have in daily life and the seemingly endless long-term consequences our choices may have.
Fear of isolation or disconnection relates to the separation anxiety people often feel when faced with the potential loss of a significant relationship.
Existential anxiety can stem from a fixation on one’s sense of meaning and purpose. It’s often marked by the existential guilt one may feel if they can’t find meaning in life or don’t think they’ve impacted other people.
Why do I have anxiety about being alive?
You may experience anxiety over being alive because of a traumatic experience, but it’s also common in people when they ponder their own death and the limitations of existence. If you can’t identify where the anxiety originates, it may be helpful to speak with a therapist who can assist you in uncovering the sources that trigger existential anxiety.
Why am I questioning my existence?
People often question their existence after experiencing a significant life-altering event such as trauma or loss. Or it may be the result of reflection on the nature of existence common in all humans.
How do I stop existential rumination?
If you find it difficult to stop thinking about existential matters to the point that it becomes problematic, you should consult with a therapist who can assess you for underlying mental disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) related explicitly to existential rumination.
To stop the rumination, it’s necessary to determine if you do have existential OCD so your therapist can develop a treatment plan accordingly. If not, they may tailor other forms of specific treatment intervention to your needs.
How do you calm existential OCD?
Peer-reviewed studies indicate that a type of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) is the most widely used evidence-based treatment for existential OCD. In some cases, mental health professionals may recommend medication in addition to therapy to help manage co-occurring symptoms of anxiety and depression.
What is existential OCD?
Existential OCD is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which individuals experience intrusive, disturbing thoughts about the nature of existence to the point that they interfere with daily functioning. Typically, these types of compulsive thoughts are associated with one or more of Yalom’s existential categories.
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