Existential Anxiety: Definition And Coping Tips

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

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.

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What is an existential crisis?

Existential thoughts—about one’s purpose, personal values, meaning, and sense of self—are a normal part of the human condition. We often want to know why we are here and how we fit into the world around us. When these thoughts affect us negatively, though, we may experience existential despair and, in some cases, existential crises. An existential crisis is a period of internal turmoil during which an individual grapples with their identity, purpose, or beliefs. 

Existential crises can be caused by a range of experiences and feelings. Symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression may contribute to their development. Major life events—such as a big move, a breakup, or the loss of a loved one—can also cause someone to question certain facets of life. While existential angst often arises early in adulthood, children, adolescents, and older adults can also experience these internal conflicts. As we’ll explore below, existential concerns can significantly impact an individual’s mental health, potentially leading to anxiety. 

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. 

Existential anxiety itself isn’t a diagnosable mental health condition according to the DSM-5, but it can be triggered for someone with a diagnosable mental health condition. 

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:

  1. Anxiety about fate and death along with an awareness of human mortality

  2. A sense of emptiness and meaninglessness of life as a result

  3. 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

  • Sweating

  • Nausea

  • Trembling

  • 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. 

You can also practice mindfulness to ground yourself and focus on the present moment. Mindfulness involves nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. This practice can help you identify unhelpful beliefs about your purpose or meaning and let them pass, potentially avoiding the rumination that existential angst can cause. 

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
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Addressing existential angst in online 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, existential therapy can help individuals work through concerns related to their meaning or place in the world. 

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 whom 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.

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 relates to a heightened preoccupation with the inevitability of death and the anxieties that may come along with it, such as concerns about the meaning of life and one’s place in the world. If existential concerns of any kind are interfering with your relationships, well-being, or daily functioning, it may be worth connecting with a mental health professional for support.
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