Existential dread refers to nagging feelings about life’s meaning, our place in the world, and our inevitable death. Existential dread or angst is often triggered when you’re not sure how to move forward in your life, you’re worried about the state of the world, or you’ve just gone through a major transition.
No matter the cause of your dread, there are lots of ways you can use your existential anxiety as a tool to propel you into a deeper, fuller life.
Here are 23 tips from therapists for how to cope with existential dread:
1. Determine Why You Question Yourself
“Often it is past trauma that leads to existential dread. Naming the voice in your mind can create a bit of separation in order to gain some clarity on where intrusive thoughts and questions may come from. Is it a voice from the past? A voice that no longer serves you? If so, name that voice so you can choose to dismiss this unwelcome visitor. The more you choose to dismiss this questioning voice, the less frequent and less intense it will be. Before you know it, an existential crisis can be transformed to a bold existential awakening!” – Nicole Kleiman-Reck, MA, LMHC
2. Lean Into It
“Instead of letting the boogie man lead, it’s time to face the worst case scenario head on. Let’s lean in to death instead of running from it. What do you know about death? Does it have to be scary? Or can it be beautiful? Start by reading Start the Conversation: The Book About Death You Were Hoping to Find by Ganga Stone. Consider how your feelings and perhaps misunderstandings around death color your views of life! You might find a new perspective on what brings meaning to you, your life, and to the lives of those around you!” – Niki J. Yarnot, MSW LASW, Forest for the Trees Coaching
3. Stop Making Comparisons
“Existential dread is often precipitated by comparing ourselves to others. The first thing you can do, and probably the best way of preventing existential dread, is to work on accepting that the lives and stories that you see from other people, especially online, are their highly curated, edited, best, and oftentimes fictional or embellished versions. This makes comparing your life and contributions to the world and those around you an unrealistic proposition.” –Robert Hinojosa, LCSW
4. Be Open to People Around You
“Sometimes talking about the negative thoughts running in your mind with your friends or family is enough to make you feel better. The support you get from them can help you tap into your energies and find meaning in life again.” –Barbara Santini, Psychologist, Sex and Relationship Adviser
5. Know Your Life Doesn’t Have to Be Big for It to Be Important
“A lot of the time, when people are dealing with an existential crisis, it’s because they feel that the vastness of the universe makes them insignificant. Although this logic can help put our problems into perspective, it can also make us feel like nothing we do matters. However, that’s not true. Of course, your life and the things you do and achieve still matter. They matter to the people you love and the people whose lives you’ve touched.” – Heather Wilson LCSW, LCADC, CCTP, Executive Director of Epiphany Wellness
6. Remember That Existential Dread Is Totally Normal
“People often create more anxiety trying to analyze their thoughts, but thoughts are out of anyone’s control! It is the thinking that is 100% in a person’s control, so I love letting clients know they can choose to STOP unhelpful thoughts that have led to rumination in the past. Saying, “STOP” to your mind is powerful. Adding the acronym: Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Proceed mindfully can be a great way to stop the habit loop of overthinking (which will only worsen the existential dread).” – Nicole Kleiman-Reck, MA, LMHC
7. Accept Uncertainty & Manage What’s In Your Control
“One of the best tips for how to deal with existential dread is to accept uncertainty. Existential dread often stems from feeling overwhelmed by life’s uncertainties and the lack of control we have over them. When faced with this feeling, it can be helpful to remind yourself that while you cannot control every outcome, you can control how you react to them. Instead of focusing on the things that are out of your control, focus on what you can do in the present moment and make plans for the future.
For example, instead of worrying about the future, take actionable steps such as making a budget or a list of goals you would like to accomplish. This will help give your life structure and purpose and make it easier to cope with life’s uncertainties. Additionally, practicing mindfulness and meditation can help you stay grounded in the present moment and keep your thoughts from spiraling out of control.” – Steve Carleton, LCSW, CACIII, Gallus Detox
8. Connect With Something Greater Than Yourself
“This might mean using prayer or meditation to access our spiritual selves, or using a ritual practice—lighting a candle, chanting, sound bowls, burning incense or herbs, or another practice that brings a sense of spiritual connection. Some of us have no connection to a sense of spirituality, but feel wonder and awe when spending time in the mountains, canyons, beaches or other naturally beautiful places.” – Laura Reagan, MSW, LCSW-C
9. Confront Yourself & Build Joy
“Many people who suffer from existential dread also struggle with their identity. Existential dread is difficult to cope with when you don’t understand or accept your sense of self. Instead of focusing on the big picture and the elements that fuel existential dread, center your focus on your relationship with yourself. Get to know yourself and develop an understanding of your identity. Discover who you are and confront the parts of yourself that you hide from. Then, start focusing on what you want.
Focusing on our existential dread is debilitating, but is it useful? Do you need to know the answers to find peace? Start small and begin building. Prioritize patience and acceptance for where you are, and look for joy in small moments. Once you’ve mastered patience and have found what you want or ways to feel joy, you can build a lifestyle for yourself that feels comfortable with less existential dread.” – GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC at PsychPoint
10. Set Some Achievable Goals
“Existential depression and dread are often associated with a lack of achievement or unmet expectations. Setting realistic goals for yourself, whether it be in your career, family life, social life, or personal life is a good step to take. Making S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely) is a good place to start. Creating goals if you do not have any in the first place is probably best as well. After all…how are you going to have a sense of achieving purpose or value if you have nothing clear you are working toward?” – Robert Hinojosa, LCSW
11. Think About What You Want Your Life to Mean
“When we don’t have a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives, it can be easy to get bogged down by the details and miss out on the beauty of life. Take some time and think about what you want your life to stand for. What do you want to achieve? What kind of person do you want to be? Once you have a better sense of what you’re working towards, it will be easier to find joy and purpose in everyday life.” – Heather Wilson LCSW, LCADC, CCTP, Executive Director of Epiphany Wellness
12. Keep a Journal
“Even if you simply write for a few minutes each day, journaling may give a lot of insight into the intricacies of your deepest thoughts. After a week or two of scribbling down emotions, feelings, or questions that come to mind, you may discover minor trends.” – Dr. Tabitha Cranie, MD, editor for NWPH
13. Set Aside Some “No Screen” Time
“In today’s fast-paced world of technology, we are constantly staring at a screen all day long. We live our lives staring at screens. If you’re experiencing a moment of existential dread, it’s time for a social media break. Spending excessive amounts of time staring at devices has been proven to increase depression, cause sleep problems, and even obesity. Oftentimes, taking more time to enjoy real life is the best medicine.” – Jeni Woodfin, LMFT
14. Learn Radical Acceptance
“Radical acceptance simply means fully accepting what cannot be changed (your past) and what cannot be known with complete accuracy (the future). Slowing the breath can help a person to gain clarity and begin to take action in an area of contemplation. I recommend the smallest amount of action to begin (set the bar low on an action to take as a way to just about guarantee success), and give yourself permission to fail. When a person takes the pressure off of themselves, action into the unknown is much more likely to be taken.” – Nicole Kleiman-Reck, MA, LMHC
15. Find Something to Be Grateful for Every Day
“Gratitude practice isn’t just cliché; it is science-backed and actually works wonders for our mental and emotional health. When you start questioning the meaning and purpose of your life, taking the time to appreciate the important things that often go unnoticed can help you get back on track. It also boosts your happy hormones that elevate your mood, thus improving your levels of contentment and happiness and your sense of wellbeing.
Gratitude savors the present. It enables you to see the beauty of what you have now rather than focus on something that can’t be undone or is still yet to come. The consistent practice of gratitude can help you refocus and establish new and better goals.” – Dr. Sony Sherpa, MD, Nature’s Rise
16. Surround Yourself With Positive Influences
“Rather than watching Don’t Look Up, choose to watch a comedy that will make you laugh. Instead of talking about the rapid spread of Omicron, talk about a newfound hobby you have pursued during the time you’ve had alone.” – Sarah Kaufman, LMSW at Cobb Psychotherapy
17. Embrace Change & Look Inward
“Engaging in one-on-one sessions with my clients over the last year has shown me that many individuals have avoided existential dread through embracing self-care and self-growth. Looking internally at goals, values, and self has been enlightening to many, as are critical thinking and forming one’s own opinion. This points to an inherent value in looking inwardly versus being consumed by the external.” – Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP, Chief Clinical Officer, Foundations Wellness Center
18. Think About Past Successes
“Every person has accomplished so much, but this is often not top of mind during moments of existential dread. Remembering this can be helpful when feeling anxious about life’s transitions or taking a next step. Asking yourself, ‘What will happen?’ versus ‘What could happen?’ can help to reduce anxiety as well as recenter a person in the midst of existential dread.” – Nicole Kleiman-Reck, MA, LMHC
19. Take Back Control in 1 or 2 Areas of Life
“The things we choose to have in our life are extremely important to the way we think and feel. With what is happening in our society, people have to make a conscious choice to think positive and not dwell on situations that they cannot control. Being proactive in a situation where you feel powerless is empowering. It will help you escape your existential crisis and realize your life isn’t inevitably doomed. Try to hold yourself accountable to doing one or two positive things each day. Write them down and plan ahead. The key to making any change is small, sustainable steps.” – Sarah Kaufman, LMSW at Cobb Psychotherapy
20. Have a Plan for Transitional Times
“Existential dread can pop up at major milestones or transition points in life (turning a certain age, making a career change or quitting a job, graduating, kids leaving home, etc.). Being aware that this can happen, and planning how to handle it, can make those times easier to handle. One way is to take stock of the things in life you have already accomplished. You may even consider making a legacy list of the things you’re proud of getting done leading up to that point in life. Try avoiding falling into the all-or-nothing thinking fallacy, where you think in extremes (leaving a job means life is over, or because you didn’t have a job immediately lined up after graduation means you’re a complete failure and deserve to be in a state of depression). This is unrealistic and devalues the things that you have accomplished.” – Robert Hinojosa, LCSW
21. Address Inner Conflict
“Learning to talk to the alter ego that is inside each of us can be quite an awakening experience. Our alter ego is the part of ourselves that keeps us safe. When a person is contemplating a goal that stretches themself, it is the inner voice that says, ‘Yes, but…’ Both voices have served as a protective function and mean well, but only listening to one voice will allow you to learn, develop, and grow. Discomfort is needed for growth to occur, so reminding yourself of this can be a new message to the mind that can be very powerful with consistent repetition.” – Nicole Kleiman-Reck, MA, LMHC
22. Create Time for Meditation
“Meditation is a great way to combat existential anxiety. With reduced existential anxiety, you can focus on important aspects of life and avoid thoughts that lead you to question your future.” – Barbara Santini, Psychologist, Sex and Relationship Adviser
23. Focus on the Present
“Along with slowing the breath, engaging the five senses in the present can help redirect a person back to the present moment. Clarifying your values can be helpful for present-moment awareness. What do you want to stand for? How do you want people to describe you when you are not there? These reminders can help a person act more like their ideal self in each moment which, in turn, will lessen the pressure to focus on the future which is where existential dread lives.” – Nicole Kleiman-Reck, MA, LMHC
Bonus: Talk to a Therapist
“It’s fine to ponder difficult topics from time to time. Doing so can assist you in leading a more meaningful life. Checking in with yourself about your objectives, sense of purpose, and values may assist you in living your best life.
However, if you are unable to divert yourself from intense existential discomfort without completely blotting it out, it may be time to seek the help of a therapist.” – Dr. Tabitha Cranie, MD, editor for NWPH
Final Thoughts on Existential Dread
Existential dread can feel debilitating, but it doesn’t have to be. Make sure you’re checking in with yourself and talking through your struggles with trusted people in your life. If you’re still feeling stuck in an anxious feedback loop, a therapist who offers existential therapy can help you learn to live with those feelings and determine how to move forward.