Existential anxiety is all about our existence in life, and it involves angst about big issues such as life’s meaning, freedom, and our inevitable death. Existential angst might be triggered by growing older, or by facing climate change or difficult political situations. While it can cause great suffering, existential anxiety can also be highly positive.
What Is Existential Anxiety?
Existential anxiety is a type of anxiety encompassed by the struggle to understand yourself, life in general, and what you want out of it.1 It can cause feelings of discontent, distress, and unease that can be hard to pinpoint, and it can be highly uncomfortable. Feeling existential dread can lead to all-encompassing doubt and deep questions about your purpose and your future.
A hallmark of existential anxiety is not just having a general worry or thought but going deeper with it and examining its meaning.1 This examination can turn into angst about the meaning of life itself. Existential anxiety deals with the emotional and spiritual experience of living beyond ordinary aspects of daily life.2
Four main concepts are at the root of existential anxiety:3,4
- The inevitability of death
- Freedom and responsibility
Is It Existential Anxiety or an Existential Crisis?
Existential anxiety often feels rather vague and nonspecific. While there are indeed causes of existential anxiety, the root of it isn’t a single event or situation. A related concept is the existential crisis. This is a period of upheaval and difficulty that also involves questioning the meaning of life and one’s purpose for living.
An existential crisis, though, often has an identifiable cause and can occur during times of great difficulty such as a significant loss or trauma. An existential crisis occurs as a distinct period of time. In addition to happening after a loss, it can occur during a significant life transition like emerging into adulthood, losing a loved one, facing an empty nest, or retiring. Any major life transition can be a time of heightened anxiety and confusion, and often relates to someone’s sense of identity.5
What Can Trigger Existential Anxiety?
Existential anxiety can emerge from common or unexpected sources. Major life events and imperceivable life changes can spur a person towards rethinking their values, beliefs, and goals, leaving them feeling anxious about where life is taking them.
Here are five things that can trigger existential anxiety:
1. The Death of a Loved One
When a loved one dies, a natural part of the grief process is to evaluate one’s own place in the universe. Whether the loved one set a good example or made some poor decisions, people may compare themselves and wonder about the mark they are leaving on the world and others around them.
2. New Responsibilities & Big Life Changes
Weddings, babies, new houses, new cars, or moving to a new area can all significantly disrupt patterns and routines, which can trigger existential anxiety. With these changes, reevaluating your efforts and values is expected.
As people age, they tend to review and reflect on their past accomplishments and wonder about what awaits them. Younger people are not immune to this process, though. Aging can trigger an existential crisis at any age, from 10 to 100.
4. Losing a Job or Feeling Stuck in a Career You Don’t Like
Feeling stuck or stepping backwards can create a lot of anxiety. Not only will someone deal with the immediate financial concerns of losing a job or being stuck in one that’s unrewarding, but they will also become confronted by the anxiety about their direction, goals, and accomplishments.
5. Anything That Makes You Question Life’s Meaning
Terrorism, pandemics, climate change, severe weather, and other significant life events can create existential anxiety, even if they do not happen to the person directly. These situations illustrate how fragile and unpredictable life can be and the limited control a person actually has.
5 Signs You May Be Experiencing Existential Anxiety
The signs of existential anxiety aren’t always visible to others, but instead are internal symptoms. On the outside, someone experiencing existential anxiety might appear calm and collected. Inside, however, they might be experiencing a great deal of turmoil.
Five signs that you might be experiencing existential anxiety include:5
- An increased sense of struggle (such as difficulty making decisions)
- Painful emotions like despair or regret
- Withdrawal from activities or people
- Questioning long-held beliefs, including but not limited to religious faith
- Panic attacks
10 Ways to Cope With Existential Anxiety
Coping with existential anxiety is of the utmost importance. When ignored, the risks can be dire and people can continue to suffer in their lives. When people calm their anxiety in positive ways, they may experience growth and find renewed meaning and connections.
Because it’s an inherent part of being human, existential angst is not something that will permanently disappear. Coping with existential anxiety is a process not of overcoming it, but of learning to live well despite feelings of existential anxiety.
Use these ten strategies to cope with your own existential anxiety:
1. Accept the Uncertainty
So much of existential anxiety comes from the uncertainty you’re feeling. Sadly, there may be no answers and no definites in life, so consider accepting and embracing the vague, ambiguous, and unclear elements of life. Loosening the need for control can be a liberating experience.
2. Reflect on Your Anxious Thoughts
Look for patterns in your anxious thoughts and feelings. Identify those times when you feel less anxious and more invigorated. What is happening during these times, and how can you create more of these experiences? You may wish to chart your moods and record what you are doing when you are experiencing anxiety and when you’re not.
3. Break Your Big Questions & Worries Into Smaller Chunks
Rather than avoiding your anxiety because the issues seem daunting, confront it directly in small chunks. Make a list of the big issues you’re grappling with. Then, choose one issue that is the most bothersome to you now. Write it down separately, and break it up into smaller components. Then, you can make small goals and create doable action steps to tackle each one.
For example, if you’re worried that you’re not doing anything significant with your life, break that apart by listing all the aspects of your life (family, job, spirituality, hobbies, interests, talents, health, etc.) Pick just one, and reflect on what it will take to make this area feel meaningful to you. Now you’re on your way to determining goals and actions to work towards them.
4. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a way of being with yourself and your life in which you pay attention to your present moment rather than remaining stuck in your thoughts about the past or the future. When you are mindful, you use your senses to ground yourself in the here-and-now, and you accept things as they are without judging them as good or bad. This allows you to respond to problems thoughtfully rather than react emotionally.
Mindfulness can help you deal positively with existential anxiety by keeping you focused on your life in each moment so you can take action to create meaning rather than merely thinking about problems and worrying about what will happen as a result of your choices.
5. Keep a Gratitude Journal
End each day by writing about positive things you experienced that day (or pause throughout the day to jot down grateful thoughts as you have them). You can include the people and circumstances in your life, and you can express gratitude for small things, too, such as a beautiful flower in bloom in your yard or the sound of children playing in a nearby park. By doing this, you train your mind to pay attention to the good in life. This provides both a temporary mood boost and a long-term improvement to your outlook on your life.
6. Find Flow by Finding Activities That Challenge & Excite You
Flow is a concept that comes to us from the field of positive psychology. It refers to a state of being in which you are completely immersed in what you are doing and all other thoughts, emotions, and distractions fade away. When you’re in flow, you are mindful of your present moment rather than lost in anxious, negative thoughts.
Flow happens when you are doing something you love that offers just the right amount of challenge—not so difficult that the task is frustrating, but not so easy that it’s boring. Try new hobbies and activities to give yourself a chance to discover a new passion that puts you in a state of flow. This process itself can be invigorating and help reduce the purposelessness of existential anxiety.
7. Seek Fulfillment by Exploring Your Values
What is important to you? It is by taking action in accordance with your values that will lead you to discover meaning. Consider taking online interest inventories to learn more about yourself. Many of these relate to career choice and direction. You may just find a new career path in line with your values, or if that isn’t possible, you might discover passions that lead to volunteer work that bring new meaning to your life. If one of your main worries is eco-anxiety, consider what ways you can lean into your values and make small changes in your own life that support positive change.
8. Figure Out & Learn More About Your Strengths
We all have unique character strengths that, when used intentionally, can lead to a sense of fulfillment in life. Try taking a strengths survey to learn more about yourself, your strengths, and how you can use them every day to connect with others and create a life of meaning.
9. Find the Positives of Anxiety
Existential anxiety may leave some feeling weighed down and trapped by stress and restlessness. Rather than allowing anxiety to control the situation, try seeing the anxiety as a motivational force that you can use for good. Using the anxiety to accomplish simple, behavioral goals can help you turn a negative into a positive.
10. Talk to a Therapist
Therapists spend much of their time discussing and processing the existential questions that plague their clients. Unlike the average person, though, they have the education and experience to create positive change. A therapist may validate your anxiety, while offering new ways to view the world and your place in it.
The Health Risks of Unchecked Existential Anxiety
Unchecked existential anxiety can have mental health risks. Mental health challenges come with physical symptoms and are strongly tied to overall health and quality of life.
Existential anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. It doesn’t always cause problems beyond the uncomfortable signs and symptoms that accompany the angst. However, if people ignore their experience, deny it, or avoid facing it, existential anxiety can negatively impact wellbeing.
Health risks of existential anxiety include:3,5,6
- Anxiety disorders
- Relationship problems
- Sense of pointlessness and lack of motivation to try things or take healthy risks
- Deep discouragement with life
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Lack of positive contributions to society
While not an inevitable part of existential anxiety, in extreme cases, existential anxiety can lead to suicide. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts from existential anxiety or for any reason, it’s important to seek immediate help. Call 911, go directly to your nearest emergency room, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or visit their website to chat with someone who can help. All of these resources are available 24/7.
The Upside of Existential Anxiety
Existential anxiety doesn’t always lead to negative outcomes. In fact, this struggle can be positive and offers the potential for significant benefits. When people are aware of their anxiety and face their struggle, they can put their lives in perspective, develop a sense of direction, and come to terms with their mortality so they can pursue meaning and create a sense of purpose.6
Confronting our existential anxiety often increases positive experiences such as:3
- Self-awareness (not just of our limitations but our potential and strengths
- Growth and change
- Self-actualization (understanding and developing our potential as individuals and members of society)
- Fulfillment and meaning
- Dasein (a complex concept that involves the ability to live mindfully and interact with awareness of ourselves and others, offering our complete presence and self to our complete life experience)
Some experts assert that existential anxiety can relieve boredom and create a healthy sense of tension that motivates us to move forward; indeed, depression may actually arise not because of existential anxiety but from a lack of it.7 Without this anxiety, there is no struggle because there is no sense of potential. That lack may be the ultimate form of meaninglessness.
When to Get Professional Help for Existential Anxiety
It can be possible to cope with existential anxiety on your own. Sometimes, though, actively using your coping skills isn’t quite enough to help you through. When you can’t seem to deal with existential anxiety no matter what steps you take, it may be time to seek professional help.
Here are some signs that it’s time to see a therapist for your existential anxiety:
- Your anxiety is worsening and beginning to interfere in your ability to perform basic tasks
- You’re no longer able to enjoy life
- You’re increasingly distracted
- You’re often irritable or snippy
- You’re feeling fatigued and tired a lot
- You have difficulty making decisions because you’re worried about potential outcomes
- You increasingly feel that life is pointless or you don’t have a purpose
Remember that existential anxiety is a universal human experience. You aren’t alone, and others have been there and may be able to offer useful insights to help you through.
Treatments for Existential Anxiety
The only thing that will decrease existential anxiety is to face it, examine and explore it, and accept that it is part of life.5 A therapist can help you work through your anxiety effectively, and there are several types that can work well. The most important thing is that you have a good rapport with your counselor.
Working with a therapist can be effective for overcoming many obstacles, including existential anxiety. As your therapist listens to you and helps you learn more about yourself, you can come to understand the full range of your experiences so you can know what you want to change, how to change it, and accept and co-exist with other facets of existential anxiety.8
Some types of therapy that are particularly well-suited to help people deal with existential anxiety, including:
How to Find a Therapist
To find a therapist, ask people you know for recommendations. Others in your life may have seen or currently see a therapist, and they might be able to share their impressions with you. You can also ask your primary doctor for recommendations. Doctors often refer patients to mental health specialists, and they might know of therapists who specialize in anxiety that are a good fit for you. Online therapist directories can be helpful, too, since you can sort by the specialty (like anxiety or existential therapy) of therapists in your area.
Medication isn’t typically used for existential anxiety. However, if symptoms of anxiety begin to disrupt sleep and prevent people from working or completing other tasks of daily life, medications like antidepressants or benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed to restore proper levels of neurochemicals and to help people relax. For some people, medication can create necessary biological changes so they can then confront and work through existential anxieties.
While existential anxiety can feel debilitating, it can lead you to determining your values and developing a more fulfilled life. If you’re struggling to shake the existential angst you’re feeling, a therapist can help you gain the perspective you need to move forward.
Existential Anxiety Infographics