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Existential anxiety

In this article, you can learn more about existential anxiety, what it is and how to deal with it.

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What is existential anxiety?

Questioning your existence, why you are here, how you came to be, what your purpose is in life, can be helpful in understanding yourself and life but may also cause stress, especially as the answers may not present themselves. Existential anxiety is the difficulty understanding yourself, life and what you want out of it and can lead to experiencing extreme worry and stress regarding your future as well as the meaning of life. Whilst this may be distressing and uncomfortable it can also aid individuals in working towards specific goals and offering them a sense of purpose. There are four main notions that make up existential anxiety, these being the inevitability of death, isolation, freedom and responsibility and meaninglessness. Although existential anxiety is considered a normal part of the human experience, and it doesn’t always result in issues beyond periodic distress, it can have a negative effect on wellbeing if it is ignored.

Symptoms of existential anxiety

Symptoms of existential anxiety may be similar to general anxiety, but with an increased sense of worry about life, the future and purpose. These symptoms may be increased worrying, avoidance of situations or people that one would previously enjoy spending time with, tightness in chest, increased heart rate, nausea, shaking or dizziness. Existential anxiety can also be linked to low mood, anxiety disorders, interpersonal issues and feelings of hopelessness and emptiness. As aforementioned even though existential anxiety can be distressing and uncomfortable it can also have positive outcomes when it is faced. People may develop a better understanding of themselves and their perspective of life. They may develop a sense of direction and feel more motivated to grow and change. They may also experience a sense of fulfilment as they give new meaning to their life.

How to deal with existential anxiety

Facing and coping with existential anxiety doesn’t necessarily imply that one will overcome it and never think of it again as it is part of human existence. However it does involve learning ways in which to cope with these distressing thoughts. It can be helpful to explore your own values and what is significant to you, as well as trying to accept the uncertainty and emotions of worry and fear that may accompany the fact that there are questions that we may not have answers to.

These may include tools such as practicing mindfulness, being present in the here and now on purpose. Mindfulness can help by bringing your focus to the present moment rather than worrying about the future or the past.

Reflecting on your thoughts; either in therapy or in your own time. Trying to identify possible patterns, such as times that you may feel more anxious or what feelings, behaviours or physical symptoms may be linked to those thoughts. You may find it easier to write these down when they occur or keep a journal. Identifying things that make you happy and try to do more of them. These may be activities that you used to love doing but have not engaged in in a while or a new hobby that you have been thinking about trying out.

Therapy for existential anxiety

It is important to seek out the help of a professional if you can’t cope with existential anxiety on your own, especially if you have noticed that it is becoming progressively worse, and it is impacting your ability to function in your day to day life. Therapy can offer you a safe space in which to better understand your anxiety and in turn understand ways in which to accept and change it.

There are various approaches to therapy that can be used for existential anxiety. These being existential therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.

Updated: 2022-05-30

Author: Antigone Lanitis

Reviewed by: Marina Moran