15 Minutes

Edited & clinically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
Fact checked

It’s common to contemplate the meaning of life, to wonder why we’re here, what our purpose is, and what the point of it all is. If these thoughts become overbearing, persistent, or hurt your functioning or well-being, you may be suffering from existential anxiety. Existential anxiety is concerned with our very existence in this world, and it includes concerns about significant issues such as life’s meaning, freedom, and impending death. Growing older, experiencing environmental issues, or facing difficult political situations can trigger this type of anxiety. While existential anxiety can cause a lot of pain, it can also have a lot of benefits. Despite how scary this may seem, you are not alone or abnormal. We’ll go over existential anxiety in-depth in this article. What symptoms can be used to help identify existential anxiety? We will also discuss the various approaches to dealing with existential anxiety if you are suffering from it.

Existential anxiety is a form of stress brought on by the questioning of one’s existence. When you start wondering how you got here, why you’re here now, and what you’re supposed to be doing with your life, existential anxiety can set in. While this can cause a lot of anxiety and stress, it can also motivate you to achieve your goals and give you a sense of meaning and purpose.

Existential anxiety is similar to chronic anxiety but magnified to encompass all of existence. It’s as if your anxiety went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. What if we were driving and the wheels came off the car? You can efficiently respond: we’re safe because cars’ wheels don’t just fall off.

Your existential anxiety, on the other hand, poses more challenging questions. Your existential anxiety has a few pressing concerns about the current state of the world for you to consider. When the sea level rises, what happens to me? What if the outbreak lasts indefinitely? What does a Humanity Code Red entail?

You have to admit. Your existential anxiety concerns are valid. It’s just that you’re stumped. Most likely, you’re not a climate scientist, epidemiologist, or geopolitical expert. Even if you are one of those three things, you are not all three. So, how can you relax when your worries are so big and unanswerable?

Our Body’s Response to Anxiety

Anxiety in response to terrifying world events is entirely normal and understandable. Our bodies take over and when our brain detects a threat. Our hindbrain fires up, and we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Unfortunately, even when there is no active danger in the room, threatening news on television is enough to trigger this response.

When you’re worried about the state of the world, you may experience a racing heart or tense muscles. It’s because your body is simply defending you against a physical attack. Your brain is excellent at detecting threats but not so good at distinguishing between physical and existential threats.

You won’t be able to use your wakefulness to combat the growing threat of terrorist extremism from the comfort of your own home. As a result, your anxious energy sits dormant in your body. This frequently results in a mild dissociative reaction. In response to experiencing far too much, we shut down and feel nothing.

Existential anxiety can manifest itself in various ways, some of which are not visible to others. Someone with existential anxiety may appear calm and collected from the outside. They could be in a lot of trouble on the inside, though.

The following are five indicators that you may be suffering from existential anxiety: 

  • A growing sense of struggle (such as indecision)
  • Unpleasant emotions such as despair and regret.
  • Refusal to engage in certain activities or to interact with certain people
  • Long-held beliefs, such as religious faith, are being called into question.
  • Attacks of fright.

Existential anxiety has symptoms similar to general anxiety but with a strong focus on worrying about your life’s purpose and what the future holds. Among the signs and symptoms are:

  • Avoiding people or situations that you used to enjoy
  • Worrying excessively
  • Increased heart rate 
  • Chest tightness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Trembling

A lack of specificity and vagueness frequently characterizes existential anxiety. While some factors contribute to existential anxiety, it is not caused by a single event or circumstance. The existential crisis is a similar but slightly different concept. This is a time of turmoil and difficulty, and it’s natural to wonder what life is all about and what one’s purpose in life is. An existential crisis, on the other hand, often has a clear cause and can strike in the midst of adversity, such as a significant loss or trauma.

Symptoms of an Existential Crisis

An existential crisis lasts for a specific amount of time. It can happen after a loss, but it can also happen during a significant life transition, such as growing older, experiencing an empty nest, or retiring; as a result, it’s a time of increased anxiety and confusion, and it often has to do with one’s sense of self.

It is crucial to confront and cope with existential anxiety. When risks are ignored, the consequences can be severe, and people can continue to suffer. When people deal with it positively, they may grow and rediscover new meaning and connections.

Coping with existential anxiety is a process of learning to live well despite feelings of existential dread instead of having to overcome it (because it’s a natural part of being human, it won’t go away).

To deal with existential anxiety, try these seven strategies:

Develop a mindfulness practice  

Mindfulness is a method of being with yourself and your life in which you focus on the current moment rather than on the past or future. When you’re attentive, you use your senses to bring you back to the present now, and you accept things as they are without judging them. This enables you to respond thoughtfully to challenges rather than reacting emotionally. Mindfulness can help you manage existential anxiety in a constructive light by keeping you focused on your life in the present moment, allowing you to take action to create meaning rather than just thinking about problems and wondering about what will happen as a result of your decisions.

1. Contemplate Your Worrying Thoughts

Assess your anxious feelings and thoughts for patterns. Determine when you are less stressed and more energized. What exactly is going on during these moments, and how can you replicate it? You might want to keep track of your moods and what you do when you are anxious versus when you are not.

2. Break Down Your Big Questions and Concerns Into Smaller Pieces

Rather than ignoring your anxiety because the difficulties appear to be overwhelming, face it head-on in tiny doses. Make a list of the significant problems you’re facing. Then pick one issue that is currently bothering you the most. Carefully write it down and divide it down into smaller chunks. Then you may break down your goals into smaller pieces and devise action plans to handle each one.

For example, if you’re concerned that you’re not doing enough with your life, break it down by compiling a list of all the different aspects of your life (family, job, spirituality, hobbies, interests, talents, health, etc.) Choose one and consider what it will take to make this area feel essential to you. You’re now on your way to deciding on goals and taking steps to achieve them.

3. Keeping a Gratitude Journal is a great way to start.

End each day by writing about anything good that happened that day (or pause throughout the day to jot down grateful thoughts as you have them). You can thank God for people and situations in your life, as well as tiny details like a beautiful flower in blossoms in your yard or the noise of children playing in a park nearby. This will train your mind to focus on the positive aspects of life. This gives you a short-term mood boost as well as a long-term enhancement in your attitude on life.

4. Find Flow-through engaging in challenging and exciting activities.

The idea of flow is taken from the study of positive psychology. It is a state of being in which all other thoughts, feelings, and distractions melt away as you are entirely immersed in what you are doing. You’re focused on the present moment rather than worrying about the future when you’re inflow. When you’re doing something, you enjoy that provides just the perfect amount of challenge—not too difficult that the activity becomes irritating, but not too simple that it becomes monotonous—you’re inflow. To give yourself a chance to discover a new interest that puts you in a state of flow, try out new interests and activities. This approach can be energizing and can aid in reducing existential anxiety’s sense of meaninglessness.

5. Explore Your Values to Seek Satisfaction

What are the things that are most important to you? It is only by acting following your values that you will be able to find meaning. To learn more about yourself, try taking online interest inventories like the O*NET Interest Profiler. Many of them have something to do with career choice and direction. You might discover new passions that lead to volunteer work that gives your life new meaning, or you might find a new career path that aligns with your values if that isn’t possible.

6. Find out what your strengths are and what you can do to improve them.

We all have distinct character strengths that, when intentionally utilized, can lead to a sense of life fulfillment. Take a strong points survey like the VIA Character 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. You can take control of your life and thrive despite existential anxiety by recognizing it, facing it, and taking active action to address it.

Existential anxiety that goes unchecked can be dangerous to one’s mental health. Physical symptoms often accompany mental health issues, and they are intimately linked to one’s overall health and quality of life.

Existential anxiety is a common occurrence in human life. It doesn’t always cause problems, aside from the unpleasant signs and symptoms that come with the occasional angst. Existential anxiety, on the other hand, can have a negative impact on people’s well-being if they ignore, deny, or avoid facing their experiences.

The following are some of the health risks associated with existential anxiety:

  • Depression
  • Problems in relationships
  • Insecurity
  • Lack of motivation to try new things or take healthy risks due to a sense of futility.
  • Hopelessness
  • Depressed life
  • Emptiness
  • Overwhelming feelings.
  • Inability to contribute positively to society.

While suicide is not always a result of existential anxiety, it can happen in extreme cases. It’s critical to seek help right away if you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts due to existential anxiety or for any other reason.

What are the Benefits of Existential Anxiety?

Existential anxiety isn’t always associated with negative consequences. This struggle has the potential to be beneficial. People can put their lives in perspective, develop a sense of direction, and come to terms with their mortality once they are aware of their anxiety and confront their struggle, allowing them to pursue meaning and create a sense of purpose.

When we confront our existential anxiety, we are more likely to have positive experiences like:

  • Awareness of one’s existence (not just of our limitations but our potential and strengths)
  • Genuineness (the ability to make decisions according to our values and accept responsibility for those choices)
  • Change and developmental growth.
  • Achievement (understanding and developing our potential as individuals and members of society)
  • Meaning and satisfaction
  • Dasein is a German word that means “existence (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)

According to some specialists, existential anxiety can relieve boredom and promote a healthy state of anxiety that motivates us to move forward; in fact, depression may be caused by a lack of existential anxiety rather than existential anxiety itself. There is no struggle without this anxiety because there is no sense of potential. That emptiness could be the pinnacle of meaninglessness.

Some people who suffer from existential anxiety benefit from seeking professional help. You might be able to deal with existential anxiety on your own. However, there are times when actively using your coping skills is insufficient to get you through. If you’re having trouble coping with existential anxiety despite your best efforts, it’s time to seek professional help.

If you notice that your anxiety is worsening and interfering with your ability to perform basic tasks or enjoy your life, seeking help with anxiety management can help you get back on track. Consider seeking help if you’re becoming progressively distracted, irritable, or tired, having difficulty making decisions because you’re worried about the consequences, or if you’re starting to feel like life is meaningless or that you don’t have a positive purpose. It’s important to remember that existential anxiety is a universal human emotion. You are not alone, and others have been in your shoes and may be able to offer helpful advice.

Only facing, assessing, and discovering existential anxiety, as well as accepting that it is a part of life, will help to alleviate it. Existential anxiety can be treated, and there are resources available.

Making lifestyle changes 

Existential anxiety can be alleviated by making lifestyle changes. When we lack purpose, for example, meaningful relationships, identifying them and taking the necessary steps to change them can make a huge difference in our quality of life. Making a career change to find something more fulfilling, seeking out new relationships, or finding a way to contribute to your community positively are all examples of this. 

Mental health therapy

Working with a therapist can help you overcome a variety of challenges, including existential anxiety. A therapist can assist you in delving deeper into your anxieties so that you can better understand what is causing your personal concerns. You come to understand the full range of your perceptions as your therapist listens to you and helps you listen, so you can know what you want to change, how to change it, and accept and co-exist with other facets of existential anxiety. Mental health therapy comes in a variety of forms. Some are especially well-suited to assisting people with existential anxiety, such as:

  • Logotherapy
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
  • CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy).
  • Existential therapy.

Medication

For existential anxiety, medication is rarely used. However, if anxiety symptoms start to interfere with sleep and prevent people from working or completing other daily tasks, antidepressants or benzodiazepines may be prescribed to help people relax and restore proper neurochemical levels. Medication can help some people make the biological changes they need to face and work through their existential fears.

Who Should I See for Existential Anxiety Support?

When you don’t know where to start when it comes to existential anxiety, consulting with others can be intimidating. It’s a good idea to start with people you know. Don’t be afraid to confide in a loved one or a trusted friend. Having a supportive, listening ear and sharing mutual concerns can sometimes go a long way toward alleviating your major concerns (remember that everyone experiences this, so your connections might have valuable insights, and you might have valuable insights for them, too).

It’s difficult to deal with existential fear. It’s all too easy to get caught up in pondering life’s big questions. However, there are times when there are no better answers than the ones you come up with on your own — the ones you discover through experience. To put it another way, the best way to find meaning in life may be to create it for yourself by doing things that bring you peace and strengthen your sense of connection to the world around you.

FAQs