Existential anxiety has been called angst, distress, and even dread.
But we can also think of it as a normal, predictable experience that grows from the uniquely human dilemma we’re all in – that of being free to make our own life choices while also being responsible for all of our decisions.
Freedom plus responsibility can feel like a heavy weight, especially since we live in a world that can’t tell truly us what the “right” or “wrong” choice is for most situations. We can’t ever really know where our choices will lead. Yet, life asks us to make choices anyway.
And, no one can choose our life direction for us (unless we choose to let them).
What a paradox! We have the ability to create our life path, coupled with the terror of having no one to blame when—not if—things go off course!
Existential Anxiety Is Unique
Existential anxiety is different from more generalized, clinical forms of anxiety because instead of general worry, it tends to focus on this puzzle of freedom and responsibility (along with the quest for meaning and purpose in life).
Generalized or clinical anxiety may have you worried about making mistakes, looking foolish in public, losing your job, getting sick, speaking up in class, or even leaving the house. However, with existential anxiety, the focus tends to fall more on “big picture” issues like the meaning of life, the inevitability of your death, and how you can make the time you have matter.
Overwhelm with the life choices you are facing is a big theme you might notice if you’re dealing with existential anxiety. This can feed into a yearning to figure out who you truly are and what your real purpose is, while also feeling paralyzed and stuck in the process.
In other words, existential anxiety goes deep and focuses on life’s biggest, deepest questions (the ones that are really hard to answer).
Pondering “The Big Stuff”
Existential anxiety can look like worry and concern about:
- your identity
- why you are here on this planet (“what’s my purpose?”)
- a sense of aloneness (realizing no one else can know you as deeply as you do)
- lack of meaning in your life
- the unavoidable fact that you (and everyone you know) will die
- the limitations you face (for example: chronic illness, age, infertility, systemic oppression)
- global issues such as climate change, injustice and suffering
But here’s the good news (I’ll give it to you right up front): as deeply uncomfortable and unsettling as existential anxiety can be, it’s a real opportunity to learn more about yourself and what matters most deeply to you.
What type of life do you want to live? What sort of legacy do you hope to leave behind when we you? Given your limited time on this planet (and your limitations), how do you want to spend your hours and days? What issues matter most to you?
Existential anxiety can push you to ask the hard questions (and make the difficult choices) that refine and clarify how you are showing up in the world every day.
Acknowledging the fact that your death is unavoidable? It can teach you to make each day count. Facing your limitations? It can help you become more creative and committed to using the power and influence you do still have.
The well-known mythologist Joseph Campbell famously said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
If existential anxiety is like a scary cave, the treasure we will search for and find tucked inside can be a personal sense of meaning, purpose and authentic direction in life.
We Humans Crave Meaning and Purpose
Animals don’t struggle with existential issues because instinct and biology will guide and manage their behaviors and desires. Said another way, animals don’t face the sort of choices, dilemmas and crossroads that we humans do.
For example, a bird can’t tell you why it’s building a nest or teaching its babies to fly. It doesn’t know why. It never had to think about or consider it!
But as humans, feeling a semblance of meaning and purpose (or at least some sense of direction) becomes really important when we face any important life choices, such as:
- whether or not to pursue a college education (and what to study in school)
- what sort of work to do
- whether to be single or in a committed relationship (and who to be with)
- where to live
- how involved to be with family (and whether or not to create our own family)
- who we want to be friends with
- whether or not a spiritual or religious path is right for us
- how and when to tell the truth about who we are
Sure, there are plenty of people and organizations willing to tell you how to make your big life choices. But, letting them decide for you is actually still a choice you are making.
You get to decide. You have to decide.
Tragedies (personal and global) can be a reminder of the inevitability of death, and can thus also trigger existential questions and worries. Loss can rudely and unexpectedly awaken you to the fact that you don’t have unlimited time on this planet, and that you don’t hold ultimate control over fate.
And, situations that rattle you to your core can be enormous wake-up calls that lead to questioning the bigger meaning of your life.
Everyday Existential Anxieties
Existential anxiety can also flare up when you face somewhat smaller (but still impactful) situations and decisions like:
- how to spend your free time
- how to approach work projects
- how to respond to criticism or challenges in your relationships
- when and how to set boundaries
- when to speak up about things that matter to you
- how to vote
- when to get involved in activism
Again, there may be social norms, cultural influences, and the opinions of others that come into play in these situations. But you are still free (and responsible) to choose your course.
If you are dealing with existential anxiety (and facing existential issues), it’s likely that you are thinking deeply about what matters most, even in the smaller decisions.
And, while it can be uncomfortable to hold the tension of freedom and responsibility (and awareness of your own death and limitations), being aware of these deeper issues can mean you are learning to approach your life in a vulnerable and courageous way.
“How Do I Exist in This World?”
As humans, we tend to resist a pre-set, pre-determined path. There’s a part of us that really wants to be free.
Sure, we may be influenced by the urges of biological drives or instincts, but we usually don’t just act on them without considering our own desires.
We think. We ponder. We wonder. We choose.
We may consider the opinions of our society, culture, loved ones and friends, but deep inside of us there is a part that wants to choose a path that is uniquely ours.
When we ask “How do I exist in this world?” we are also asking, “How can I express the truth of who I am within the limitations of the time and place I was born into?”.
Our lives are creative endeavors, whether we fully realize it or not. Every choice we make is like a brushstroke in a colorful painting that represents our life.
When we are aware of what matters most to us in the grand scheme of life, we can be conscious about what we are creating. This is like an artist getting to choose the colors they will use to create a giant mural.
How Existential Anxiety Helps Us
When we aren’t wrestling with existential anxiety, and we aren’t asking deeper questions, we may not be aware of what matters most to us.
So, we might end up making our life choices based on outside influences like:
- what a parent or significant other wants us to do
- what our friends think is cool
- what society tells us will earn respect and status
- what seems like the easiest option (the path of least resistance)
- what seems like the safest path (the least chance of failure)
Making life choices based on anything other than our deepest values can actually be pretty unsatisfying, even if we don’t fully understand the reason behind our dissatisfaction.
It’s a bit like an artist creating a mural out of leftover paints they found lying around instead of consciously choosing the colors they want to create with. Not being intentional can mean settling for a lesser experience that expresses less of who we are.
So, it’s actually a good thing to find yourself asking questions about:
- how to show up in the world
- how to make your life count
- how to make the most of the time you have on this planet
- how to build a life that reflects who you are (and that really matters to you)
Even though asking these questions can be scary and overwhelming, the presence of your existential anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing.
What To Do with Your Existential Anxiety
So, you think you’re dealing with existential anxiety. You get the fact that it can be a pathway to a deeper human experience. And you’re willing to keep pondering the “big questions.”
But it’s still really, really uncomfortable at times! How can you befriend (or at least tolerate) your existential anxiety? Here are five ideas that may help.
- Approach It with Curiosity: It can be helpful to ask what your existential anxiety is highlighting for you. What are your worries centered on? If a tragedy or loss has awakened you to the brief nature of life, acknowledge this. Or, if you are being shown that you’ve been living your life in a way that meets other people’s expectations (but not your own), pay attention to it. Become curious about what your own expectations for yourself are.
- Accept It as Part of Being Human: Existential anxiety is a universal thing. Said another way, yearning to make meaning and find our purpose in life is part of what makes us human. Even though we don’t talk about existential issues much in our “highlight reel”, “positive vibes only” social media focused society, it’s actually a very normal experience and you aren’t the only one who deals with it.
- Explore Your Values: One of the most important things you can do (from an existential perspective) is to get clear on what you value and build your lives around those ideals. Until existential anxiety forced you to take a long look in the mirror, you may have been living out of alignment with your values and not even noticed it. Use your experience of existential anxiety as an opportunity to pause, slow down, and clarify your deepest values.
- Seek Support: Confiding in others who have wrestled with existential issues can be like a breath of fresh air. Sometimes, the challenge can lie in finding others who understand their own experience enough to truly be supportive toward your process. So, you may find that seeking professional support from a therapist or spiritual advisor is helpful (especially from someone who uses an existential approach). You may feel alone, but you don’t have to go through this alone.
Going back to the Joseph Campbell quote, if existential anxiety is like the dark cave you fear to enter, it can help to remember that the treasure you seek (a sense of life purpose and direction) can be found in there too.
We don’t arrive on the planet with a built-in “owner’s manual” to provide guidance on why we exist, why we are in the world at this particular time and place, and what we should do to really make our lives count in the grand scheme of things.
There is only the human soul inside of us, yearning to wrestle with those deeper questions.
The process of deciding what sort of mural our life will be? The work of asking hard questions and making decisions based on what matters to us? The uncertainty of making choices without a guarantee that things will turn out well?
This really is the good stuff. This is the treasure, or the hidden gift of existential anxiety. This is why we enter the dark cave. The answers that we seek are the ones that will ultimately make our lives uniquely ours and deeply worth living.
Ready to partner with a compassionate counselor to get support while you cope with existential anxiety? Reach out today to schedule your first appointment with one of our Charlotte counselors and get the help you deserve.