Existential Anxiety - What? Why? How?

Almost everyone at some point in his or her life has asked the question, “what is the meaning of this existence”? Our world, our existence, and our purpose are all things that are unclear, even to the most wise and well-educated people. To a degree, asking such questions like “why am I here” “ what is my purpose” and “who am I” are normal and sometimes healthy questions, as they stimulate critical thinking and generate acceptance and empathy. However, it is possible for these questions to reach a point within a person that generates anxiety and emotional distress. It is at this point that it is important to consider how deeply these questions are affecting you.

When Does Wonder Become Worry?

Contemplating complicated questions is a part of human nature. As we have evolved we have made anatomical and neurological advancements that have set us apart from the other creatures with which we share this world. Through these evolutionary changes we have developed stronger abilities to understand and conceptualize ideas, theories, questions and working systems that no other known being is able to understand. Despite all we have come to know, all that we have discovered and all that we have created, there are questions out there that we are not able in our most developed brains to understand.  Such questions include:

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Is there life after death?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is my purpose?
  • Why is there life and creation?
  • Are we alone in the universe?
  • How big is this universe?
  • What is infinity?

Such questions can lead to:

  • Why am I here?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What is the point of life?
  • Will I be punished in the next life?
  • Is there a God?
  • Will anything I do be worthwhile?
  • What is important?
  • Am I living my best life?
  • Will I have regrets when I am old?
  • What has meaning?
  • Why is there so much sadness and pain in this world?
  • Is there such a thing as good and evil?

Where Anxiety Comes In

Though these questions are philosophical and can be applied to any living person, there are people who become very anxious while pondering these questions. Some may even experience feelings of despair or distress. When the wonder begins to bring about negative feelings it has become existential anxiety. Existential anxiety can bring about the following symptomatic feelings:

  • Distress
  • Despair
  • Angst
  • Sadness
  • Despondence
  • Nervousness
  • Fearfulness
  • Dread
  • Irritability
  • Isolation

Existential anxiety comes about when the existential questions that are being contemplated lead to the realization of one’s own mortality. The core question is “does it all matter?” Such a question is enough to cause great emotional distress, but this distress does not always need to be a bad thing. Many have found a sense of purpose through asking these existential questions and going through the waves of existential anxiety. Through their own introspective journey many have found purpose, hope, and a sense of peace they did not previously feel.

Existential Crisis

A term that one often hears in relation to existential anxiety is an existential crisis. This is a term used to describe feeling existential anxiety in relation to one’s own life. A well-known type of existential crisis is called a midlife crisis, which is a crisis that a person would often experience around their mid to late 40’s. During a midlife crisis it is not uncommon for a person to reflect on his or her life and accomplishments and feel unfulfilled. This often results in drastic efforts to change the ways in which they see themselves and the world.

With the younger generation we have seen a growing rate of people in their mid-20’s going through a quarter life crisis. During a quarter life crisis a person in their mid-20’s is typically just out of college and starting a career. In today’s working world there is a great deal of pressure to perform. Combined with the difficulty of finding financial success and stability in today’s economy many are faced with the existential crisis of “was everything I did and am doing worth it?” and “is it all making me happy and fulfilled?” Such questions can lead to great distress and even depression as these people cope with the feelings of inadequacy or un-fulfillment.

How to Cope with Existential Anxiety

The process of working through existential anxiety is quite similar to the grieving process. The grieving process is a process in which a person copes with the reality of a loss or realization of things not being quite as they seem. As one comes around to the acceptance that they are not the center of their own world they feel many different emotions that cause many different reactions. These waves of thoughts, emotions and behavior reflect the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial. Someone having existential anxiety may deny the gravity of the questions and resulting conclusions. One may struggle with the idea of not feeling a sense of purpose in relation to this vast universe. Thoughts of “what’s the point of it all” may come about as a person struggles to fight the feeling of insignificance of their singular existence.
  2. Anger. A person may feel angry or irritable as they come around to the idea that what they do may not have a profound effect on the world around them. This could raise feelings of resentment as a person thinks, “why should I even bother? Will it all even matter?”
  3. Wondering (Bargaining). The official third stage of grief is bargaining, in which a person will bargain with God or their higher power for a different outcome than the inevitable. However, when it comes to existential anxiety it is more likely for a person to find himself or herself wondering what life would have been like if they had chosen a different path. The types of feelings that come with existential anxiety occur as they raise questions and discontents about one’s own life, which can be difficult to cope with. One may find himself or herself wondering “What would have happened if I traveled after college instead of finding a job” or “I wonder what my life would have been like if I had waited to get married”. Some may even promise themselves to try to regain some of the opportunities they previously passed up in effort to live through some of their losses and regain a sense of control over their own destiny.
  4. Depression. As people struggle more and more to find peace in the questions that cannot be answered and the discontents of their life decisions they call into a state of anxiety and depression. Many will often seek counseling or spiritual awakening to cope with these unresolved feelings and uncertainties. This stage can also be applied to those who decide to make drastic changes to their lifestyles. While in a phase of transition in his or her life a person will struggle with wondering if he or she made the right choice and may wonder why there is not a profound feeling of happiness or contentment at first. In these cases one must remember that change is evolutionary, meaning it will take time to feel results of lifestyle changes.
  5. Acceptance. Through a great deal of soul-searching, spiritual healing, and sometimes radical life changes, a person experiencing existential anxiety will be able to find peace, acceptance, and purpose in his or her life and all he or she is trying to achieve. Some thoughts of resolution include “What I am doing matters to me, and I am important” and “I will do what I can with what I have and my goal will be to find happiness and balance”. Through acceptance many find they develop new values, morals, and life goals. These goals set the ground for their futures.

How to Find Resolution

Existential anxiety stems from asking too many questions at once or fixating on questions you cannot answer alone. Fortunately, there are ways to ease the stress of existential anxiety. Here are some suggestions to help you cope with the symptoms of your existential anxiety:

  • Seek professional counseling. Some viable counseling options are spiritual counseling, religious counseling, life coaching and mental health counseling. Each will be able to help with different existential questions and introspective exploring.
  • Travel. Getting perspective on the world outside your home helps a great deal when coping with existential anxiety. Seeing what is in this world helps you learn about understanding, acceptance, and what is important to you.
  • Read. There are many who have asked the same questions as you, and their perspectives could be quite helpful in supporting your own existential journey.
  • Talk to others. Many people experience existential anxiety, and a surefire way to ease that anxiety is to find others who have also been through similar questions and feelings. They may be able to advise you on how to find peace through the emotional and mental turmoil.

It is possible to find resolution when experiencing existential anxiety. However, without proper exploration of these thoughts you may find it difficult to break free of the depressed feelings and anxiety they experience. With so many unanswered questions you may become overwhelmed and struggle to cope. It is important to keep in mind that existential exploration takes time.