Existential anxiety: What is it?

In the early twentieth century, philosophers and physicians began to describe a phenomenon they called "existential anxiety." This term refers to a feeling of dread that some people experience when they confront their mortality, or the limited time we have on this earth.


They experience existential anxiety when they're confronted with situations that make them confront the biggest questions about life's meaning: Do we have control over what happens next? What happens after death? And why are we here? These questions can be especially terrifying in times of illness, old age or other major life changes — but they're also universal experiences that many people go through at one time or another during their lives.

What is existential anxiety?

In the early twentieth century, philosophers and physicians began to describe a phenomenon they called "existential anxiety." The term refers to a feeling of dread that comes from the realization that we are all going to die. This feeling is not the same as clinical anxiety, which is caused by an external threat or stressor (such as an exam or job interview). Instead, existential anxiety comes from within each person—it's an internalized fear of death and its meaning for our lives.

Existential thinkers like Kierkegaard believed that this kind of existential dread was unavoidable in human existence; it's part of what makes us human beings capable of thought and reasoning. They saw it as essential to question everything around us so we could find meaning outside ourselves—and one way they did this was by writing books!

People experience existential anxiety when they're confronted with situations that make them confront the biggest questions about life's meaning. Existential anxiety is a normal, healthy response to the big questions of life. It’s not a mental illness or an indication that you are mentally unwell. However, it can feel overwhelming and difficult to deal with at times.

Existential anxiety manifests in many ways:

  • You may feel like you’re questioning everything about yourself—who you are and what your purpose is in life.
  • You might be experiencing feelings of isolation or loneliness for no apparent reason, even though others around you seem happy and contented (or vice versa).
  • You may have thoughts about death and the meaninglessness of life; this can be accompanied by feelings such as hopelessness or despair over seemingly insurmountable problems facing humanity today such as global warming, world hunger etc.

What triggers existential anxiety?

Existential anxiety can be triggered by illness, old age, trauma, or other major life changes. Some experiences that may cause existential anxiety include:

  • illness
  • ageing
  • trauma (such as from war or abuse)
  • midlife
  • menopause
  • health concerns
  • death of a loved one/ bereavement
  • threat to the life event
  • anything that makes you question life's meaning

Are existential anxieties a mental illness?

Existential anxieties can be challenging to address because they're so big and abstract, but they're not a mental illness. If you find yourself feeling anxious about the meaning of life or your purpose in it, that's normal. Sometimes these feelings can be triggered by major life changes like graduating from high school or leaving home for college, but it's also possible to feel this way when nothing has changed at all.

Some people call existential anxiety "the dread," which is definitely an accurate description of how it feels: as though something is wrong with the universe (or maybe even just with us) and there is no way around it except to stand up straight and face whatever comes next—but whatever comes next might be terrible! And what if we're trapped inside a simulation? And what if our friends turn out to be robots? These sorts of questions aren't meant to drive anyone mad; rather, they reflect real concerns about meaninglessness in an infinite universe full of countless realities where anything could happen at any moment for any reason or no reason at all."

Having helpful conversations

Talking about your feelings with friends, family members, or even strangers can be a helpful way to work through existential anxiety. While you might feel like talking about it will make the situation worse, this may not always be the case. Sometimes talking about your thoughts and feelings can actually help them dissipate. It's important to remember that anyone is capable of listening to whatever you have to say—even if they don't seem like the most empathetic people in the world.

You don't have to be afraid of opening up! Talking with others doesn't mean that they will judge or criticize you in any way; in fact, most listeners are more interested in understanding than judging. They might have similar experiences themselves or even come up with ideas on how best to handle things going forward."

Talking with a therapist

Many people who experience existential anxieties find that talking with a therapist helps them. Talking with a therapist can help you identify the source of your anxiety and can also help you find ways to cope with it.

A therapist might point out that your existential anxieties may be helpful in some cases. For instance, if someone is worried about death because they have recently lost a loved one, their anxieties could motivate them to do something meaningful with their life. In this case, an existential anxiety would not be destructive—it would be helpful. However, if someone has no reason for feeling anxious about death, then the anxiety might cause them unnecessary distress and make it difficult for them to function normally.

Finding help

If you're experiencing existential anxiety, it may help to talk with a therapist or someone else you trust about what's going on in your life. You can also try journaling, meditating, or doing something that helps you relax—like taking a walk outside. If the feelings don't go away on their own, consider seeking treatment from a qualified mental health professional who can address them directly.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Epsom, Surrey, KT17
Written by Karina Godwin
Epsom, Surrey, KT17

I am an Integrative Psychotherapist.

Being an integrative psychotherapist means I will tailor our sessions to your needs and draw from a range of approaches to work creatively with you and act as a catalyst for new perspectives to emerge.

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