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Existential Anxiety, Stress, and Meaning-Making in Your Life

Existential anxiety is an all-encompassing form of anxiety and stress that is present in a nagging way when we try to make meaning in life simply because, as humans, we exist. That’s a fun concept, isn’t it? We experience anxiety, stress, strife, worry, and even panic simply because we are alive. Being alive is certainly a wonderful thing, but existential anxiety can put a damper on it (this might be an understatement). Why does mere existence cause us dissonance and different kinds of stress, and can it go away? Can we make meaning in our lives despite this existential anxiety and stress?

Existential Anxiety and Stress Can Be Unclear

A great example of someone with existential anxiety is Charlie Brown. Ol’ Chuck appears pretty calm; his angst is in his thoughts and feelings. Sometimes existential anxiety also involves agitation, fretting, and anxiety attacks.

There’s a great scene in one of the Peanuts cartoons in which Charlie Brown is at Lucy’s Psychiatric Help stand. Lucy is pelting Charlie Brown with a list of phobias that might be causing his anxiety and depression.

Lucy: Maybe you have pantophobia. Do you think you have pantophobia?

Charlie Brown:  What’s pantophobia?

Lucy: The fear of everything.

Charlie Brown: That’s it!

Existential anxiety is frustrating. but we don't have to suffer it Use these ideas to overcome existential anxiety and stress and make meaning in life.Indeed, existential anxiety and stress can be vague when you’re trying to make meaning in your life. For Charlie Brown, it felt not like specific fears such as the fear of cats or the ocean, but like the fear of everything. (Lucy should really have called it panophobia, but we can forgive her because after all, she’s only in elementary school.)

When We Wonder About Our Very Existence, We Experience Existential Anxiety and Stress

This anxiety that causes us to feel unsettled and uncomfortable, anxious about everything but unable to articulate exactly what it is, is frustrating in its ambiguity. This anxiety and stress that make us feel tired yet wired, make our thoughts race about what feels like nothing, make us afraid of things we can’t pinpoint and thus can’t address or avoid actually can be a very positive part of our existence.

The unspecific nature of existential anxiety is caused by the fact that the anxiety is indeed about our existence, about life’s big questions and about making meaning in your life. When we are anxious and stressed about everything and about nothing, it is often because it is the human way of wrestling with what’s important:

  •  Who am I?
  •  What is my purpose?
  •  Where do I fit?
  •  Why is the grass greener over there, and how do I get mine that way?

Grappling with these life questions causes existential anxiety, yes, but this gives us the opportunity to create meaning in our own life.

Existential Anxiety Can Lead to Meaning-Making in Our Life

Worrying about the answers to the big life questions can be both the source of existential anxiety and the liberation from it as we create meaning for our lives and ourselves. We do have the power and ability for meaning-making. Really, if we have the ability to be anxious, it makes sense that we also have what it takes to cure that anxiety and live a life of purpose.

Fretting and stressing about who we are, our place in life, and what we’re passionate about doing can cause us to become stuck in the past (“I should have done x,” “I shouldn’t have said y,” etc.). It can also cause us to attempt (unsuccessfully) to live in the future and frolic in the land of “what-ifs.” Projecting our thoughts into the past or the future means that our thoughts are not in the same place as we are – the present.

Meaning Making and Getting Rid of Existential Anxiety and Stress

There are many ways to live in the present and create meaning in our lives. Here are a few user-friendly tips that have worked for people:

Ponder Those Times You Feel Less Anxious

For example:

Keep a gratitude journal. This is a very common technique for overcoming difficulties and creating wellbeing. For existential anxiety, the goal is of course to jot down the things for which you’re grateful, but beyond that to look for patterns among those items. Does your gratitude often involve family? Friends? Opportunities for learning? Time in a given activity? When you see the patterns, you start to notice exactly what it is that makes you feel joy.

Find flow. Similar to the patterns of gratitude, what are those things where you find flow? A state of flow occurs when you are doing something so engaging that you lose yourself. You forget about your anxiety, and you feel both calm and vibrant.

Decide where you can make more of the above things, where you can make more meaning, and take steps to do them.

Do more of what makes you less anxious. What little things can you do every day to make meaning and decrease anxiety?

Existential anxiety is part of the human experience; however, that doesn’t mean that we have to live in perpetual stress, worry, and fear. When we pause over life’s big questions, we can use our own answers for meaning-making. When we live a life meaningful to us, existential anxiety becomes more calm and peaceful and changes, simply, to “exist.”

You can also connect with Tanya J. Peterson on her websiteGoogle+Facebook,TwitterLinkedin and Pinterest.

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges as well as a self-help book on acceptance and commitment therapy. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

36 thoughts on “Existential Anxiety, Stress, and Meaning-Making in Your Life”

  1. Such apt description for existential anxiety. Any suggestion on concrete methods to overcome this anxiety and live in the present; basically be handle the intruding existential thoughts and come back to the present

    1. Hi Ali,
      Many people recommend both meditation and mindfulness as ways of dealing with existential anxiety. Meditation trains the mind to be calm and focused on the present moment and to let intrusive thoughts “simply” pass through without getting caught up in them. Mindfulness involves using many different senses to focus on the present moment. Attending to sensory input crowds out anxious thoughts. Both take practice and patience, but they’re worth it. I use both, although I am far from a master.

  2. Can you highlight a handful of things to do to help this? My symptoms are similar to what you’ve written about in the above article and I also have some relatable to in the comments here. Just wondering why I’m here and why im doing the things I am. It’s freaking me out big time and really hope I can fix it.

    1. Hi Zander,
      Existential anxiety can indeed freak us out big time. Speaking from experience, I’d say that’s a great way to describe it. In dealing with existential anxiety, two very important concepts are often helpful: values and action. With many things, working on thoughts can help, but in my personal and professional experience, focusing on thoughts and “fixing” them isn’t helpful at all. In fact, it can make things work. You might consider trying identifying your values — what is important to you, what makes a quality life, etc. Then, with your values in mind, determine actions, steps that you can take every day to live those values. It’s a process rather than a quick-fix, but it’s one that can bring a sense of peace to who you are and how you are living your life.

  3. Hello its really relaxing to see that people feel this too. I have experienced this for 2 weeks now and it feels terrible. I look at the things around me and ask myself why do they exist? Why are they formed like this? How come the world is in this shape? It scares the hell out of me. It has locked me in my bed and I really hope that this can get better. Thank you for this wonderful writing.

    1. Hello Rai,
      I’m so glad that you feel better about this and know that you’re not alone. Yes, this can definitely get better. Also, you sound like one of your strengths is curiosity. You could use some of your thoughts as opportunities for exploration. 🙂

  4. I feel my anxiety falls into this category. I have had it for about 20 years and have always felt I was alone. It is refreshing to find other people who suffer from simply being afraid of being alive. I was always afraid to tell people because I thought they would perceive me as suicidal by saying I was completely terrified of life itself. Almost like I live my life sub consciously, going through the motions, and I stop to think and realize this is real…and I get an extreme sense of terror where I have had to punch things or yell at the top of my lungs to hope the fear subsides. It is a dibilitating feeling. I have lost jobs over it. I am glad I am finally looking into getting help more than my PCP, but it has come of the hands of some of the worst panic attacks from this to date. It’s been almost constant for three weeks. I have been taking Valerian Root and my Xanax to help stay calm, but I really think I need to take the step to go talk to someone. I need help with better thoughts and ways to cope when my panic happens.

    1. Hi Dustin,
      Your description sounds frustrating and miserable. While these are of course very real and legitimate experiences (the fear, the feelings, the reactions, the panic — all of it), you don’t have to live with them forever. You’re already taking charge (but it probably doesn’t feel that way yet) by reading information and taking the step to talk to a mental health professional. This is something you’re dealing with. “You” — your very self — are much bigger. Hang in there and keep at it.

  5. ive been searching all over because ive been feeling like this. i was even in bed with my husband and before i opened my eyes i was like in my head, “life is so weird, ill probably open my eyes and think my husband looks strange.” Then when i opened my eyes and looked at him, BAM, i got scared. is this kinda the same thing? like anything and everything can trigger the scary fear feeling, sometimes things trigger it one day and then other times they wont. i also researched hyperawareness ocd and they say the automation of life and bodily processes can create disturbing feelings. i believe i have a mixture of existential anxiety, panic attacks, ocd, hyperawareness, dissociaton (derealization) it sucks. please try and give me some insight. im on a waiting list to see a psychologist. i feel normal, more normal than alot of people but have just been seemingly “locked” inside my head.

    1. Hi Nina,
      The experience of feeling locked inside your head is a frustrating one to say the least. It’s great that you are on a list to see a psychologist (not great that there’s a waiting list, but great that you have put yourself on it!). In the meantime, you might want to investigate mindfulness. Mindfulness helps people stay out of their head and in the present moment and is used for many different challenges by many different people. It’s not an instant fix, but it really is very helpful in allowing people to life in each moment. For example, rather than thinking your husband looks strange, mindfulness would allow you to use all your senses to observe things as they are while the other thoughts just exist quietly in the background, eventually floating away.

  6. Is it odd I suffer from this and I just turned 15?I always get in trouble from my mom because “I’m so negative.” But I’m just afraid or I don’t like alot of things. Life is stressful at the moment but I’ve been writing and that kind of helps me.

    1. Hi Denise,
      It’s not odd at all. Unfortunately, anxiety doesn’t have age boundaries, even existential anxiety (maybe especially existential anxiety). This type of anxiety is always there, and we really can’t control what thoughts it’s going to put into our head and when. That said, we have a great deal of control over how much attention we give it. It seems that you’re already zeroing on one of the best ways to deal with anxiety. Despite all of the stresses and anxious thoughts, find something you love to do. Having a purpose and passions helps you focus on what’s important. You can pay attention to these things rather than onto the negative. So keep doing what you’ve discovered!

  7. listening to music makes it a little better-or if you find something you can hold in your hand and focus on that (if you have one thing it becomes a very important little thing)

    1. Hi Lola,
      You highlight something important and quite accurate: engaging the senses helps us be intentionally mindful and thus pulls our thoughts away from anxiety. That’s very powerful. Thanks for sharing something that works for you!

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