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!
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
• 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.”
NCC, T. (2015, April 2). Existential Anxiety, Stress, and Meaning-Making in Your Life, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2015/04/existential-anxiety-stress-and-meaning-making-in-your-life
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
You might be surprised to know that right around age 16 people begin to enter a new stage of thinking and being. It can be the time when mental disorders begin, but it isn't always. You aren't alone! In high school, people often feel things they can't articulate so it seems that they don't understand, or they're afraid of what friends and classmates will think (a very normal part of high school) -- or both. It makes it very hard to talk to people and hear about their own experiences.
A very effective way to address your concerns and get peace of mind (or a treatment/management plan -- early treatment usually leads to more positive outcomes) is to see a doctor or a therapist. At 16, it can be hard to just make an appointment. In most states, you can do so legally, but insurance policies in your parents' names can make it more difficult. Talking to your parents about having a visit to answer some of your questions/concerns might be the best approach. Or, you can start with your school counselor who can suggest resources and help you connect. If you belong to a religious organization, the leader might also have suggestions and resources as well as know how to connect. A doctor or therapist can absolutely work with you to help you differentiate between possibilities, determine what's going on, and help you with treatment if it's necessary.
Dealing with this anxiety for so long, during adolescence and coming-of-age, would be difficult. It takes strength to persevere through it. That feeling that your mind doesn't belong to you can be part of a sensation called depersonalization. While there is something called depersonalization disorder, it also occurs with anxiety or other experiences.
Having regular support can be extremely effective in overcoming anxiety, fear, and all of the effects. If it's possible for you to see a therapist in person, you might consider giving it a shot. If it isn't but you are interested, there are online services available. There are multiple; two good ones are betterhelp.com and talkspace.com. These services allow you to work with someone for guidance confidentially. It is possible to transcend this anxiety and fear.
I am only now discovering your comment, and I apologize for the delay. I hope that you are doing better now. Existential anxiety can be maddening, the realizations you came to and the writing them down can be great feelings. If you've found that writing is helpful (it often is, as it gets things out of your head), keep doing it! Also, have you ever tried mindfulness? Simply put, it involves using your senses to pull your mind away from thoughts and into the moment. I do hope your anxiety has improved.
You're opening paragraph really made me laugh and perked me up "Thats a fun concept, isnt it?" (no pun intended)!!! I'm finally accepting after a lot of soul searching, yoga and an enormous amount of reading over the last few years that I'm suffering from life long anxiety issue that is getting worse really. I have yet to speak to a therapist about it but I know its stemming from being abused as a child and the trauma (and the rest) associated with this past event, nearly 30 years ago now but feels like last year. Great article glad I stumbled across it✌
I just now stumbled across your comment. I'm a bit late to the party, but I hope it's better late than never. I'm happy that you enjoyed the article and my humor that many people just don't appreciate. :D I hope that you have found some peace over the last few months and have maybe even reached out to a therapist. Doing so is a great idea. Abuse and trauma are really hard for someone to deal with on his own. May you keep finding things that make you laugh and perk you up.
Oh, how self-confidence and our self-concept can be nasty to us. It's very hard to find courage to make changes when self-doubt is in our way. And this is very much related to existential anxiety. Have you ever visited the Building Self-Esteem blog here on HealthyPlace? There are excellent articles like this one: https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/buildingselfesteem/2017/06/change-your-self-esteem-and-improve-your-life/ You just might find some useful information there.
I want to point out how insightful it is that you can separate different areas of your life and find good things, like your home life. Sometimes, it's hard for people to do this. This ability is a very important part of mental health and wellbeing. :)
You just touched on the Catch-22 of existential anxiety/depression/world view: It can lead to the sense of meaninglessness you mentioned, but meaning is what decreases the sense of existential angst (which, by the way, is a co-conspirator of teenage angst. It's a developmental experience.) This does not mean that you have to live without meaning and purpose. Knowing that you want to create a purpose already puts you ahead of the game. Think of this as an adventure of discovery. Take interest inventories such as the Strong, O*Net, Career Cluster Interest Survey (just Google them). The problem with these is that they're not free, plus I'm not sure if individuals can access them (as opposed to school counseling programs or therapists). I checked, and it looks like you can, but I didn't click through. You can search "interest inventories" to find free tests. They're not scientifically valid and can be a bit superficial; however, you can still gain insights into your interests. Knowing your interests will help you create purpose. Also, what about volunteering in different programs and community organizations? That is tough with social anxiety, so don't feel the need to jump into something full force. Find a need in your community and do even small things to help fill it. Connecting with a greater purpose is a powerful meaning-maker. If you like to read, consider reading works by Viktor Frankl or Rollo May. These books are decades old but offer a lot of insight. I have a distinct feeling that you'll understand them. (Warning. They're packed with meaning but are rather dry). Hopefully you feel like you have some starting points or even ideas to generate more. Accept that this is a process, but it is a rewarding one.
I find that having things I care about/am passionate about grounds me in the world. I'm curious what other people do to get back!
Actually, you're not too young at all. At 19, you're an adult -- but a new one. You have new perspectives and ideas without tons of independent life experience to check those ideas against. You also must be a great thinker and quite intelligent. As you probably suspect, there isn't a definitive answer or solution to the things you're wrestling with. If you like to read, you might get a lot out of looking into Viktor Frankl. He founded what's called logotherapy, or therapy using meaning. He was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, as were his wife and other family members. As you can imagine, he witnessed and experienced great horrors, and he lost everyone but a sister who moved away after the war. He wondered how it was that some people remained emotionally strong in the camps while others were crushed. He himself wanted to survive in every sense of the word. He was already an existentialist when he entered the camps (he had been a psychiatrist before his imprisonment), and he noticed the theme of meaning. When people make meaning, find a tangible reason to live and have joy despite death, destruction, and the possible fall of society, they can thrive despite all these problems and more. You'll be able to find many of his books at a library, and of course they're on Amazon, B&N, etc. There is a Viktor Frankl Institute online, but not all of it's information is useful. Some is rather esoteric and unhelpful. His information overall, though, might be very insightful for you.
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.
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.
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. :)
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.
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.
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!
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!
Children can definitely experience anxiety and anxiety disorders. Anxiety can be especially problematic for gifted children because they are intelligent and curious enough to read about "adult" issues, yet developmentally they are children. At 7, your son doesn't have adult thinking and processing patterns or the life experience necessary to put the big existential issues in perspective. <em>Why Smart Kids Worry and What Parents Can Do To Help</em> by Allison Edwards, LPC is a helpful resource. Dr. Dan Peters has written two books on kids and anxiety that are also good resources, but they're not written specifically for gifted children. Play therapy techniques could be excellent for helping your son deal with anxiety. Play therapy allows children to explore and work through things in ways other than talking. Even gifted children, because of their developmental age, can have a difficult time articulating the extent of their anxiety. Play therapy is a technique whose effectiveness with issues like anxiety, depression, trauma, and more has been proven. Many communities have play therapists, and you can also read about it on your own. Encouraging your son to just play in an unstructured way could also be very beneficial.
Striving to be in a place of acceptance is a great goal (I say this because it's one of my goals, too!) Jumping from thought to thought, overthinking, mind-reading, and more are frustrating and exhausting things anxiety does in our brains. Quieting the mind and meeting things with calm acceptance is a journey. It's attainable, too, because we are in charge of our journeys. Notice improvements along the way, and you'll find anxiety steadily calming down. Enjoy the journey!
I think I started deep-thinking (day dreaming) too much from age 10 onwards! Anyway, you learn to live with it, although it has hampered me along the way no doubt.
Thank you for the feedback! I agree with you -- we learn to live with it. It can definitely be irritating and sometimes block us. Learning to live with it is helpful. It's not the final step. Learning to live with it means, in part, not fighting it, which allows us to better address it and even transcend it. By the way, I've been doing this since childhood, too. :)
Thank you so much for your feedback and comment. I appreciate knowing that the article was helpful to you. (As you are likely aware, anxiety can make us question the quality of our work!) I'm happy that you have a new understanding of an aspect of anxiety. Understanding helps people better deal with things. Disability exists to help people in your situation, so don't be anxious about being on it. :) It can give you the chance to regroup and figure out what you'd like for your life so it doesn't feel ruined. That can help you develop a plan for it. Best of luck to you as you deal with anxiety.
I'm happy that this was helpful to you! I agree with you (from my own experience) that sleep, bathing, massages, etc. can indeed be helpful but aren't long-term cures. Many times, anxiety is linked to the deeper things in life. Realizing that (and continuing to remind myself of that) is helpful to me. I'm glad that it could be helpful to you as well!
Thanks for reading and commenting! It can be empowering to know that we have a part to play and things we can do to overcome problems and challenges. We truly do. While it's not always easy, especially at first, we can indeed define our lives and make them worth living in spite of problems. Enjoy taking the steps!
" I believe the good Lord directed me to your website!"
How wonderful that you discovered something helpful! I'm happy that this resonated with you (existential and meaning-making resonates with me, too). I think the best resources are books about existentialism. Their themes are usually broader than "just" anxiety, but their ideas still apply. Bookstores have books on existentialism, and so do libraries. A pioneer in existential counseling is Rollo May, and he wrote many books. I have some of his books, and I like them for their content but not so much the writing style. :) Enjoy pursuing this topic. By your interest, you've already begun working through existential angst.